Last week, someone called me academia’s Kurt Cobain. Nice words, if you aspire to that sort of legendary status. Not so nice if you just want to be regular, not wanting people to see your darkness bubbling up every so often.
Like Kurt, I think about suicide a lot. Every day, in fact. The thoughts vary: sometimes I do actually want to kill myself, sometimes I wonder what drives people to it, sometimes I wonder why I’m feeling suicidal when I’m actually quite happy. But there they are, every day.
Now before you go any further, I don’t want any cheery “Life is worth living” emails or “It’s not worth it” admonishments. I know that. I also know that when I teeter on the edge of the subway platform that I’m the victim of a physical condition (more on that in another post) that imposes suicidal fantasies on me, and that the feeling will pass. I also know how hard it would be to accomplish. I might hold the bottle of Tylenol in my hand for a moment, then look down to see my kitty staring up at me with saucer eyes. What would she do if I were gone? I can’t do that to her. I’ve pressed a knife to my wrists and learned the ones I own are nowhere near sharp enough. So I won’t do it. To be clear, I do not suffer from mental illness in the way many others do, and I am ill-equipped to write about that.
Doctors have looked at me warily and tried to write prescriptions for anti-depressants, or pushed me out the door in the direction of the social work department, uncertain of how to handle me.
But we all know why I think I’m supposed to kill myself, right?
I have failed. And that failure is all my fault.
I don’t have a full-time, permanent job because I failed to get one. I might tell people that the system is broken, there are no jobs, Canadian universities always hire Americans. I might say that music departments are shutting down, there’s no funding for tenure-track positions even though enrollments skyrocket across the country. Clearly, you did not work hard enough, their steady gaze says in return. Anyone who really wants something can get it.
After all, we live in a place where anyone can achieve anything. Opportunities abound, especially if you’re white, educated, young, and middle-class in a world that believes it looks past those things, but still secretly loves to reward it. You just have to work hard enough, and success will come to you. Don’t be entitled. Start from the bottom and work up. Be pragmatic and responsible. And don’t you dare expect more than you deserve, which is nothing.
When you fail, pick yourself up and start again. I mean, how many times was JK Rowling rejected by publishers before she got a deal?
Nobody likes people who are depressed and whiny and can’t look after themselves. If success isn’t coming to you, you are doing something wrong, or you need to adjust your expectations. In no way should you question the viability of the system you are trying to crack open, because as soon as you do, you’ll lose any shot you might have had. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
I’ve been told all of these things, sometimes directly, sometimes implicitly. Right, I would tell myself. I should not want to die because I was led to believe that my hard work was of value, then that it was my only value in the world, and then that it was worthless. Somehow, though, I would still feel like dying. Funny, isn’t it.
Yesterday, Noam Chomsky said this in response to the ongoing US election:
“[During this neoliberal period] People feel isolated, helpless, victim of powerful forces that they do not understand and cannot influence. It’s interesting to compare the situation in the ‘30s, which I’m old enough to remember. Objectively, poverty and suffering were far greater. But even among poor working people and the unemployed, there was a sense of hope that is lacking now.”
Why am I so worthless?
Well, the fact is, I’m not. And I’m not merely a body whose only purpose is labour.
Here’s what Candace Smith has to say: “Unsurprisingly, then, unemployment, inequality, and poverty have become increasingly blamed on individuals rather than on structural constraints (Passas 2000). Because we are turning away from the role of the community and instead focusing solely on individuals, Bourdieu (1999a) contends that social problems like suicide, alcoholism, depression, and domestic violence will consequently become increasingly prominent. Still, the outward attractiveness of individual freedom, prosperity, and growth makes it challenging for the public to realize that neoliberalism is designed to benefit only a very small class of people (Harvey 2005). Such a worldview also makes it easier to justify the thought that some people are deserving of much more than others because, after all, it is a common refrain that we are all responsible for our own destinies.”
Indeed. It seems I fucked up.
So, let’s fix it, shall we? From this point on, I will no longer believe I have any inherent value as a worker. In fact, I am the trash of academia. Had I known this, I would not have had such silly expectations that an arduous application process filtering all but three candidates the year I started my PhD, many years of training, and climbing the fictional academic ladder would lead anywhere. I would have accepted that I was a short-term, cheap labourer that reached a dead end. It would have been a sort of thought-heavy Starbucks gig. Done and on to the next thing.
Universities might better serve their public if they stop selling the myth that education leads to employment; that growth is inherent to every endeavour; that should one fail at a conventional path, one can always be an entrepreneur with a successful start-up (please buy my knitted socks, and in exchange I’ll buy your cool organizational kit). The best way to do that? Stop telling it to your own employees. Then we will know where we stand. If we know we mean nothing to you, at least we’ll stop thinking it’s “our” fault, and we’ll stop wanting to kill ourselves. That will free up more mental space to be better friends, parents, and lovers, and more time to knit socks.