On February 2, 2008, I had the closest thing to a nervous breakdown I'd ever experienced. I literally stayed in bed the entire weekend exhausted and scared. Scared I was going to lose my job, the house, my family. Tying my feelings to my job, I made three phone calls after that weekend to friends outside of the Academy to see what my options were. I was this close to leaving. Each of them returned my call within five minutes. I then called four friends IN the academy to tell them I was thinking about leaving.
Obviously I didn't leave. But I was this close.
I went to see my doctor and she put me on anti-depressants. I stayed on them for about a month, then quit because I didn't like the side-effects. Which meant I had to figure out a non-medical route. Self-medication wasn't really an option.
But writing was. In 2008 it became possible to post privately in wordpress. I know the exact date of my breakdown because I was able to go back through my private posts to get the date. I tried to document my little successes as best as I could. And I created a manifesto of sorts for what I wanted to be about, what I wanted to do. What articles I wanted to publish. What books I wanted to write. What type of parent I wanted to be. What type of friend I wanted to be. What type of partner I wanted to be.
I shared what I was going through with a few work colleagues. I was counseled not to tell my chair what I was going through, was counseled not to tell anyone in the department. And implicitly I was counseled to leave. I should have ignored the first two pieces of advice–depression isn't and shouldn't be something you hide, particularly given the challenges of the academy. This past week, Erica Kennedy, author of Feminista and Bling died, allegedly taking her own life. Some suggest she did so because she didn't reach out.
I didn't miss a beat at work. I didn't miss a day of class. Didn't miss a deadline. And I was there to the extent I could be for my family. But for a while it was touch and go.
Somewhere around 2008 I came out of it. Well, this isn't accurate–I didn't come out of depression as much as I learned to manage it. And come December 31, 2008 I decided to use my fortieth year, 2009 to take back what I thought I'd lost. I sold my first book. I finally had several breakthroughs on the article front. I ended up winning Teacher of the Year. And I'd made progress on two other books–a shorter book of essays, and a longer academic project.
I wasn't out of the woods yet. One of the things I struggled with was my family's economic situation–being the primary breadwinner of a family of seven on the east coast is incredibly hard. But in 2010, after Bank of America came after the house yet again I decided that I would no longer let them own me. I figured BoA had a significant backlog, and wouldn't come for me until my tenure decision came down. I was literally THIS close to getting another job offer–literally two votes away (the school I applied to had a two-thirds rule that i just missed). That devastated me–I remember coming home and my youngest daughter drew me a picture saying it was ok to cry.
I was in a race against time. Which would come first, the foreclosure notice or the tenure decision? One of the things that kept me sane here was my Detroit roots–I knew that worse case scenario, I could get a cheap cheap cheap house in Detroit and commute a couple of days a week if I had to.
My book finally came out in June 2011 a few months before my tenure case was due. I had three good chapters of my next book project. In August 2011 I submitted my package (a file containing everything i'd published along with my cv and a research statement).
Now the year you go up for tenure is supposed to be the most stressful year of your life.
Me? I wouldn't recommend this as a coping strategy, but having a minor mental breakdown, and being threatened with foreclosure, tends to smooth the tenure process out. I decided to take the tenure year to work on projects that had more to do with my political and non-academic intellectual interests. The Baltimore Mixtape Project. Occupy Baltimore. Nobody's Coming (the tentative title for my non-academic book). My photography.
The tenure process at Hopkins requires two votes. The department votes on you, then if that vote is positive it goes to the Academic Council. If that vote is positive then it's reviewed and if everything works out, you're good.
I received the first positive vote in November, on a Tuesday while I was teaching. That gave me solace. I don't know what the vote was. I don't know what the conversation was–both are private. But while I felt in my head I'd done what I was supposed to, the department vote affirmed it.
But the Academic Council vote was another matter entirely. The department process was at least semi-transparent. I gave them a list of names they COULD contact and a list of names they could NOT contact. The Academic Council process was lead-lined. I couldn't see through it if I had x-ray vision. I didn't know when the vote would be held. Didn't know where they were in the process. Didn't know ANYTHING.
It was ok though. I continued work on my other projects. I still had serious life challenges, not just economic ones. But through it all I managed to maintain my sanity and my health.
May 19 was my middle son's birthday. I was supposed to watch him play soccer, then take him and a few of his friends to see The Avengers. So I grabbed my cellphone was I was about to head out, and I checked my email.
I got one from my chair.
My chair wanted to make sure I'd gotten the voicemail that he left for me saying I had been promoted, because he wanted me to know before he told the rest of the department.
I sat and cried for two minutes.
Then sent a status update to Facebook. The best one I think I'd EVER typed–and I've been on Facebook since 2004.
I've been working for this thing since I started graduate school in Fall 1993. One wife, five children, three states, two schools, four houses/apartments, one book, thirteen articles, about 30-40 appearances on local radio/television, approximately 110 NPR appearances, approximately 500 blog posts, later…I now know I'm staying.
And it's a good feeling. A few years ago, when I didn't know what the hell would happen to me, I created a video entitled "Thoughts on Turning 40". I'm so glad I had the wherewithal to realize what was happening and the support (both real and virtual) to pull everything together. Three years ago I literally had to call a new life into being. And had the help to do so. Again, I'm not out of the woods. But I can see it from here. Thank you.