Conflict, Anxiety, and Emotional Violence in Teaching

[CN: discussion of violence, emotional violence, sexual assault, emotional manipulation, anxiety, fear]

So as the semester wraps up, this is the last week of teaching German 101 for me. And I am so ridiculously pleased about that, because I hate teaching.

I want to get one thing straight: I hold the vocation of teaching in very high esteem. I admire teachers. My mother has worked in education for most of her career, either teaching teachers or helping create and sell software for teachers to use. Now she’s working as a school librarian and actually teaching kids directly, and she’s very good at it. I’ve had some good teachers over the course of my life. I have friends from my undergrad who are now teachers. I respect teachers and teaching. When I say that I hate teaching, I don’t mean that I think it’s worthless or that it’s a waste of time or that it’s beneath me. What I mean is, it’s a job that’s the culmination of several of my anxiety triggers in one neat little bundle. I hate speaking to small groups of people. Put me in front of a huge auditorium and I shine, but in front of less than 20 people, I want to collapse and cry. I hate putting a numeric number on someone’s performance, especially when I get to know them and find out they have stuff going on outside my class (like a relative with cancer, or a really nasty break-up with their SO). I hate all the work of preparing and trying to figure out how much time each activity will take (which I always get wrong, it either takes way more or way less time than I think). I hate it when students ask a question and I have no idea what the answer is. I hate being put on the spot in all the many ways a teacher is every day. The bottom line is that almost nothing about teaching is enjoyable for me. And it isn’t worth it to me to do a job that’s not the slightest bit enjoyable. Even at my last office job, which had a lot of problems, I could take pride and pleasure in doing a task efficiently, making sure everything was error-free, and being one of the fastest in my unit at what we did. The stress and anxiety that I get from teaching far outweighs the very occasional pleasure of having a student improve, or seeing one of them reach an “aha!” moment.

So what does any of that have to do with conflict? Well, it has to do with a very specific experience I had yesterday afternoon. It started a couple weeks before the midterm. One of my colleagues who teaches a German 102 section had a student who wasn’t doing well. She had tried to help them, but they were still struggling, so she told me they had decided to transfer to my 101 class, because they felt it would be easier, and they needed it to graduate. When the student transferred to my class, they proceeded to show up for class only about half the time, didn’t buy the textbook (which is necessary to do the online homework for the class), and didn’t make up any of the tests or quizzes they’d missed, and missed a few more on top of that. So when they came to my office yesterday to make up one of the quizzes they missed, they brought up their grade, and asked me if I could do anything to help them. Even though I hadn’t counted any of the in-class assignments before they transferred to my class, the fact that they’d done none of the homework and hadn’t made up any of the tests or quizzes meant that there was no way they could pass the class. And they were very upset, and said a lot of things about how they couldn’t afford the textbook to do the online homework, they felt they had been lied to about what was expected, they thought they hadn’t been given a fair chance to succeed, and how this was going to mess up everything because they needed this class to graduate this semester. They asked if there was any way we could make a deal, if they could do book work, I tried to give them some other options (retake the class, take an incomplete, etc) and they refused all of them. And every time I said “I’m sorry, but this is the reality” they would launch into another line about how it was unfair, how they needed to graduate, wasn’t there something I could do… And it made me more and more uncomfortable, because I had given them the only answer, and they wouldn’t leave, and I was getting more and more anxious, but finally, after I said I’d think about letting them do some book work, they left. But I was so upset by then that I could hardly compose myself, and it was time for class to start, and I hadn’t finished all my prep because they’d taken so much of my time, and the class didn’t go very well because I was feeling so anxious I was almost manic.

Afterward, when I was talking to my colleagues, I was so upset that I almost cried. Even just talking about it almost gave me a panic attack, and my colleagues didn’t understand why I was so upset. They asked me if the student had threatened me, which they hadn’t, and when I said no they said “then it’ll be fine, just be firm” and it made me feel like they hadn’t heard anything I said, because this wasn’t about being firm. This was about not feeling safe telling someone no.

What bothered me so much about this experience wasn’t that the student was being violent or combative. What bothered me was that the student wouldn’t accept my no. They kept pushing me, kept trying to get me to change my mind. They wouldn’t just accept what I had to say, and that made me feel anxious. Not just anxious, but unsafe.

