Even before my accident, I suffered from an acute case of Imposter Syndrome. I work in academia, where credentials and title are paramount, and glorification of those with the best education, the most publications, the best teaching awards, etc. is the norm. Unfortunately it often seems that tearing down anyone with any lesser degree of qualification is right up there, too. I usually find myself the object in the latter category.
It’s a world of backhanded “compliments” and passive-aggressive put-downs, and it can get to you. In fact, I just received a general solicitation for an interview from someone conducting research on bullying in academia (among teachers, not students). I stared at the message for several minutes, but ultimately deleted it. What if something I said made me identifiable?
I am not tenured or tenure-track, which is Mistake #1 — not that I chose that situation; I just gratefully (and somewhat unwittingly) took a job in the midst of a major recession. Not having tenure makes you worth less — not quite worthless, but you might feel that way sometimes. A friend tells the story of how he took a similar position, and a tenured colleague came to his office and said, “So, how does it feel knowing that you’ll be doing twice the work I do for half the money?” This is such an accepted state of affairs, the speaker considered this good-natured banter.
Because I’m not on the tenure track, I’m not expected to produce scholarship; but I do anyway, because I (somewhat masochistically) enjoy it, and honestly I think it just looks good, both for my institution and for me. Some people are impressed — including, most importantly, the head of my school — but many tenured teachers just crinkle their noses and ask, “Why?” I also was denied admission to a scholarship retreat simply because of my status.
On the second day after returning to my office after my medical leave, my supervisor berated me for spending my time on things like publishing, admitting that s/he felt that way even before my accident, and “encouraging” me to stop. (I use quotation marks because the actual words were, “You make BAD decisions. I want to be perfectly clear: YOU MAKE BAD DECISIONS!” This was repeated more than twice, with a fist pounding on the desk a few times for good measure. I cried — but not until it was over and I was alone. Mustn’t appear phased in front of the speaker.)
I should note that I never once let engaging in things like scholarship prevent me from completing my expected duties. I research and write in the dark — whether it’s hours before the day begins or hours after it ends — and I write in small blocks of 30-60 minutes at a time.
Recently I received a group email from a tenured coworker about a graduate from our institution who now also works as a teacher. My colleague was so excited to share that “one of our own is in the academy.” Of course I also attended the same institution — I was in the email author’s class, actually, and my office is now about six feet away — but apparently I don’t count.
This particular post comes on the heel of receiving a rejection from Harvard for a proposal I sent to present at a conference there. When I received the email solicitation a few months ago, my jaw dropped because this meeting has the exact same title as the scholarship piece I had just spent months writing. I was so excited, thinking that maybe this would help earn at least a little more of my colleagues’ respect…but, nope. Not this year.
So all of this contributes to my Imposter Syndrome — the feeling that I do not belong in this career, and that it was an accident that I ever got this job in the first place, let alone that I have been permitted to keep it.
Add to it my delightful TBI, and it becomes like a snowball barreling down a wintry mountain, gathering speed and girth until it’s like a big out-of-control truck screaming down the freeway, taking out everything in its path. Not only did I feel as if I wasn’t smart enough, but now my already-inadequate brain has been damaged. It takes me twice as long to read, to write, to plan, to work. I have aphasia, so sometimes I just have to type whatever word keeps popping into my head (“onion”), hoping that later I will remember the word I really wanted to write (“apple”). My writing becomes its own foreign language, and I just have to hope that I can access my own personal Rosetta Stone to decipher it later. Nevermind my fervent prayers that this not happen to me while lecturing to a class.
Sometimes I wonder what on earth I’m doing. Melodramatic though this may be, it feels as if all the forces in the universe are working against me in this job, and I know I would be exponentially happier if I just…left. (I know, because in spite of dealing with the trauma and pain from my accident, I look back on my medical leave with nostalgic fondness. Seriously.) I see all of these YouTube clips and essays and poems and whatnot urging the watcher or reader to “be present,” to enjoy life because it is so short, not to waste it all in a cubicle because that’s what elderly people on their deathbeds regret, etc., etc., etc….and I get that. I literally almost died, so I more than understand the temporal nature of life. But I am the primary wage earner in my house, and we have bills. And a mortgage. And we need food, and clothes, and other essentials. And we are not that close to retirement. Am I supposed to pay for these things through videotaping myself hiking on a beautiful mountainside while talking about how other people should quit their crappy jobs and start enjoying life?
I was out for a walk yesterday (since that’s the main form of exercise I can do now), listening to music, and an old, somewhat-obscure Don Henley song came on, “Lilah.” The verse that continues to stick out in my mind is, “Oh Lilah, this ground we hallow is ours to tend but not to keep.” Poetically, I was walking through a cemetery at the time.
He’s right, of course. We can live here on earth, tend our land (so to speak), deem certain things sacred (or “hallowed”) and propagate that designation throughout our lives, but we can’t keep anything. It’s all on loan. I thought of sacred burial grounds that now serve as foundations for shopping malls and parking lots — modern “hallowed ground.”
So I suppose nothing really matters (nod to the sage poet Madonna for that particular revelation). I may feel like The Great Pretender in my job, and maybe that’s false and maybe it’s not. Maybe I’m really not bright enough to hang with that crowd. But does it matter? In the short-term, maybe, but not in the end. So when I find myself embroiled in these feelings of stifling inadequacy and comparison, I guess I need to reflect on that simple lyric and remember that while this may feel vitally important — although this ground is hallowed right now — it’s all temporary. It’s ours to tend but not to keep.
So if you, too, feel like The Great Pretender — whether it’s in your job, your hobby, or just your daily life as you try to remember how to act like a normal member of society without a TBI (or other ailment) — and you reel under the judgments of others, remember that it may feel like it matters right now, but it’s transient. Those opinions are theirs to have but not to keep.
As for me, I’m just going to keep going for now…unless we discover a [legal] way to negate our expenses other than by, you know, paying them. Or if I can crack the code to becoming the next Casey Neistat and make a living creating uncannily addictive YouTube videos, look for my series where I hobble around in inspiring locales encouraging viewers to quit their jobs and do the same.