I’m afraid to write this. Well, not so much to write it as to let you read it. I’ve shared this with friends and family and a few colleagues, but nothing like this. I’m nervous that it’ll cloud my career, that any future job-related internet search will show this piece of writing and I’ll be dismissed as unworthy of the position, as flawed and broken. I fear what others who think I have it all together will think once they read this. But I have to share this. I’m a senior scholar with a decent publication record and a successful stint as a department chair who needs to share this part of my life. I think.
“I think you’re depressed,” my friend remarked while we chatted on the phone one day last March. I dismissed her diagnosis out of hand. I didn’t get depressed. I just had a bad year, I explained. She said, “You’ve been like this for years.” Nah, I said. I’m ok.
It HAD been rough year. I didn’t get a dean’s job I felt destined for. For almost 5 years, my research had stagnated as my old dean had rewarded my “competence” as a department chair with even more tasks on top of an already stressful workload. The thing that kept my mood stable, running, had become a chore. I had put on weight and when the alarm rang in the morning for my daily run all I wanted to do was sleep. When people asked me questions or needed problems solved, I felt my head tighten as if in a vise and I wanted to be alone. But in my mind, I had family, I had health, I was a published historian who had a full-time tenured job. Why should I get depressed? That happens to other people, not me. I needed to “man-up” and be happy. I was a blind fool.
In probably the easiest diagnosis of his career, my doctor agreed. I was suffering from anxiety and depression. Mild, to be sure, but anxiety and depression nonetheless. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized I’ve been this way all my life, just blind to the possibility that I could, or should, be depressed. I was fortunate in life. A comfortable childhood. A typical middle-class upbringing in the 1980s. Decent grades and a college degree. Admission to grad school and a Ph.D. I have never wanted for anything in life. I have never felt real hunger or misfortune. I had lost a lot of weight to stave off high blood pressure, had become a successful marathon and ultramarathon runner. I was in shape. I had a dog. I was a good dad. I had become everything my parents wanted me to be. I should be happy. There was no logical reason for me to be depressed, I thought.
And against all my self-perceived limitations and flaws, I had found tenure track positions at two schools, published scholarly works, achieved the rank of full Prof, and was chosen to chair a department at two different universities. People liked me and I was helpful. I just assumed that this wasn’t something that should happened to me.
My parents suffered anxiety as well. When I was young our family doctor prescribed “nerve pills” to my mom (valium). It seemed like she lived to be worried about something. My dad always seemed to have it all under control. After my diagnosis, I wondered aloud to her why I couldn’t be more like my dad who always seemed to have a cool, collected demeanor and addressed problems with ease. Mom revealed that he was just good at faking it for the kids. He internalized everything and was a great actor. Like father, like son.
My anxiety made grad school harder than normal. It didn’t help that only two schools saw reason to admit me and my mediocre GRE score after a stellar MA program with departmental awards and a published article. At the time I assumed it was normal to feel inferior. Like an imposter, my admission unmerited, I feared I would soon be discovered as an academic fraud and escorted from the building. But the feelings were worse than normal. And while I know a good dose of imposter syndrome is normal in our field, my anxiety and depression made them worse. I never felt as if anything I wrote, taught, or accomplished was good enough compared to my peers, and especially in the eyes of my dissertation chair. I still believe that chairs have their favorites—once a favorite always a favorite. I felt like a charity-case, accepted as a student because I bothered him so much that he finally relented as if a public service to the population of slackers like me.
And when I got a tenure track job in 1999 after only a couple of years on the market, I chalked it up as dumb luck and a search that started late in the academic year. On top of that I was their sixth choice, called in when they were running out of time to make the hire. A last resort of last resorts. My teaching awards were surely the result of being funny and easy. Tenure came because I had published at a teaching school and no R1 school would ever grant me permanence. I believed my research and writing to be pedestrian at best, comical and mocked at worst. When I became department head it was surely because no one else wanted to do it. All that I had accomplished was the result of nothing that I had done, only the result of flukes and accidents.
Conferences are inspiring and terrifying. I want to network with scholars and colleagues but I’m frozen with anxiety and a sense that I don’t belong. I want to go to those whose work I enjoy and tell them so, but I don’t because I imagine I’m Chris Farley on SNL, with his nerdy fan bit: “You remember that book you wrote? That was awesome.” I don’t know how to overcome it except tag along with a colleague who knows everyone else. I can act like I’m part of the group. When friends aren’t around, I wander around the book exhibit trying to look like I belong. I see younger scholars and grad students and know they’re looking at me as THAT guy, the pretender, the lightweight, the guy who got his job because there was no one left to take it, the researcher who published because someone at the press took pity. I sit in the back and take notes on presentations and fantasize about not feeling this way, about being “normal” and accepted and respected.