As a woman, I’ve had to deal with men who won’t take no for an answer. I’ve had to deal with it my entire fucking life. I have the privilege of never having been assaulted, sexually or otherwise (threatened, yes, but not assaulted), so it’s not like I’ve ever actually experienced the worst, but I know, every woman knows, what the worst is. Every woman who lives in this world knows that she must always be vigilant, analyze every situation, because she is not safe. She is not safe out in public, she is not safe at home, she is not safe anywhere in between.

So when I’m dealing with a conflict like the one that happened yesterday, the fact of the conflict itself isn’t what makes me anxious, makes me panic, makes it hard for me to breathe. What made me feel unsafe was the fact that this student wouldn’t accept what I said. The fact that they kept pushing, kept trying to get me to change my mind, made me feel all the weight of the life I live as a woman. I felt like the entire world narrowed down to that one moment with them in my office and I felt trapped, I didn’t feel like I could stand up and ask them to leave, or stand up to get a colleague to help me, even. I didn’t feel safe.

It didn’t have anything to do with physical violence, or even the threat of physical violence. It had to do with the kind of emotional manipulation that I and other women have dealt with our entire lives. I sympathize with the student, I really do. I understand when they say they don’t have money, or time, or that they’ve had circumstances this semester that made it difficult for them to focus. But I can’t change the facts, and the fact that they want to manipulate me and try to do that makes me feel unsafe.

The student said they would come by to drop of a project today. I spent most of the afternoon in a state of heightened anxiety, hoping they wouldn’t. I knew that once they came in, I would feel trapped again, I would feel unsafe, and I don’t know how I would have dealt with that. The simple fact is that as a 6′ tall, 400 lb woman, I significantly outweigh and tower over almost all of my students (one of the other students is an inch or two taller than me, but I still outweigh them). But that doesn’t change the fact that I would have felt trapped and powerless. I probably wouldn’t have been able to call for my colleagues to help me, or ask the student to step outside.

Emotional violence is a reality, especially for people like me, who feel emotions deeply. When someone purposefully tries to manipulate my emotions, that’s a form of emotional violence. When someone won’t listen to what I tell them, tries to debate when I explain how I feel, that’s a form of emotional violence.

Emotional violence is experienced differently by everyone. Some people can shrug it off if it happens once or twice, and only start to feel the impact when it accumulates over time, like lead poisoning. Some people feel pain even if it only happens once or twice, like being stabbed with a short knife, not deep enough to put their life in danger, but enough to give them pain and leave a scar. That’s how it feels for me. Every time feels like a stab wound. I’ve learned over the years how to protect myself sometimes, but there are still times, like yesterday, when I’m totally unprepared, and the knife goes deep. There are certain situations where I have no choice, and I try to simply steel myself as best I can, preparing myself for the cuts. Sometimes I wonder how I’m not just a walking mass of scar tissue, and I wish I could just stop feeling emotions so deeply. Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth it, especially when I’m in pain.

I’m sure that the student didn’t intend to hurt me. They were likely doing something that has worked on other professors before, in hopes that it would work again. But this is what I mean when I talk about how teaching triggers my anxiety. This isn’t a situation that people in other professions usually have to deal with. I don’t remember ever having anything similar in any of the jobs I’ve worked. I’ve never been a manager or HR person, and don’t intend to be, which are the only other professions that come to mind that might have similar situations.

The student never showed up today, either to my office or to our last class meeting. Next week is the final exam, and I don’t know if they’ll be there for that, but even if they do, I’ll have support, as it’s a combined exam with my colleague who teaches the other German 101 class. I’m sorry for their situation, but I can’t do anything else for them, and I just don’t want to feel unsafe again. And once the final exam is over, I will be able to put teaching behind me, and that will be a great relief.

Edit, May 1, 2016: The student showed up unexpectedly at my office on Friday. I was completely unprepared, but I managed to send a message through Facebook to my colleague across the hall, and she came over and pretended to do some work on the computer while waiting for a break in the conversation to back me up. I had an appointment with another colleague to go somewhere, so when that colleague showed up we ended up leaving the first one to deal with the student, which we both felt rotten about. But after we left, one of the professors showed up and managed to help her and talked to the student briefly, then told them she’d talk to me about the situation and get back to them. So now the entire story is being laid out via email with the professor, and I feel a bit better because at least I now have some help, but at the same time I’m really anxious because I don’t want the student to show up at my office unannounced again (I didn’t even tell my students I was going to be there on Friday, I’m normally not) and I really just want this whole situation to be done with, because it’s causing me more anxiety the longer it draws out. I’ll post more updates if anything of note occurs.



