A Letter to My Pre-Transition Self

sethNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.  Seth (@flatbrim_boy)  is a Ph.D. candidate, teacher and activist at a large public research university, where he teaches courses on feminist theory, American sexuality, gender studies and women’s studies. His dissertation focuses on issues of psychiatry, queer reading methodologies and biopolitic in American literature post-World War II.

——

Dear [Birth Name]:

You don’t really know me, or least you probably do not remember me. I was a student in one of your classes a few semesters ago. The class that focused on gendered violence in the world. You taught me that rape was about power, about the concept of unseen violence and how queer people are more likely to be attacked simply because of who they are as they move about their daily lives. You showed me how unfair the world is for anyone living a gendered existence — which is, let’s face it, everyone. But you told me that if we worked together to make our anger productive like Audre Lorde wrote in one of our assigned readings, we can make a difference and take back some of the injustice and replace it with love.

More important, however, I remember sitting at the back of the class and watching you. I remember watching the way that your colorful bow ties choked a small but determined neck. I sometimes caught your tired eyes focus on a random light fixture across the room during a discussion of Boys Don’t Cry in only the way a commitment to misery could bring. During class, we all openly discussed our experiences of oppression, love and gender in a nouveaux consciousness-raising model. But now in hindsight, I sensed that you had something to share, something was slowly popping open the sutures that had once carefully curated an existence of stability, yet the surgeon had punched out. You were alone on the battlefield and bleeding in front of us, unable to call for help, instead, smiling, applauding us for yet again doing the reading.

I remember the day that you brought in several of your trans men colleagues and friends to explain to the class what the experience of social and medical transition was like for them. You stared at the floor at various points, as if melting into the ugly industrial carpet like a snowball left in the sun in Provincetown. Everyone laughed at your more animated guests as you sat there, blank, simply directing comments and rhetorical traffic. I wondered if you thought your life was over before it even started.

Birth Name, I know what you told your therapist: that you do not want to lose the experience of being a woman and teaching gender studies to women students. You feel like a mentor to them in a hateful world built around the patriarchy. You have experienced some of the worst parts of being a woman in our culture: sexual assault, abusive relationships and men who insist they are smarter and better by virtue of their gender. You have also experienced the incredible highs of womanhood: discovering feminism, sisterhood and empowerment. You do not want to lose those feelings or abandon them to join the team of the oppressor.

I know that you want to teach from the heart and recreate all those consciousness-raising sessions you read about, dreamed about and had been told about by your women professors and mentors since your own training began. You do not want to lose the consciousness raising you’ve been able to recreate in your own classes of all women students, in which you’ve been able to foster safe spaces. You remember what it was like seeing the few men students in your own undergrad women’s studies classes, that initial clenching up on the first day and a feeling of sadness that some sacred pact had been violated. You know that this thinking is not accurate or right, but in moments of nostalgia or after egregious experiences of sexism, you return to your best memories with your female adviser or in your exclusively female classes or with your feminist women friends, and all the sadness seems to melt away. You don’t quite know why that is, but know you know better. You want this for your own students, and now being a male teacher, you will not achieve this.

I know the type of classical women’s studies training you had and wrestle with every day. You long to get up in front of your students and feel a connection with them as women who share similar gendered experiences in the world. But every day that connection is fading, fizzling and moving away. You reach for it as one reaches for seaweed in a chaotic ocean, but it remains out of grasp, always glistening, slipping through your wrinkled fingertips as you struggle for air. They have been telling you that the “personal is political” for so long that you are beginning to wonder if you are allowed to actually have a private, personal life when you work in a subject like this one — a subject that affects everything in your immediate surroundings, for better or worse.

Now I am going to give you the identity of the queer specter in this correspondence: it is I, your transitioning self, writing to you from beyond the initial shock and trauma of transition, social and medical. Some facts: you picked the name Seth, started testosterone, adopted your new name professionally, and while it has not been the easiest in the classroom, you have been doing well. You did not have to give up the topic of your work, the courses you teach or other things about your professional identity. Your adviser, department and employers have supported your transition. They make you feel tremendously lucky even on the hardest days when students aggressively misgender you in class or are openly transphobic. (You survive.)

Your deep connection to feminism actually will give you the strength to transition. But your respect and admiration for feminist knowledge production does not need to anchor you into your specific body or ground you into a certain pedagogical model — a mistake you made in the past. Gender, bodies and modes of thinking are fluid — they are oceans that burst with waves onto eager shores of ever-changing sand. When your students are taught by you, they will be taught by someone qualified in the subject matter, regardless of your gender.

