Those Who Leave
Last spring, after the fourth year of not enough work to make ends meet, I decided that I was going to leave academia.
But I need to back up. This is a long, complex story, and I have to leave a lot out, but you need to know what happened immediately before to understand why I decided to leave.
Fall of 2021 was one of the darkest periods of my life, personally. I had to turn down in-person classes I had been offered because of the new strain of coronavirus. I had to cancel a writing retreat I was incredibly excited about; the first big thing I had done for myself in years. Mike and I had to cancel our tenth anniversary plans. I had to pull my son out of kindergarten and homeschool him. It felt like everything I liked about my life had been taken away from me. With this level of heaviness, I felt an almost mania about needing to wrest back some control over my life and manufacture something to look forward to. I decided to give my biggest life goal a shot—I was finally going to try for my PhD.
As I started the process of researching schools and narrowing in on a specific field of study, I felt a sense of wrongness about the whole thing. Something felt off. Like I was trying to make something happen that was not right for me. It was quite disorienting, chasing a lifelong dream and feeling such a deep core of unease about it. And then there was the time. I did not have enough time to devote to this process. I started remembering the levels of stress from graduate school, the stress and intensity of workload that landed me in rehab halfway through. I worked deep into the night and early in the morning the first time around, juggling two jobs to make it happen. Could I handle that again? Ten years older, with two small kids? Could I treat myself that badly in the name of following my dreams? Did I even want to?
These thoughts led to other thoughts. Why was I so invested in a system that clearly did not want or need me? Did I want to kill myself for five to ten years for dismal job prospects? Did I want to spend the rest of my life begging for a job? It started feeling like being in an abusive relationship. I had to continually perform at the peak of my abilities with no way of sustaining myself, and still, it was not enough. I was not enough. Did I want to spend the rest of my life feeling like I was not enough?
There is more to this story, of course. More realizations dawned on me. I began to feel exploited at work, which took a lot of the passion out of it. It is hard to maintain love for something that does not love you back, and at times seems to actively not want you around. And when you no longer love something you are only doing because you love it, it stops making sense. My job did not pay enough to even rightly be called a job anymore. It was a hobby. Did I want to sacrifice my whole life for my hobby? I mean, I have other hobbies, too. I have other things I love, other things I want for my life.
It is hard to describe the level of devotion I felt for my career. It was a calling. When I decided to go to graduate school in the first place, I knew I wanted more than anything to be an English professor. But the problem was, I did not know what that actually meant in real life. Being an English professor in real life did not even remotely resemble what it meant in my head. When it sank in that the job I had sacrificed so much for did not actually exist, this is when I knew I had to leave. I was in the process of losing my optimism for life; I did not want to become an embittered, angry person. I needed to leave and start something completely new. Clean break, fresh start.
There is more to this story—there always is. I have spent the last year considering my next steps and beginning the painful experience of healing and moving on. This year has been full of loss, pain, tears, resigned acceptance. I don’t know if I will ever feel whole again, because I lost an important part of myself. I have changed so much I do not even recognize myself anymore. This is a cliched metaphor because it is so true—it felt like I have been in the underworld the past year, transforming, wrestling with the ugliest parts of myself, and now that I am emerging, I am a fundamentally different person. It is not a bad thing at all, but it will take some getting used to.
I am no stranger to loss and sorrow. But somewhere in the caverns of my soul, I am essentially a hopeful person. I have lost a lot of my naivete, but in its place is a strength of which I did not know I was capable.
I can be grateful for the years I got to teach, to be so very good at something I love. Affecting the lives of thousands of students—what a gift. I will always have that. I got to live out my dream, even if it was not what I thought.
There is more to this story. And I will keep telling it. But not right now. It’s not time yet. I am starting something new.