8:12 a.m. - March 10, 2004
I have decided, am deciding, to remove Ph.D. from my To Do list. There, I said it, admitted it.
A while ago I quit school, a decision influenced by fear and self-doubt questioning my abilities Ė Iím not smart, Iím too dumb, if Iím not the brightest then I donít count Ė directly linked, I think, to what was going on between myself and Spec at the time. Logical link it seems: Spec was hitting me, I didnít stand up for myself, everything went into a tailspin and I pulled away from everything / everybody because I felt like nothing. And then after a while I returned to school because once again I sought to please people Ė my advisor, my dissertation chair, two people who said repeatedly my mind and work are top-notch and even though I passed financial aid deadlines made sure I wasnít paying a dime. Department funds at a time when the university wanted to cut pennies [editorís note: Though being in the sciences at a university which privileges the field(s), our pennies were the Humanitiesí dollars, quite literally], able to pick up right where I left off and nobody said a thing. I suppose thatís because when itís known youíre writing a book absence from coursework is assumed and not a sign of academic meltdown.
A lot of people at the university have bent over backwards for me over the years but as I write this, I question the assertion: Maybe they would do the same for anybody with the same interests and I ought not view it as inducing reciprocity. The point is I received the perks and honors because I worked hard for them and was allowed to pursue my own interests in return. That, and being the initial poster boy due to my background and being fluent in ASL at a time when ASL has become the intellectual love-fest in departments around the world. How easy it was to draw parallels and connections, rattle off noun-verb pair phenomenology in ASL when my colleagues were still learning how the pairs are signed in ASL, and have my papers selected and published because I was leaps and bounds ahead of everybody else. I worked hard and enjoyed the work, loved the lab and tracing synapse patterns in monkeys and human subjects, loved writing up results and working with a team, loved being the go-to person for anything related to ASL, loved being validated Ė thatís what it really was, to a large degree. To have grown up at a time when people made fun of ASL to working at a time when people Ė regular people like you Ė canít get enough of it, and knowing that research on signed languages is and will benefit regular people suffering from strokes, traumatic brain injury, bring about a cure for stuttering (people who sign donít stutter because of the integration of right/left hemisphere interaction), not to mention tracing the roots of human language itself and literally revolutionizing our understanding of the brain and its functions, has been immensely rewarding. Fulfilling, as it were.
But overshadowing all of this was my own need to prove my worth, to say: I have a Ph.D., see, I am somebody. I count. A million variations, each valid and true. My only confidence is in academe and Iíve clung to it but thereís been a sea-change of sorts Ė academe is not my only confidence. And I know now it wasnít simply a refuge Ė ivory towers notwithstanding Ė but a way to hide and not have to change or grow, a safe place where my issues were sublimated. How easy to be a workaholic always on the go go go but it is dangerous, sad, to look at an article youíve written and published and say, See, Iím okay when inside you know youíre not. I should stop referring to myself in the second person, eh? The more I did, the more I accomplished, the more people said wow, the worse I felt about myself because the contrast between Goals & Objectives and Contentment couldnít be any more stark. The closer I became to what I always oriented myself towards, the more things have fallen apart like a robot whose programming says Climb these stairs and he does, even though he lacks legs.
So Iíve decided to leave school. Yesterday I met with my advisor and was brutally honest and we both cried a good deal. For me, to save myself, I need to move on. I have to get away and see what else there is and this time, he didnít argue with me, didnít lay out pros and cons, suggest leaves of absences. In a moment of uncertainty I called him on it and he laughed, said he sees what Iím doing is best for me, whereas the last time, it wasnít. I love that man, I really do. I am finishing this quarter and taking one course next, and then I am done. Yes, I realize what all this means; I canít even say Iím ABD (all but dissertation) though I did my qualifying papers, but this is okay, this is good.
I do not feel like a quitter. Iíve thought about this for a while and know itís the right decision for me. Iím not letting go of my safety blanket or the Emergency Door handle; Iím seeing whatís valued and whatís more valuable and I donít need a Ph.D. to say Iím somebody. That is the sea-change and it is a wonderful relief.
I am going to work, but not obsessively. I will write and fulfill contractual obligations, but not obsessively. I will investigate going back to teach high school; that I will do (partially)obsessively. But Iím in no rush.
I begin my first piano lesson next Tuesday. See, Iíve finally learned over the years that itís okay to do things Iíve put off because I wasnít good enough, smart enough, accomplished enough, or lucky enough, to do. In a word (two), Iíve punished myself for a long time. Therapy has been good, though I fight it.
This isnít the Wizard of Oz, though, and not all is hunky-dory.