[Content Note: pet death, depression]

So I think it’s about time I talked about Kočka.

Early November, 2015. The gas company in my college town was replacing the old gas pipes all over town, so they came to check my apartment to make sure everything was okay. There was a small leak they couldn’t identify, so they had to leave the gas off and told me to call my landlord to get it fixed. After a cold night without any heat, my landlord came and brought some gas and plumbing guys to figure things out. I shut Sen and Delilah in the bedroom so the workers could come in and out without me worrying about the cats. As I was sitting in my living room, one of the workers stuck his head in and said “hey, did one of your cats get out?” I said “I hope not! What do you mean?!” he responded, “there’s a kitten out here, she just walked right up to us.” I was incredulous, but I went to the door and sure enough, there was a little brown tabby kitten standing there. When she saw me, she walked right over and rubbed against my legs. I picked her up and she cuddled right into my arms, purring up a storm. I brought her inside, bewildered, and put her in front of the dry food bowl, where she proceeded to chow down. I kept telling the workers “I can’t keep her, I have to find out if she belongs to anybody”. I took a picture with my phone and sent it to my mom, who responded “no, you can’t keep her”. I texted friends, I posted on a cat forum in a panic. “WHAT DO I DO?! I can’t keep this kitten!” The general response was to call a shelter, but when I did they said “we won’t take her, try animal control” and when I called them, they told me the animal control officer was out that day, and try again tomorrow if I still had the animal. Meanwhile, she’d finished eating and wanted to explore my house, but I didn’t know what the state of her health was (she had crusty eyes and a runny nose, which could’ve been serious or not), so I scooped her up and cuddled her some more. When she seemed restless, I made a little litter box out of a small plastic basin, but she didn’t seem to understand, so I took her back outside, where she did her business neatly. Before she could take another step, I scooped her back up and brought her back inside, then I put her in the bathroom to stay isolated from Sen and Delilah.

I wasn’t in the best financial straits, so I worried how I would be able to afford a vet visit to see if she was okay. All she wanted to do was cuddle and purr, whenever I left the bathroom and closed the door she protested with her squeaky little meow, but I had to do other things. I checked on her often, but she was always mad when I left her again. If I went to use the bathroom, she’s hook her sharp little claws into my bare leg and climb up to cuddle. My legs quickly became a patchwork of bleeding scratches, although I also tried to just pick her up first so she couldn’t climb or jump.

I managed to get her to the vet either the following day or the day after that, and he tested her for the really bad things (FIV and feline leukemia), she was negative. She had worms, so he gave me de-wormer and told me to keep her separate from my adult cats for at least a week, just to be safe. She also had feline herpes virus, which caused a severe upper respiratory infection (it’s a bit different from human herpes, and both Sen and Delilah already had it). She wasn’t too happy about being cooped up, and let me know. I doubt she much cared about being separate from the rest of the house or the other cats, but she didn’t like being confined, and she especially didn’t like being without me. As soon as I entered the bathroom, she wanted to not only be near me, but on me. She would climb up onto my legs and flop over, purring. I would pick her up and lay her in my arms and she would just lie there on her back, purring as she gazed up at me. She mostly just wanted to be with me. She wouldn’t eat much when I wasn’t there, but when I was she was so busy loving on me that she’d only eat a few bites if I stayed and talked to her, and she’d still look up between every mouthful to make sure I was still there.

I put out pleas on Facebook, asking anyone if they wanted a kitten. I posted pictures of her, talked about how sweet she was. I refused to name her, because I knew once I named her, she would be mine. After a week or so I started calling her Squeaker, because of the adorable little squeaky mew she would make when she wanted my attention, or was complaining about her incarceration. There was one person who said they had a friend who might want her, and they’d let me know. My friends on Facebook teased me when I posted pictures of us cuddling, saying she obviously had a home already, but I was stubborn and insisted she wasn’t staying. My older brother and his pregnant wife offered to take her, as I would see them soon at the baby shower, but I decided that wasn’t the best idea, as they already had two cats and the baby was due in a few months. Shortly after I made that decision, I named her. I was taking a 5-week Czech workshop at the time, just for fun, and found out that the word for a female cat was Kočka (pronounced coach-kah). I’d gone over a couple names, including Artemis, Luna, and keeping Squeaker, but Kočka felt the most right. I introduced her to Sen and Delilah, and both of them were less than thrilled. Delilah mostly ignored her, with only a few whaps on the head if she got too playful, but Sen would run away hissing anytime she came near him.