However, as a trans man who teaches courses on feminism, gender and women, there is a noticeable difference in how you approach the material. It is no longer from a set of shared experiences as women — even though many of your students still think you are one because the hormone therapy has not worked super quickly for you, but more from the perspective as a gendered human who lives in the world with other gendered humans. You still talk about women’s issues, but you no longer privilege them (unless the class is about women), and the students respond well to the greater variety of topics. They love critiquing masculinity, and you love learning how to teach it. To you, gender is becoming beams of light reflected on a hot summer sidewalk, right before the explosion of a fire hydrant, so hot and undeniable it almost feels good to go to the edge of the sun before becoming baptized in the waters of a new gendered consciousness. Transitioning has made teaching joyful learning all over again, even if certain parts of your pedagogy had to be mourned, most notably having to catch yourself every time you went to say “we” when talking about women. That is the hardest.

This is your life. This is your body. Your heart. Before transition, I sat next to you in those seminars that you took with world-famous faculty members. Always a sensitive soul, it made sense that, in some classes, you would be shy. But this was different — this was active suffering. Your gender was aching, and you refused to listen. You felt speaking was too difficult. You would only pump yourself full of other things to dull the ache, when you instead needed something complex and yet so simple: the truth. You now live in clarity where there was opacity.

Please, do not be afraid. I will be here when you are ready to meet me. And so will your students. No rush.

Love,

Seth

On Choosing Not To Come Out As Trans To My Students

sethNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Seth (@flatbrim_boy) is a Ph.D. candidate, teacher and activist at a large public research university, where he teaches courses on feminist theory, American sexuality, gender studies and women’s studies. His dissertation focuses on issues of psychiatry, queer reading methodologies and biopolitics in post-World War II American literature.

On Being Peter Pan

I have been medically transitioning via testosterone injections for about a year. Despite the promise of masculinity associated with the shots, I am not read as a male on the street, on the phone, at the coffee shops where I regularly grade papers and, most important, in my own classroom. I know this because people use female pronouns — she, her and hers — when they refer to me.

It has been extraordinarily painful. In my personal experiences from watching those who came before me, and according to my well-trained endocrinologist to whom I am privileged to have access, this is not usually the norm for transgender men using testosterone injections, especially when they are not thin (which I have written about before) or who have my ethnic background. Every time I walk into my classroom I feel my students’ eyes unzipping my body, wondering about the truths that linger under its confusing surface. It is more than uncomfortable; it is a violation of my body and the space it dares to occupy.

Presently, I have the testosterone levels of a healthy man in my age group, yet I still appear feminine. I do not grow facial hair. My voice deepened, but only to the point where you might think that I have a cold. My face is slightly boyish. I am Peter Pan: definitely not a man, but not quite a boy or girl.

This essay will discuss certain decisions about gendered privacy I have made as a result of these transition difficulties. It goes without saying that these experiences are my own and do not reflect those of all transgender-identified people in academe. Instead, I am hoping to use them as part of an emerging springboard for new directions and discussions when considering gender in the classroom.

When I was picking my new name, I deliberately did not choose an androgynous one. I chose a masculine one in the sense that most people named Seth are male. Yet, somehow, my students believe that I am the exception to the rule. In other words, the social and cultural associations with the name are overruled by the way that I look. I ask students which pronouns they use on the first day of class, and I offer my own. But, the students always seem to “forget” that I use masculine pronouns by the second week, especially when talking about me among themselves.

My endocrinologist believes that my “pretty” face is source of their confusion and that I should be grateful because being “pretty” is premium real estate once you start pumping steroids into your system. However, “pretty” doesn’t matter when you have to stand in front of fifty students who are consistently misgendering you, or, even worse, being sexist and transphobic.

My supervisors at both institutions where I work are amazing, as is my dissertation chair. No bad teaching experience I’ve had reflects any of their doing or their disapproval of my transition. At one university, the students are given access to my old name prior to class via the registrar; I have to tell them to use a different name. They call me Seth but use female pronouns even after we talk on the first day. At the other university, everything is under Seth, so the students have no idea of my old name, but they still use female pronouns, guided by my looks and, I’m assuming, my voice. It is amazing to me that the same effect happens at both places despite distinct policies at each college.

