Please let me save my life

Content warning: child abuse, suicidal ideation, death of a beloved pet from old age. If reading about these things could be triggering, please take care of yourself in whatever way is best for you.

When I first started taking interview requests about Georgia Tech’s plans for fall, I thought I could preserve a shred of my privacy by not naming my disability. Not naming it in the press, that is—I’ve been open about it for years to friends, some coworkers, and even a small-readership web magazine or two. 

After all, I had submitted my letter from a healthcare provider to my boss, as we’d been told to do in May. Even that letter didn’t name it; on the Friday I finally got it submitted, we were still under the impression that, as contingent postdocs with heavy teaching loads, we would be sheltered from some of Georgia Tech’s more outlandish expectations. 

And now that I’ve appeared in two major news sources for my field, held up as an example of a “disabled” person—now it turns out that the last shred of privacy to which I was clinging has been ripped away from me. Georgia Tech’s Human Resources is indeed demanding excessive medical documentation, demanding that I, and my coworkers and colleagues across the state, outline in very specific language for them “what physical or mental impairment [you have] been diagnosed with by your physician(s) that require ADA accommodations.” (And yes, I realize that this is standard ADA accommodation procedure; but I will also point out that other schools are letting faculty choose whether or not they teach in person this fall, no documentation required.)

So if Georgia Tech won’t let me have my privacy, I’m sure as hell going to control the narrative around my disclosure.

I’ve been troublesome since I was a child, and no amount of adulthood will temper it. Before grad school, I was fired by a law firm for “insubordination”; in the introduction to my dissertation, I call myself “obstinate.” I own it. It’s what keeps me going.

I’ve been troubled since I was a child, too. It’s what 16 years of abuse, 19 more years of stalking, and a lifetime of running away from both will do to a person.

I don’t share those things for sympathy; I share them so that, when I say that my disability takes the form of chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with co-morbid anxiety and clinical depression, you’ll understand what the trauma was and why it, in the words of the ADA, “substantially limits one or more major life activities.”

I’ve written elsewhere about my struggles with chronic pain, and how medication finally gave me some reprieve. I’ve written elsewhere, too, about some of the therapeutic treatment I’ve undergone in an attempt to live a normal life. But I’ve been too scared, as of yet, to be fully honest about how bad the anxiety and depression can get, about how hopeless they can make me feel, about how I’ve sometimes begged myself to make it stop.

A little over a year ago, I stopped taking my medication. I was struggling to figure out my healthcare, having bounced from grad student insurance to my partner’s insurance to my own. You’d think finally getting a full-time job with benefits would have made treatment easier; but the American health insurance system made it so overwhelming to try and figure out how to see a psychiatrist and what I would have to pay that I gave up.

I went off my meds because I couldn’t get them refilled, and at the time I thought maybe this isn’t as bad as I remember. Instead, it was much, much worse. I spent last summer and fall trying desperately to hold myself together, to stop my violent mood swings, to quit wanting to die. I never had a plan but I had an aching, world-swallowing desire: to simply stop being alive. I would cry and bang my head against the wall and wish and wish and wish that I could just, suddenly, be dead.

I’m better now. My breaking point was the death of my 11-year-old terrier/cattledog mix, the puppy boy who’d been with me for over a decade and forced my ass out of bed every single day, no matter how badly I wanted to become nothingness. I gambled on my insurance and got lucky, got back on medication, got stable. It sounds easy but it was not.

But “better” is not good. Last month, I didn’t sleep through a single night. The nightmares and 4 am panic attacks that defined my twenties recurred with a vengeance. The chronic pain too, now spiked with the maddening sensation of electric sparks along the nerves of my face. That’s my body threatening to have another shingles outbreak, because the PTSD and the anxiety and the depression all fuck with my immune system. And, maybe worst of all, the hopeless sinking sensation that sweeps my chest and compresses my lungs every time I think about the dangers––for anyone, for all of us––of being in the classroom this fall, with coronavirus still ravaging our communities.

There’s an especially bitter irony in how I’m spending this summer––pleading for my own life––when a year ago I wanted so badly to give it up. But it’s not just my life; it’s the lives of my students, my coworkers, my friends, my neighbors, the strangers I ride the bus with, their coworkers, their families, their friends.

Please let us stay home this fall. Please. Please, let me save my life. Let us all save our lives, and each other’s too.

Teaching Narrative as Technology

How long does it take to go from cave paintings to the invention of the novel? For most humans, those developments spanned about 30,000 years. My first-year students and I do it in 30 minutes.

This lecture is the official start to our semester on Women, Technology, and Film Adaptation, and it’s designed to help students approach both the novels and the films we’ll study as the course goes on. In part, it’s an overreaction to the contextless way my undergrad institution approached teaching literature; in part, it’s an overreaction to the systematic estrangement of STEM and humanities fields that plagues higher ed in general and my institution in particular.

animated gif of cave painting frames that show a bison running
Cave paintings animated by Marc Azéma

I want my students to know that technology affects literature in very specific ways. I want them to know that the first narratives were visual, and that moveable type impacted literacy, and that Shakespeare’s dick jokes are part of a turn towards vernacular narrative, and finally, that the novel is actually a very specific form that has only existed for about 300 years in English. These are the foundations on which we’ll build all of our work; even though my class isn’t about cave paintings or Shakespeare or 18th century novels, it helps us to have a shared understanding of these things as a background for encountering Hollywood studio era films and the novels from which they were adapted.

I borrow my working definition of technology from Rebecca Solnit’s book River of Shadows, about the man who made the invention of film possible:

A technology is a practice, a technique, or a device for altering the world or the experience of the world.

I use this definition—which is gloriously broad—to help students reframe their experience of literature. Narrative is a technology that has evolved and changed over time. Books are a technology, and they’re affected by what other kinds of technologies are available at a given moment. Ditto film. With this reframing, these “humanities” topics are suddenly relevant to the engineers and computer scientists sitting in my classroom.

Praxinoscope gif via Giphy

We’ll return to the visual narratives of cave paintings this week when we discuss the pre-history of film technology and play with zoetropes, praxinoscopes, and other optical toys during a hands-on demonstration. Later in the semester, we’ll visit the Museum of Papermaking on campus and learn about how this material science had profound effects on writing and publishing, leading, for example, to the early 20th century invention of the pulp novel, which in turn helped create the film noir. Finally, at the end of the semester, my students will create video essays that make an argument about how a specific technology has shaped film adaptation. I hope they’ll at least entertain the idea of examining the novel itself as a technology.

Further Reading:

Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is huge and hugely entertaining; I asked on Twitter when people first learned about the invention of the novel, and I feel like it should have been earlier for all of us.