Not long after the baby shower, near the end of November, I went to the doctor about a strange rash I’d developed all over my body. He said it was either a bacterial infection or ringworm, and after I put the antibacterial cream on for a week and nothing happened, I then switched to the antifungal cream and it started to improve. When I took Kočka to the vet, he confirmed that she had a really bad case of it. And it had not only spread to me, but to Sen and Delilah as well. Even a friend who’d taken care of her for the weekend of the baby shower had gotten it. Ringworm is a really annoying but mostly harmless disease, however it’s incredibly hard to get rid of, and very contagious. The end result was that I decided that it was better if I stayed home over the holidays, rather than risk infecting my family. It was a really lonely and depressing holiday season for me, and since I didn’t have classes or anything I more or less because a lump of do-nothing, not cooking, ignoring the piles of take-out boxes that were growing in my living room, not taking out the trash or doing anything more than the bare minimum of feeding myself and the cats. Kočka was my constant companion. Once she’d recovered from her respiratory problems, she’d become incredibly playful, while still staying cuddly and loving. She started going into heat, which was the first time I’d experienced that, and she was super curious about the outdoors. I was extra careful not to let her outside, especially after a few male suitors showed up and yowled at her from outside.

In early January, I got her spayed and microchipped. She was so listless after the surgery that I was really afraid, but the next morning she was back to her normal self. She had to stay in confinement for several days, no running or jumping, to keep her stitches from pulling out. She was even less pleased about it than before, as she’d gotten used to having the run of the house. She tried constantly to escape whenever I opened the door to enter or leave. After about five days I gave up and let her loose, and she mostly refrained from running and jumping, so it turned out fine. At the two-week post-surgery mark, she had her stitches out, and she was back to her old tricks, more or less.

Around that time I was getting really busy, as I was taking part in my campus production of The Vagina Monologues. In addition to my regular schoolwork, I was on campus until late several times a week, and when I was home I was too exhausted to do much. Delilah had eventually warmed enough to Kočka that they would play chase or wrestle, and Sen was okay as long as she left him alone. Kočka loved to bat the q-tips off the vanity and chase them around the house. She had a sparkly ball that she would carry around, drop at my feet, and fetch when I threw it. She also had other balls that she batted around. She had a wand toy that she always wanted to play with, and if I stopped playing and put it down, she’d pick up the soft part in her mouth and carry it to me and look at me as if to say “do it again, now, no breaks”. When I spoke to her and answered for her, I did a little baby voice for her, and she called me “Mommy” in that voice.

The weekend the Vagina Monologue ended, I noticed she was acting lethargic. She was wheezing and didn’t want to do anything, including eat much. I took her to the vet the following day, and he told me she probably just had a bad cold or infection, and gave me a few antibiotics to give her. After a week, she hadn’t improved, so I took her back. He did an x-ray and said it was pneumonia, but she’d probably improve eventually, I just had to be patient. He took her off one of the antibiotics and put her on a new one, and told me to let him know if anything changed. A few more days of watching her struggle to breathe and I decided to get a second opinion. On Monday, March 21st, I took her to a different vet, who I’d never seen before, and he said he was really worried about her, she didn’t look good, so he admitted her. I had to leave her behind to be treated, but I petted her and assured her that she’d be home soon, and that she just had to focus on getting better fast.

The next day, when I returned to see her, they let me go in and see her, and said she’d been very feisty and angry at them, so they couldn’t remove her from her cage. I heard her hissing when I walked in, but as soon as she saw me she turned into the purring love-machine I knew so well. She wanted nothing but to cuddle me and leave that place. When I left the room so the vet could show me her x-ray, she cried at the top of her lungs for me. Her x-ray showed some fluid build-up, but the vet said it could just be the pneumonia, and she had a good chance of recovery. I’d brought some of my clothes and some of her wet food from home, so she’d have something that smelled like me and something to eat that was familiar, and I went in to say goodbye for the night, and I heard her crying for me all the way to the car.