Since most of my students perceive me to be female, I struggle with how much to correct them after the initial pronoun discussions. I tend to tell frequent stories about myself or my family during class as a way to show the relevance of course issues. I make sure to always use masculine pronouns — he, him and his — in the stories I share about myself. Other than that, I refuse to confront the class directly about my gender, because I am concerned with my privacy. Transitioning while teaching is a time where privacy is at a premium, especially in the first 12 months, during which time one has to relearn one’s body and adjust to the initial changes of hormone therapy. Transitioning is a highly personal, special and intimate experience.

One of the topics I often bring up with my therapist is how the classroom is a place where my dignity feels stripped and my privacy gone. I want the students to understand, respect and recognize my gender identity, but I also do not want to concentrate on it so much that they feel as though they live in my personal life, psychology or bedroom. I am not ashamed of being transgender, but I do not believe that my gender is public property for others to consume. I think curiosity is a powerful drive for learning but I do not want my body or my life (or any other trans person’s body or life) to be that driving force. I reject body-centered discourse around trans people and communities. That is why I share my pronouns on the first day and gently remind students thereafter, but I turn from a model where I share my personal story to raise awareness. I do not think that model is productive or benefits the students. I know my methodology involves pain for me, especially if the students do not pick up my cues, because it means that they will likely keep misgendering me. But, for now, it is worth it to maintain some sense of privacy and dignity.

My past and present are not a before and after picture or story. I am the same person who initiated into his college sorority and still wears his badge on Founder’s Day, who did that first shot of testosterone, who types this essay wearing skintight women’s skinny jeans and a flat-brimmed hat. My gender identity is complicated, nuanced, but most of all mine to mold and enjoy.

I firmly believe my silence in the classroom is not defeat. It is a battle cry — my activism shouting in a language only others who have been initiated into this same cruel club know so well. It is self-care for a recently articulated self, the most important and urgent kind, a daily reminder that if my gender were a mirror it would be beautiful and smooth, without a crack. I want for nothing.

On Being Bipolar: A Different Kind Of Recovery Narrative

Legs

Seth is a PhD candidate and lecturer at a large public university. His work tackles issues of affect, psychiatry, and sexuality in the post WWII American novel. He has taught courses on gendered violence, feminism, and American sexuality. Seth was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 7 years ago. He has been sober for over 19 months. In this guest post, Seth reflects on one aspect of managing bipolar disorder that no one talks about — weight gain — and his struggle to adjust to his new body. 

You can see Seth’s previous guests posts here.

___

A Different Kind Of Recovery Narrative

I’ve read a lot of recovery stories on a lot of different popular websites. I’m sure you know the ones I’m referencing. They all kind of say the same thing, give or take a few elements: life is much better, colors dance in the warm sunlight when before everything was black and white, the author wants to live, love and marriage are possible. I’m not going to say that that narrative is a lie, or wrong, because for some people (who are lucky) it is truly like that. For them, mental illness is a one-time occurrence; the meds or therapy work well, and the only reminder of the horrible times (for them or those around them) is the daily dosage or faint memories.

However, what I will say is that for a large number of us, recovery is not an invisible process; there are a variety of visible signs that we have been (or are) sick. Sometimes navigating these signs is harder than the actual illness because we as a culture do not celebrate ongoing progress or struggle. For example, we praise new mothers who lose pregnancy weight quickly by telling them that they look like they never had a baby in the first place. In other words, we tell women whose bodies just completed an extraordinary physical and psychological act that their ideal state should be where there is no marker of this occurrence at all, except a well behaved, non crying, visibly “healthy” baby. Struggle should be hidden or washed away.

Rehabbing Gender, Managing Bipolar

Managing bipolar and medication side effects is hard because you never know what your recovery will feel like – whether a certain medication will send you back into the hospital or into sanity or simply into a larger clothing size. This has all been intensified by the fact that my gender identity as a man largely was tied to my sexuality and ability to be sexually attractive to women and, to me, fat was not sexually attractive when I was the one wearing it. The models of masculinity I grew up with demonstrated to me consistently that being a man meant women and lots of them. As I came into my various identities, I was able to date easily and readily, always having beautiful women on my arm whom I treated poorly because I was sick and manic, looking for affect in anything I could touch. I used with them, drank with them, and moved on. I emulated the successful men I saw in my own life and in film. My own father was a mix of Tony Soprano and Don Draper, so I thought I had to be like that, too.