At the same time I am inspired to work harder, to spread my interests, to find topics that need a story told. I want to seek those connections and that respect and acclaim that I am sure evades me because, in short, I suck. But back in my office, I freeze with anxiety and doubt. And I settle into my safe bunker of depression.
When I turned 50 and entered that period where one confronts their own mortality, I started asking myself the “standard” mid-life questions: have I been a success? What has my life been about? Will I ever be known, much less respected, as a scholar? If I were gone would anyone remember me? Will my cover be blown? Do people see the worthless poser and slacker that I see in the mirror?
My ability to focus for more than a few moments dissipated. I have always been restless, unable to sit and be still for more than a little while. I kept developing really good ideas for projects but found myself unable to proceed past the first day or so, especially if they weren’t met with some positive feedback. I was, in my own estimation, a fraction of what I should have been by this moment in my life and career, especially a “successful” senior scholar. Even typing “senior scholar” feels like pretension and pretend. Running obscenely long distances, something that had saved my life from obesity and high blood pressure, no longer worked. I loved being finished with the run, but when the alarm rang for my early morning runs, I wanted to keep sleeping. I wanted to sit around and watch Netflix. I wanted to be with my dog.
As a historian I struggle with this diagnosis. I’m a white male in 2018 America. I’m part of the most privileged group of people on the planet. The historian in me says I have nothing about which to be depressed or anxious. I should stop whining and realize that there are so many people in this world less fortunate than I. Man-up, dude. Stop crying and be a man. My inner Spock says there’s no logical reason for me to be this way. Depression and anxiety aren’t logical. Fascinating.
Meds help. I feel a little closer to something like normal again. I enjoy physical activity again. My anxiety over “stuff” has decreased and I don’t always see a small difficulties as insurmountable obstacles. I’m not always gripped with panic when something breaks or some unforeseen cost arises. I don’t conclude my self a failure as I see colleagues flourish in their careers and research. Worthless is no longer my constant default, only an occasional symptom.
The triggers never cease, though they come not so frequently now. But they still bring me to the hole. A colleague being offered a position on campus that I had sought. A friend receiving acclaim for something that I also did. Coming up with a great idea at work only to have my superiors credit someone else. A dinner with my dissertation chairman and former students and colleagues. As he went around the room sharing his fondest memories of all of us in his career, I received a couple of sentences while he lavished fellow students with long stories and laughter. The hole still comes, but I have friends who share it with me, who see me falling and reach over, as my grad school mate and dear friend did that night, and asked “How are you doing?” Four words that slow my fall and let me know that I’m not totally worthless.
This friend, priceless to me, is a war veteran and one of the finest scholars and people that I’ve ever known. Almost died in a war and still has the selflessness to ask me how I am doing? Worthless me whose complaints pale in comparison to what this person faced and still faces. I feel humbled, loved, and ashamed all at once. I also want to be that to people. I want to help. Helping helps. I stop thinking about myself and I care for others. I can stop being so deep inside my own head, as it were, and manage it all. Inside I hope that by helping another person they will then see me as a value in their lives. Someone who matters. Someone who is worthy of knowing. Someone who is not a loser or a failure or a slacker.
The voice in my head screams: “Jesus, man. Get a grip. Grow a pair. Stop whining and deal.” I wish I could. I need to share this because for all my life I assumed it was just that, an inability to cope with life. I assumed I was less of a man, not strong enough, that I had nothing that merited complaint. But depression and anxiety don’t work that way. It sometimes feels like you’re the only person in the world not in on the secret or the joke. The one person who isn’t “in” the cool Professor group. This isn’t determined by success or failure. Full prof, publications, tenure and department chairman by 41. My depression discounts it all. Nothing I do is good enough. It lives in a world of its own and exists regardless of circumstances, even though events can trigger it and make it worse.
Telling people isn’t the stigma it used to be. But it still scares me a little to put my name on this. It would, I think, be hypocritical to say all this and stay anonymous. So I’m sharing it all here in the hope that it helps someone older or younger who may feel the same thoughts and fears. When I talk to friends about it I feel lighter. I feel like I’ve got people to lean on now. I know that there are at least a few people who will like and support me no matter how bad I feel about myself. I want to put myself out here to support and to be supported. The more we realize this is bigger than us, the better we can cope and support and accept each other.
You can reach out to Gordon on Twitter at @thisrunninglife or on Instagram at @gordrunslong