Break

It snows a lot in Syracuse. Billowing clouds of gray turn to mountainous drifts of white on the ground and build on the sides of streets until they become large brown boulders on the corners. The city is quieter, and the university on the high hill on the other side of the freeway from my apartment is on its last day of winter break.

The first semester was a mad sprint of feverish and frenetic energy, a series of harsh spasms and leaning against the walls of the basement of HB Crouse with sweating furrowed brows, yanking on locks of unwashed hair, and wishing for an ounce of anything left to give to the work I chose. There wasn’t.

There was compromise. There was giving up on showering and brushing teeth to get those last three pages for 632, there was two all-nighters in a row to keep from staring at a blank screen yet again for 635, there was three days without food to wrap up that argument the way I’d hoped for 751. But compromise is on both ends, so those last three pages were a fragment of an idea, and that opening thesis ignored what it was you’d set out to do, and that final argument was born out of a desperate need to be done. To rest.

Break.

I haven’t showered in a week. I haven’t brushed my teeth in three days. I haven’t left my apartment since I got back from a visit home. There is an email for a project I care about that I haven’t replied to in a month. In the office a pipe has burst over my desk. It leaks. There is the drip, drip, drip of the melting ice as it splashes into a large plastic case.

If I’m honest I don’t care. I stared at my phone for an hour and a half with the counselling services number in my phone unable to press the call button. I’d just finished crying when I saw they don’t schedule appointments online and I can’t press a button.

I haven’t done laundry in a month. I needed to, but I sat on the floor, surrounded by piles of wrinkled clothes and stared at the carpet. I wasn’t thinking sad thoughts, I was empty.

My mother tells a story. My brother and I were kids and she took us to school every day and made our lunches. She knew we needed to leave and was finishing up making two peanut butter sandwiches. When she finished packing them, she looked at the jar of peanut butter open on the counter, next to the sink with the dishes from last night still in them. She burst into tears because she couldn’t will herself to put the lid on the jar and put it in the cabinet in front of her.

No matter how well I do in my graduate education, my training has never prepared me for the breaking.

Break is supposed to be a time to recharge, to work on things that need to be done that you haven’t had time for during the semester. Or at least, that is our narrative. We have our ‘break lists,’ or projects we put off until this moment. Or maybe it’s a time of self-care.

But self-care and self-soothing are often two different forces.

And I don’t care.

I was breaking. And then I break. And now I am broken.

And the city is so quiet in the snow. Even the sirens of ambulances turning off the freeway behind me seem so far in the distance.

Break depression is something I have dealt with as long as I’ve been in higher education. I don’t spiral down. I don’t spiral back. Who I am breaks. I lose the semblances of self I put together during the year. I lose the trajectories and paths that I found myself on.

And I do not recover. I do not ‘right myself,’ whatever that expression means.

I rebuild from the shards, a little bit less.

When a new academic cycle begins, all I have are fragments and nothing to give, and I enter a different cycle of building. And then the semester shatters this delicate thing, and I rebuild, a little bit less. And then the semester shatters this fragile thing. And I rebuild, a little bit less.

And I am tired.

The stillness isn’t healing. I am still with the time. And I’m haunted by these patterns from which I’ve yet to cope. This is the work. This is the structure I’ve entered into. Is this the faculty person I’d become? Is admitting this a hindrance? Because of course, in the context of my graduate training, that is what I think about: am I allowed to be human, to be this human?

My Long View is Broken. No Hope, No Answers, No Answerability.

I’m in the basement of H.B. Crouse, where hope goes to die—maybe not die, maybe where I realize that hope is so thin that fluorescent lighting can pierce it. I’m in the basement of H.B. Crouse, where hope mixes between students and faculty and staff and the air vents that never turn off and the shivers that run down your spine because it’s hot outside in September and the sweat meets the bone in the cold. I’m in the basement of H.B. Crouse where I’m surrounded by white walls and neutral blues, staring at some rainbow pins and a pin with Judith Butler’s face on it that ask me to believe—to hope in the work that I’m doing, in survival, that the world won’t be flooded (but global warming and it’s hot outside in September). I’m in the basement of H.B. Crouse—

I spend a lot of time in the basement.

And I’m talking with a new friend, and we’re talking about how our minds are elsewhere, about how we’re checked out of this PhD work project that we’re both involved in and he says to me “My long-term view operating system is busted” and I can hear it in my own heart that same beat that I didn’t download that patch either.

