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This Job Will Kill Me If I Let It
No one told me a work-life imbalance could make me sick
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my friend, Dawn’s, living room catching up in person for the first time in over a year. Even though we live a couple hours’ drive apart, it always feels like an ordeal for us to meet up because she has two young kids and we both work a lot. I’ve often begged off of these trips because, to be honest, when I’ve any kind of time off the only thing I wanted, or could afford, to do was stay at home and rest, but this year I’m trying to break a dangerous pattern.
Dawn and I are both professors. We met in graduate school nearly fifteen years ago. Over the decade and a half of our friendship, I’ve often sat in Dawn’s living room lamenting everything from student evaluations to bad breakups to our various health maladies. Without her, I never would have finished my dissertation.
Long before it was popular, I decided to quietly quit academia. I moved back home to California for a “research” trip with no plans to return or finish writing my dissertation. I was exhausted, broken, and putting in job applications for retail positions. But when I received an offer for my current job, I couldn’t turn it down. Getting a tenure-track job straight out of graduate school was quickly becoming the thing of myth in my field and I say no to a steady paycheck after living on my meager stipend and student loans in graduate school.
So I gave up the dream of working at the mall, flew back to Ohio, and slept on a futon in Dawn’s spare room for two months while I wrote my dissertation, one eight-hour writing session in the library at a time. Dawn knew what it took to get me into this job, so it hit home when she looked at me this summer and said:
“I’m starting to worry this job will kill you.”
Same. I’ve been worried about that for a while.
Grad school was hell. I enrolled wide-eyed, naïve, and intellectually insecure. For six years, I never felt as if I was standing on firm ground, because I wasn’t. The stress and isolation ate away at me for over five years before a bad relationship and breakup clashed with my qualifying exams and sent me to therapy because I couldn’t stop crying and I was struggling with a resurgence of suicidal ideation. My therapist worked to get me strong enough to survive the semester, but then she graduated, and, once again, the solid ground I craved crumbled beneath me.
By the end of that year, I was preparing for that move back to California when the stress caught up to me again. It was the end of the fall semester and Dawn and I were grading in the library. There were stacks of blue book exams between us and we stayed until they were marked. I only told Dawn I was feeling unwell after I’d saved the scores in my online grade book. Twelve hours later I was in the emergency room with a textbook case of appendicitis, so textbook the hospital residents were thinking of sending me home because “no one’s appendicitis presents like this.” It took me three years to pay off the medical bill for that surgery and I had to postpone my flight home for two weeks while I recovered in another friend’s spare bedroom, feeling like a failure and a burden all at the same time.
To say that we could better prepare people for graduate school is an understatement. My preparation involved Althusser, Derrida, and an intensive workshop on classroom etiquette which is more than most people get, but no one talked to me about mental health, self-care, or work-life balance. No one told me how to handle the racist, misogynist, and classist macro-aggressions I would experience in the classroom—as a student and a teacher—so I internalized it, a coping mechanism I learned as a child.
I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about work or worrying about money, stressing myself out until I ended up in the hospital, exhausted, dehydrated, my appendix slowly swelling. If someone had told me how to care for myself first, I might have survived graduate school intact. Or I might have quit. Either way, I might have tried to save myself much earlier than I did.
But without those resources, I learned to hope. When I was a new graduate student, I thought things would improve once I got past my coursework. Once I got past my coursework, I thought things would get better once I finished writing my master’s thesis. Once I finished my thesis, I expected my load to lighten after my Ph.D. exams. After I graduated. When I became a faculty member. Once I passed my third-year review. After tenure. After my sabbatical. I’ve spent the last seventeen years of my life waiting for that elusive milestone somewhere in the future where I would have the time and space to just breathe. I’m still waiting.
And like most people, COVID only exacerbated all the negatives inherent in a job I didn’t like all that much to begin with.
Sometime in the fall of 2020, I started experiencing shooting pains across my lower back. Eventually, I had to prop myself up with pillows when it was time to teach on Zoom. I needed painkillers and a heating pad to get through most days, but I was managing. Until one night I woke up in so much pain all I could do was cry until I fell back asleep. For the next year or so, I suffered bouts of pain so crippling I developed a limp and couldn’t sit or stand for longer than forty minutes or so. I structured each day around how much time I thought I had until I was in too much pain to think clearly. I went back to in-person teaching and learned how to lecture while gritting my teeth. I graded papers from bed while propped up by as many pillows as my bed could fit. I was managing, but I was not living.
For nearly two years, the university president sent regular emails reminding faculty to “be kind” to students struggling to cope with COVID and learning online and to “forgive” late assignments. We were asked to keep our deadlines flexible even though the university’s deadlines were not and even as I also felt as if I was drowning emotionally.
The chair of my department encouraged me to use my sick days, as he should, but until recently, I was the only African-American historian in my department. No one could give my lectures but me. No one could grade my final exams but me. Each time I want to take a sick day, I weigh it against the volley of emails that will incite about midterm exams, contact hours, student success reports, etc. Sometimes I decide to suck it up because it’s easier. The irony of taking a job for benefits I don’t feel comfortable or able to use will never make sense to me, even as I live it.
Last year I finally reached the end of my rope. In spring 2022, I went to my chair and told him I was in so much pain that I wanted to take the next semester off, unpaid. I was so tired that dipping into my savings was preferable to showing up to work. He told me to apply for medical leave instead and I capitulated because that seemed easy enough at the time. It wasn’t. I spent four months trying to figure out a way to get the medical documentation I needed to qualify for medical leave and couldn’t. My doctor didn’t know what was happening but recommended I see a chiropractor who gave me temporary relief, but not much else. I moved back and forth between medical offices trying to convince someone that I was in pain and needed to rest and help, which ultimately proved impossible.
What I found, at the end of all this, was that my own ability to work through the pain was the exact thing stopping people from recognizing all the pain I was experiencing. Every time I chose my students’ needs over my own, lectured with pain shooting down my leg, waited until class was over to cry, or woke up at three in the morning to reply to emails, I was complicit in some ways in my own demise.
In the end, Dawn was almost right. This job will kill me, but only if I let it. I can’t get back the last seventeen years of my life and I don’t know what comes next, but leaving is better than dying in the middle of the semester worrying about who will grade my final exams for me.
Katrina Jackson has a PhD in African American and African Diaspora history. She's a professor by day who writes erotica, erotic romance, women's fiction, and historical fiction in her spare time. She writes racially diverse and often queer stories that show love and the world in all its beauty and colors.
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