Wednesday morning, when I called, they said she had been refusing to eat, and they weren’t feeling optimistic. Even though Wednesdays were my busiest days normally, I managed to squeeze in 3 visits that day. The last time they said she’d happily started eating again, some dry food (the wet she normally ate was what she’d refused), and as I loved on her before I left, I told her that she had to hurry and get better, because she had to come home soon.

Thursday, March 24th, the vet called me early and said she wasn’t going to make it. The fluid had increased, her breathing was more labored, and it was clear to him that she was suffering from FIP, a fatal virus that had caused the pneumonia. I took my time getting ready. I cried, hoping he was wrong. I showered, and emailed my professor to let him know I wasn’t going to be in class that morning, and canceled class for my students that afternoon. By the time I got to the vet and they took me back, he brought her in and she was glassy-eyed, she’d stopped breathing and they were trying to do CPR to bring her back for me. I cried quietly as he manually pumped her lungs, trying to get her to breathe, and I told her how much I loved her, and that it was okay for her to go, and that I would be okay, and that she was the most wonderful kitten and I was so glad that she’d been my baby. The vet stopped moving his hands, and I looked up and asked “is she…?” and he said “yes, I’m sorry.” and a huge sobbed ripped out of me, and I almost collapsed at the table. He left quietly, saying he’d leave me alone for a bit. I tried to pet her, but it hurt too much. Her eyes were open and her tongue was sticking out and she was so terribly, terrible still. I opened the door and waved in a vet tech, sobbing, and she asked what she could do. I said “please, please take her, I can’t…” The vet tech bundled her up in the shirt I’d brought two days before, and took her away. I left and managed to drive myself home, and then collapsed in my bed and sobbed for the rest of the day. My heart was broken. Sen and Delilah wouldn’t come near me, maybe because I smelled like the vet, like death, or maybe because it frightened them, to hear me crying. My baby girl was dead. My sweet baby girl was gone.

Later that day, the vet called me. He’d been in a surgery when I left, so he hadn’t been able to talk to me, but he asked what I wanted to do. He said there was a pet crematorium and cemetery that they worked with, who could either return her ashes to me or scatter them in their memorial garden. I told him that the only thing I wanted was her paw print, and he said they could do that on a card for me.

The next day some friends kindly drove me back to the vet’s office. I picked up the empty crate, with my clothes and her little dish and the unopened cans of cat food. I paid for her care, putting it on my credit card. I started to cry when they handed me the itemized receipt, showing all the things they’d done, all the effort they’d put into saving her, but it wasn’t enough. My friends gently guided me back to their car, put her crate in the trunk and drove me home as I cried. They sat with me in my apartment, they hugged me and helped me tidy up the mess that I’d let develop because of all the energy I’d spent worrying about her. They stayed several hours, because they didn’t want me to be alone, and it meant a lot to me.

I started this blog the day after Kočka died. I knew I wanted to write about her, to write about all the wonderful little things she did, how she would groom my face with her rough little tongue when she was cuddled up on my chest, how she wanted to always be near me, even if she wasn’t touching me, she’d be in the same room, cuddled in a cat bed or playing with her ball or climbing the bookshelf. I’d been thinking about getting back into blogging before her death, but as I laid in bed all day on Friday I knew I needed something to distract me, even if it was only briefly, from the pain of losing her.

It still hurts to look at pictures of her, but here’s one anyway, my favorite of all the many pictures I took of her. It wasn’t long before she got sick, and one of the only pictures I got of her awake and alert, because if she was awake she was usually moving. The way she wrapped her little tail around her legs so primly was so precious, and her expression, equal parts inquisitive and annoyed, was so like her.

I love you, my precious baby girl. Thank you for being part of my life. Thank you for choosing me, even though it hurt, because loving you was such a gift, and I will always treasure it.


My Journey through Language(s)

[CN: super long post. Seriously, take a bathroom break and get some coffee before you start reading. Also discussion of financial privilege and education]

When I was in middle school, I was in a gifted program. My family had made the move a few years earlier from Durham, NC to Springfield, MO, and I had been forced to go from a very liberal private school to a very conservative public school, and I didn’t handle the transition well. The public school tried moving me up a grade, since I was ahead of most of my class, but the other students at my new middle school picked on me mercilessly, until my parents pulled me out and tried to home school me, which also failed (mostly because I’m a very stubborn person and my parents were both working full-time and thus couldn’t force me to work). So as a last resort, I was placed in a program at a local high school, where middle school gifted students were given the chance to take high school classes and challenge themselves. For the most part, it worked pretty well. The teacher was kind but no-nonsense, the other kids and I understood each other better than we had the other kids our age. Most of the high school kids viewed us as an amusing curiosity, but didn’t bother us. But one of my favorite things about those two years was learning Latin.