For a while, it worked. I was at the height of my dating game when everything crashed. I almost ended up in the hospital multiple times. There were more than a few instances with drugs and alcohol where friends nearly called 911. I was teaching gender studies and living out all the worst stereotypes of what it could mean to be a man. I have since separated myself from this behavior and people who encourage it, but large parts of my management from bipolar has been rehabbing my own ideas about masculinity and how to be a man in public and private. They are always linked for me – my disability and how my masculinity comes out in times of stress or calm. I’m still not the nicest or best person in a relationship, but I try harder than I did before and that matters to me. I don’t cheat.

Lithium

Even though I was first diagnosed seven years ago, it was not until a year ago that I was put on the drug that would save my life and stop lots of the behaviors I discussed above: lithium. My psychiatrists had tried nearly every other medication and type of therapy, always avoiding lithium because it’s serious. But when a particularly suicidal episode sent me to the doctor yet again, I no longer had a choice. That day, it was lithium or the hospital. I chose lithium because I was embarrassed by the thought of the hospital (I still am; this is a cultural thing for me). I knew the drug could eat my kidneys and thyroid, resulting in weight gain and epic thirst, among other things. There’s the general feeling of fogginess and being constantly tired, plus the tremors I have every day, especially in the morning.

It wasn’t until I reached therapeutic levels of the drug (which for me is a very high dose) that the weight gain started. Before I started, I was not a thin person by any means. My natural frame is athletic and stocky. I ran triathlons and took spin classes, but celebrated muscle bulk, not being “tiny,” even when I still identified as a woman. Testosterone has only made my frame stockier, my muscles larger. Those in the queer community would call me a bear cub if my beard was thicker. I’m not long, lean, and androgynous at all, but I was in good shape and was in a healthy weight range according to my doctor, albeit at the heavier end of that range. I wore men’s skinny jeans from stores that favored slender bodies even if they were in the 30 sizes, not 20s.

On lithium, I am definitely chubby and I hate it because between the testosterone and the lithium it’s an uphill battle to lose weight; even my endocrinologist acknowledges that it might never really happen like we want it to. Most of the time, I try to stick to a low-sugar high-protein diet because I physically feel better and sugar makes me depressed. But, there are times in which I get overwhelmed with restricting so much when I’m already sober, trans, and taking these meds. I feel as though I don’t deserve to worry about my weight and hate the way I look after all that I’ve been through. I know that doesn’t sound very good, but it’s an honest sentence. And recovery should be about honesty.

There is nothing that highlights this reality better than standing in front of your closet after six months of lifesaving lithium treatment and finding that none of your clothes fit. I had spent months manically not wanting to leave the house or get dressed, but when the time had come for me to actually do it, it was almost logistically impossible. No one tells you recovery looks like this. You are alive, but so what? Socially you have lost lots of power and comfort. The person you saved from the black hole of mania, depression, and suicide looks nothing like the one crying in front of the closet. So many days I ask myself why I bothered to try all those months in therapy when the end result hasn’t been super great. It was mediocre at best. Therapists tell you that life is amazing, but I have not gotten there yet. I’ve gotten to mediocre. Is my life the exciting, passionate death pit it used to be? No, but the doctors tell me that’s a good thing. So I’m fat and mediocre. I used to be manic and exceptional.

Recovery, and Transformation, In The Classroom

Teaching with this type of shift in gender and body shape has been very difficult. Clothes that I wore for years and spent lots of money on no longer fit me and may never again. I may never be thin (by my standards) because lithium actively works against this by making me retain fluid and slowing my metabolism. By now, I’ve basically stabilized, so I am starting the massive endeavor of remaking my wardrobe and personal style for teaching and life. My weight has gone down a little bit with a lot of work – that’s for my health, not solely for aesthetics. But, I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I liked the way it felt to get weighed and see a smaller number.

I used to say that the classroom was my personal runway. I loved dressing for class and I wore a tie everyday. I wore lots of color. I wanted to be a cool queer teacher who was stylish and who my students could look up to. In this past year, I can count the number of times when I’ve worn a tie on two hands. I wear mostly black as if I’m in mourning for my previous not-fat self. And, I guess I am. I miss feeling confident and put together. It angers me that “confident and put together” equals thin. It shouldn’t. Fat Seth deserves to feel professional and good just like thin Seth. No one ever told me that days of recovery would feel worse than days of sickness. I survived bipolar, but sometimes I wonder if I’ll survive my meds.

