In the day room
More days than not this summer, I sat down in the morning resolved to try and do some computer work. Teaching through the 2020-21 year had been grueling, isolating, and alienating, and by spring I was dissipated and spent. I had gotten better at teaching online, keeping contact with at least some students, trying my best to connect—me to them, and they to each other—despite never meeting a single one in person. All of this had been meant to be temporary—an emergency fix, a stopgap. But the field dressing we placed in March 2020 never really got replaced, and by more than a year later, my teaching felt rickety, and I was wheezing and limping into the end of the semester. Some of this resembles the normal academic rhythm, and I always need part of summer to recuperate and restore my enthusiasm for the work. This year, I waited for its return through May, June, and July, and was able to muster only a few hours a week of energy and effort. Most days, I sat at my computer in the morning, concluded I simply Could Not, and went off to do the things I could manage: folding laundry while listening to George Michael, weeding, scraping wallpaper— physical chores that felt useful but didn’t demand much from my brain, wandering and willful as a toddler, which would not settle.
Now, it’s mid-August and my lassitude and fecklessness are becoming more alarming. One day, having stared at the computer for the requisite five minutes and then giving up, I found myself sitting on the floor making a macrame plant hanger. Two weeks before, I partly finished a jigsaw puzzle when I should have been working, diligently fitting the pieces as if it were arts and crafts time in the day room of my enervated mind. A friend of mine told me, when she was a young wife with kids, that she used to fantasize about being taken away to an institution where she would not be expected to do anything, but could do any number of things. It was, I realized, exactly what I wanted too—some combination of asylum and monastery, where I could tend the garden, or dye wool, or read and write as I was able. I didn’t want to be a patient because I didn’t feel sick; I felt like I no longer could pretend that things were alright with the world, that anything would be going “back to normal” any time soon, or that normal was even something I wanted anymore. I had suffered what felt like a fracturing in my mind, only, my mind itself didn’t feel broken so much as severed from something else, like a slab calved off the face of a glacier and gone floating into the ocean.
Sometimes I did go to the computer and try to search for jobs that I might be able to do in this new, altered state. I wanted to be of use, but my social capacity was perilously low. I could not bear the thought of human society; it felt intensely demanding and strenuous to interact with a grocery cashier, like trying to communicate in a language I barely spoke. I felt prone to errors of expression, sluggish and slow to respond to questions or jokes or small talk. What job to search for then, where I could contribute my effort, but not be taxed in this way? Lighthouse keeper, winter caretaker of a summer camp, plant portraitist.
I felt a kinship to all the neurasthenics and hysterics of history, unable to keep going as they were, prescribed nerve tonics, tinctures of strychnine, the rest cure. I read about that enforced lassitude and looked at paintings and drawings of the patients who lolled, sandbag-limbed on chaises and couches, forbidden any intellectual or creative stimulation and spooned mutton stews and blood meals to build them up, as if they suffered from anemia of the very spirit.
Earlier this spring, when I told some people at work about how swamped I was, how beaten down, burnt out, demoralized, they pointed me toward what they thought were the right and helpful resources—I could seek the help of a therapist, for instance, or, with documentation, I could take a medical leave. When I got to my nadir, my husband asked, more than once, whether I thought I should check myself into a facility of some sort. All of these decisions fell to me, and what was ostensibly wrong with me, that I could not continue as I was. I sent an article about workplace burnout and what managers can do about it to one of my supervisors; she asked me to be more specific about my problem and what I expected her to do for my issues. After it went viral, the authors of that article made subsequent pleas in other articles that people not misunderstand them—that burnout is not an individual pathology, that if employees are burnt out, it’s a symptom of a sick workplace. Nevertheless, millions of us were sent links to Employee Assistance Program websites and online counseling and shuffled off back to our posts.
Now, there is less than a month left before I am expected back in the classroom. I’ll have a mixture of in person and online classes, assuming the pandemic doesn’t further derail things. I still have only limited capacity to work. It’s not up to my former standards, but it will be sufficient. I can’t go back to the way things were. I need radical shift, and the best I can think to do is to devote the energy I have to my students, and tell them all of this—that I am perfectly well, but the world isn’t. That this system—the individualism, the hierarchies, the suspicions and punishments and surveillance—should be dismantled. That we’re all going to study and learn together as and when we are able. That whatever they can manage is good enough. That some days we will judge a success if all we have to show for ourselves is a macrame keychain. That some days we will judge a success if we have not even that, but are still alive by the end, and if we maybe can get a little sleep.