Like most American students, I hadn’t had any real language education before that time. I vaguely remember a couple weeks of Spanish instruction in elementary school, and my liberal private school had focused a lot on being multicultural, so I was somewhat familiar with other cultures and knew a few words here and there, but Latin was my first introduction to learning a second language. And I loved it. Not the grammar stuff, really, but I loved how our teacher made this ancient civilization come to life, I loved reading the mythology, and I loved making connections between Latin words and English words. There was a particular game I remember us playing, where the teacher would write a Latin word on the board, and we would have to list as many English words from that root as possible. Us middle schoolers usually lost because our vocabulary wasn’t as big as the high schoolers, but it was still really fun, I remember it to this day.

When it came time for me to start high school, my family moved back to NC, this time to Chapel Hill, and I started high school there. This was a blessing, as CHHS was a well-funded public school with a lot of academic achievement and a great music program. The only downside was when I started Latin 3 that year, the teacher was awful. She had no personality whatsoever, she never played any games in class, just droned at us about conjugation and declension and I often found myself falling asleep or just utterly bored for the duration of her class. I stopped doing my homework, my mom found me a tutor (who was a really fun and interesting guy) but the damage had been done, I’d decided that I hated Latin, and being my usual stubborn self, I refused to do anything for my tutor or for my class. I finished the year with a C or D (I don’t remember) and when it was time to choose my classes for the next year, I was surprised and pleased to learn that CHHS was going to offer Japanese 1. I’d become an anime fan in my last year of middle school (watching Dragonball Z dubbed on TV), and upon starting high school and meeting some other anime fans, I’d discovered even more and become thoroughly immersed in the anime fandom. So the opportunity to learn Japanese was incredibly appealing to me, and although my mother warned against it, I signed up for the class.

CHHS had a strict policy at the time that a student had to take 3 consecutive years of the same language to graduate, and there were some struggles getting all 3 of my Japanese years. For one thing, the first year my class was mostly seniors, who were taking it simply for a fun filler, as they’d fulfilled their requirement already. For another, the teacher was fired after that year, for reasons unknown, so the following year they almost canceled the class, until I and the 2 or 3 other people who needed our 3 years made a fuss. The second year we had a woman who spoke almost no English and wasn’t a trained teacher for the first few months, then her replacement came and had to try to bring us up to speed, with varying success (I was also dealing with my parents going through a divorce at the time, so I had other things on my mind). Finally in the 3rd year, there were only 2 of us left, so they combined us with the Japanese 2 class and we were largely ignored or given similar work to them. But despite all the setbacks, I have a lot of fond memories of learning about the Japanese language and culture.

When I graduated from high school, I was all set to start a degree in classical singing. For my degree, I was required to take two semesters each of French and German (my university didn’t offer Italian, or that would’ve been required as well). In addition, we were required to translate every piece we sang word-for-word, even if it was in a language we hadn’t taken, so we would know exactly what we were singing. I took French first, with an awful teacher who made me dislike the language and almost failed. I re-took it the following year, with a different teacher who was lovely, so that ended well. Then I started German, and found it fascinating. My teacher was a Jamaican German, the son of white Germans who had fled to Jamaica during World War II, and he had the most interesting accent, a mix of German and Jamaican. After two semesters, I was really interested in the language, and managed to convince my parents to pay for me to do the summer study abroad program, which would condense two more semesters of German into a single summer, and allow me to go to a higher level the following year, as well as spending a month traveling around Germany. When I got to Germany, I fell in love. Everything about it spoke to me, in ways that few places had before. Everywhere I went there was beauty and life and history that breathed and spoke, and I ached with longing to stay there. When I got back, I had been changed in ways I didn’t fully realize.

Unfortunately, the condensed summer session had not been as intensive as promised, and when I started with the third level of German in the Fall, I was utterly lost. And it wasn’t just me, pretty much my entire study abroad group was in dire straits, and we fumbled through the rest of the semester with our teacher getting more and more frustrated with us. When I tried to take the following class, I failed it because it was simply too hard. Although I’d been strongly considering a minor in German after the summer study abroad, I ended up dropping that idea, as it was already the end of my 4th year and I only had one more semester to go before I was done. I had terrible senioritis and I just wanted to finish my degree and leave.