And I say yes, yes there’s a certain amount of irrelevance to the work that we do. When I can’t see the future, when I can’t see the long view that this academic project is, when hope isn’t, what is teaching, what is research, what is the doing of being here when here is always out of reach in this academic enterprise?

Our work has no answers. It shouldn’t. But what are we doing if we aren’t answering to? Or what is it that we are answering to? What answerability does our work have? What hope can we have—and for what can we have hope–when we do not answer to?

At least 21 trans lives have been taken in 2017. Mesha Caldwell, Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, JoJo Striker, Tiara Richmond, Chyna Doll Dupree, Ciara McElveen, Jaquarius Holland, Alphonza Watson, Chay Reed, Kenneth Bostick, Sharrell Faulkner, Kenne McFadden, Kendra Marie Adams, Ava Le’Ray Barrin, Ebony Morgan, TeeTee Dangerfield, Gwynevere River Song, Kiwi Herring, Kashmire Nazier Redd, Derricka Banner, Ally Steinfeld. But I’ve wrote smart things.

What haunts our work? Are the ghosts of lives that we lose what sustains the answers we look at?

How does our work answer to our presence? Our absence?

Notes: Ann Cvetkovich, “Reflections: Memoir as Public Feelings Research Method” in Depression: A Public Feeling

Cvetkovich, Ann. (2012). Reflections: Memoir as public feelings research method. in Depression: A public feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.

Summary:

Cvetkovich details memoir as a research method and positions this within academic and therapeutic culture.

Keywords: Depression, Culture, Cultural Studies, Affect, Feminist Rhetorics, Queer, Memoir, Research Methods

Quotations:

“Memoir has been an undeniable force in queer subcultures, where it has been an entry point into the literary public sphere for working-class writers, the backbone of solo performance, and a mainstay for small presses” (74).

“Exemplifying deconstructive principles, academic memoir can expose the material conditions and subject positions that underlie intellectual production” (75).

“The memoir tries to be honest about the ways that activism can sometimes stall out in the routines of daily life, rather than offering revolution as the prescription for change… It suggests that when asking big questions about what gives meaning to our lives, or how art and politics can promote social justice or save the planet, ordinary routines can be a resource” (80).

“The memoir also functions as a research method because it reveals the places where feeling and lived experience collide with academic training and critique” (80).

“Personal narrative can be a forum for the places where ordinary feelings and abstract thinking don’t line up. The impasses of depression and writer’s block can live in those interstices, and alternative forms of writing can spring them loose as foundations for innovative thought” (82).

Notes: Ann Cvetkovich, “Introduction,” in Depression: A Public Feeling

Cvetkovich, Ann. “Introduction,” in Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.

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Summary:

Cvetkovich lays out a queer, feminist look at cultural studies with depression, in an effort to depathologize depression in a way that offers broader public critique.

Keywords: Depression, Culture, Cultural Studies, Affect, Feminism, Queer, Queer Theory, Memoir

Sources:

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Eng, David, Judith Halberstam, and José Muñoz, eds. “What’s Queer about Queer Studies Now?” Special issue of Social Text 84/85 (2005).

Quotations:

“How can we, as intellectuals and activists, acknowledge our own political disappointments and failures in a way that can be enabling? Where might hope be possible?” (1).

“Depression… is thus a way to describe neoliberalism and globalization, or the current state of political economy, in affective terms” (11).

“The forms of productivity demanded by the academic sphere of the professional managerial class can tell us something more general about corporate cultures that demand deliverables and measurable outcomes and that say you are only as good as what you produce” (19).

“[C]reativity can be thought of as a form of movement, movement that maneuvers the mind inside or around an impasse, even if that movement sometimes seems backward or like a form of retreat. Spatialized in this way, creativity can describe forms of agency that take the form of literal movement and are thus more e-motional or sensational or tactile” (21).

Questions, Reflection, Response:

This has been a moving read for me personally and professionally. As someone who suffers with depression and PTSD, I’ve been looking for someone to talk about depression in terms of culture and affect and was frustrated at my inability to locate such texts.

I always deal with symptoms during the summer months. I’ve talked with my mentors about the fantasy of summer and letting yourself grip with the reality that these moments may not be what you originally intended.

But the move I find extremely interesting is the move of the public, the political depression. That’s something I’ve contended with personally and collectively. It was certainly timely for me to read this too. Thinking in terms of the Orlando shootings, the cultural depression and trauma experienced around this is immense.

How can this depression be a moment of productive potential?