It was many years before I even thought about German again. Even though I’d loved the study abroad and still had a fondness for German, I was drifting in a post-bachelor’s haze of shitty jobs, adjusting to a new city (I’d foolishly moved to Cincinnati, OH, leaving all my family and support systems behind), trying to collect myself enough to apply to graduate schools again (as I’d failed to get into any of my choices the first time I applied). My life was going nowhere, and I was miserable, until I was given a financial gift from a family member that was contingent on my going back to school. The catch was that music wasn’t really an option, and although I still clung to the idea that I wanted to be an opera singer, I’d become more pragmatic after several years of real-life experience and getting to know myself better. While discussing my dilemma with some friends on an online forum, one of them mentioned that she was working on getting a certificate of translation for French (a non-degree program, but through an accredited university). I said “well, I did take a bunch of German several years ago…” and it was like a light bulb came on. I remembered the joy I’d felt in Germany, and I’d already given some serious thought to moving there (with only a music degree, two cats, and no savings, it would’ve been pretty hard), and I’d always liked writing and languages, so it seemed like a perfect fit. I quit my job, went to Berlin for a two-month intensive program to get my German back into the shape it’d been in before (with my family’s financial help), and when I got back I did a semester at my current school as a non-degree-seeking student, getting to know the professors and department so when it came time for me to submit my application, they knew me and were happy to admit me.

The first year of the program was studying abroad in Salzburg, which was a delightful experience, although definitely different from my previous study abroad experiences (Austria is a different country from Germany, after all). The second year, which is drawing to a close, has been back in the states, where I’ve been teaching beginning German to undergrads and working on my master’s project (a translation of a set of travel essays). As I gear up to graduate, it’s interesting to look back on my journey thus far.

I love language and languages. I love writing, and reading. I love translating, although it’s still a challenge (my German is intermediate advanced level, which means I can communicate fluently with minimal problems, but the more complex nuances still escape me). I love the little ways languages differ, and are similar. I love the history of languages. For instance, in Japanese, they use the word アルバイト (arubaito) to mean a part-time job. This comes from the German word Arbeit, which means job or work. This is a direct result of the German influence on Japanese culture during World War II. Learning things like that thrill me to my core. I love seeing the ways language and culture interact and change each other. I love watching culture and language evolve. I love languages.

I’m grateful for all the languages I’ve studied, too. Last semester I took a Czech workshop because I wanted to know what it was like (answer: super hard). This semester I’m taking Japanese 101 as a review, because I miss Japanese and I think it’d be a great third language once I move to Germany (they still do a lot of business with Japan). Latin gave me a solid basis in conjugation and declination. Japanese taught me not to be afraid of different writing systems (although Chinese is still a little intimidating, I think I could learn Arabic or Russian) and how different languages from different families can be. German taught me a lot about my own native language, and how European culture affects American culture. While I doubt I’ll become fluent in more than three or maybe four languages, I still love languages, and I love that I’ve had a chance to study so many of them.

I just wish that language teaching and learning were considered more important in the American educational system. You can’t really understand another culture on a deeper level until you learn your language, and that cultural understanding is an extremely important part of connecting to another person, another country, another region. To really foster peace in our world, first we need to understand each other.

On the shore of Lake Michigan, April 9th

The air is freezing, snow covers the ground, and the water is a dark blue. The sun emerges, without warmth, and tints the lake pale green. The wind forms waves that roll and crash rhythmically on the beach. The tide is high, and the dunes are the only dry sand.

I watch the waves roll and crash, little white animals, like skittering crabs, rushing to the sand, where they disintegrate and fall back, defeated. A continuous dance of breathless destruction and creation.

It’s too cold for animals, no birds or fish. The air burns my bare hands, foolishly gloveless. The ice and snow form patterns on the sand, frozen driftwood.

My friends are down the beach, what little of it there is, and I look to them. I watch a wave roll up and soak their feet. They jump, surprised. My laugh, like a seagull’s cry, cuts through the wave-soaked air.


What Depression Is & Isn’t

[Content Note: anxiety, depression, suicide]

So as I mentioned in my first post, I’m finishing up my M.A. in German. My final project is translating a set of travel essays from an Austrian author, who is also a guest lecturer at my university this semester. We’re reading a book of his that is set in post-WWII Vienna, an interesting glimpse into the society of the time. Last week in class, we were talking about one of the main characters of the book, a Jewish businessman who returned to Vienna after being in a concentration camp during the war. He’s unhappy, despite being very wealthy at this point in the story (a couple decades post-war), in part because the experiences he had during the war were so traumatic for him. So we were discussing this character, and one of my classmates stated that she really identified with a particular passage where he talks about this dark period and his feelings about it, because she suffers from depression and it reminds her of her own feelings. I agreed with her, saying that I think he might even have PTSD from the experience, but I also see the depression aspect because of my own depression.

At this point, the author made an analogy which really illustrated the misunderstanding that many people have of depression. He said that one’s emotions are like water, turning a water wheel. It doesn’t matter if the water is clear (positive emotions) or full of weeds and garbage and pollution (negative emotions), they will still spin the water wheel, so it’s important to make them work for you either way.

Now, I don’t know if he has ever dealt with depression himself, but I would hazard a guess that he hasn’t, based on that analogy. Because that’s not what depression is. So I want to expand on that point a bit in this blog post, and talk about what depression is and isn’t.

First of all, depression is not some gentle, poetic melancholy. It is not always a temporary affliction, and it does not manifest simply as feeling sad. It isn’t something that can be cured by one sunny day or the smile of a loved one or a cute puppy.

Depression is not something that can just be gotten over, or powered through. It is not something that just requires willpower, that can be ignored or made to work for you. It isn’t a tool to attract lovers, or enhance creativity.

Depression is a very real, very debilitating disease. It can manifest in a number of ways, but it is not something with a simple cure, or even a cure at all for some people. Depression requires a great deal of effort simply to live with. Depression saps your energy and sometimes makes it impossible to do anything.

The analogy above is flawed. The real analogy would be that a person without depression may have clear water or dirty water, but their water wheel keeps running either way. A person with depression is dealing with toxic waste that erodes their water wheel and sometimes stops it from running altogether, while they fight constantly to repair it or at least keep it running. And that doesn’t even take into account the many other things that can interact with depression, like anxiety, where the person may have a working wheel today but they live in constant fear of what could happen to the wheel tomorrow. Or a person who has a chronic illness, where sometimes their wheel stops working and they don’t have the ability to even try to fix it.

I have lived with depression my entire adult life. I have tried numerous things to help me deal with my depression. I have spent days in bed because I wasn’t emotionally capable of getting up to do more than pee. I have gone without food because making it or ordering it or going out to buy groceries was too hard. I have gone months without cleaning my house, or even taking out the trash, because I felt so awful I just wanted to die. I’ve contemplated suicide just to make the pain stop. I’ve cried and cried, I’ve felt absolutely numb, I’ve felt so awful I couldn’t even put the pain into words. I’ve tried using a sun lamp in the winter to help my Season Affective Disorder (SAD), I’ve tried taking Vitamin D, I’ve tried changing my diet. I’ve tried numerous combinations of prescription drugs.

These days, I manage. I take anti-depressants daily, I have emergency anti-anxiety meds that can help stave off panic attacks, I go to therapy every two weeks. I have good days and bad days. But my depression is always with me. It isn’t something I can easily dismiss with a wave of my hand. It isn’t some poetic melancholy that enhances my creative senses. It is a disease that I expect to live with for the rest of my life. It is something I have to fight against every day. It is toxic waste trying to destroy my water wheel.

I know that the author didn’t mean anything by his comments. But I think it’s important to push back against the narrative that depression is just something to get through, or something to use as a tool. Maybe some people have found a way to do that. But most of the people I know with depression can’t use it as a tool. It’s a disease, and it can kill us just as easily as cancer, or HIV, or Ebola, or any other disease.

There isn’t a shiny happy ending to this post, because depression doesn’t always give us a shiny happy ending. I am not in any danger right now of hurting myself, but that could change in the future. The truth is that I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. I could try a new anti-depressant that will seem to cure all of my symptoms and make me happier and more functional than I’ve ever been before. Or I could continue limping along with my current cocktail, happy to be mostly functional rather than risk rocking the boat. Because that’s how my depression is for me.

This is what depression is.