Getting fat has taught me a lot, especially about the amounts of privilege that I still have in terms of my size. I’m not big enough to get comments from strangers. I can still shop at straight size (not plus size or big and tall) stores. I can go into mainstream retailers and leave with a suit, as I just did for my sister’s wedding, not to mention shopping without being followed or hassled because I am an educated white person in a racist city. Until this past year I would have told you that I believed thinness and fitness to be about “discipline,” not a carefully socially constructed set of images combined with winning the genetic lottery. I would have told you that overweight people were lazy; medication was an excuse. I used to tell my female students in class they could be beautiful at any size but tell friends in private that I didn’t eat carbs. I was a jerk and a hypocrite because I wanted to be what dominant queer culture viewed as attractive, which was masculine, lean, and dapper.

This is where I think queer culture has a lot of work to do. It needs to call out the celebrated androgynous aesthetic and displace masculine individuals from the top of the food chain because it just reproduces heteronormative notions of power and control. Women and femmes keep coming in last. It cannot be like that anymore. I was a person who championed that culture and saw the damage I did on a personal level to others and myself. What if we all took a look at our actions and feelings, working to fix them? If any of the women (or men) whom I ever dated are reading this, I’m sorry for everything I did.

Lithium changed the way I looked at fatness and weight, both mine and others. It also changed the way I thought of myself as a man because I no longer can fulfill my own twisted fantasies about what an “ideal attractive” man should look like. It taught me to be a nicer person and someone who was more patient with students and myself. It taught me to learn that recovery was not a black and white experience in which one was guaranteed to look like they had never suffered. However, I think the most important thing it has taught me is that being present for the students – in either workout pants, jeans, or dress pants – we we are all bodies in the classroom who struggle. It is okay to show, honor, and give space to that. I’m no longer hiding. Lithium made me fat, and I refuse to lower my voice or wear clothes that I do not like just because they help me “pass” more or make me look “thinner” in ways that are culturally constructed.

This semester, I’ve been making an effort to honor the struggles present both in myself and in my students. It has been working. We approach the material as individual people with wounds, large or small, and talk through these feelings and identities as they are reflected in our course material. I’ve started to slowly wear ties again and catch myself looking in reflective surfaces more, despite pretty much looking the same (this isn’t a weight loss before and after story, sorry). My students speak more openly and generously during class. No one is perfect and everybody hurts, but, it seems, when we hurt together we shatter the facade of perfection and find beauty in the shards of glass we pick up along the way.

On “Coming Out” As Bipolar In Academia

Seth Selfie

Seth is a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at a large public university. His research lies at the intersection of feminist, queer, and affect theories, exploring the emotional experience of reading. He has taught classes in feminist theory, American sexuality, and gendered violence. In Seth’s first guest blog post, he wrote about navigating academia with bipolar disorder.  In this blog post, he reflects on the power of “coming out” as an instructor with bipolar disorder in order shatter the silence, as well as the stigma, that surrounds mental illness in academia and society in general.

Coming Out vs. coming out

Legendary queer theorist Eve Sedgwick used to write that coming out was a continuous process. She told us that whether we liked it or not, we would be coming out day after day, year after year, because there would always be someone new who did not know “the truth” about who we really were once the office door was closed. And it’s not as though Sedgwick was wrong. I would say I out myself six times a day in terms of a different part of my complex identity in an attempt to gain agency in a world that consistently desires to label me incorrectly. This is not easy or fun, but it has given me access to parts of my dignity that I otherwise would not have maintained through a considerable amount of challenges. And when I am feeling sentimental, I also remember it is Pride month (at the time I am writing this essay), and if I come out maybe someone else in the future won’t have to, or at the very least that it will not be as scary.

In my last essay, in which I discussed my silence surrounding my bipolar disorder, I alluded to the fact I am a transgender man and am out to my students. I painted a fairly positive picture of that circumstance. I told you that we talked about it in class and that the students knew both of my names and that this did not bother me. To be clear: it does not bother me that they do not view me as a cisgender male, but coming out to them on the first day of class was one of the most challenging academic exercises I have ever experienced. I stood up in front of a class of thirty students with varying levels of gender studies experience and told them my preferred name and pronouns, explaining that I was indeed the same person listed in the school’s computer systems—the one with the girl name and the same one they read about on RateMyProfessor.com. I was already shaking from my normal medication and this sudden thrust into my private life made it worse. I put my hands into my pockets and moved on to explain my syllabus and the course requirements.

After that first class, I got several emails from students congratulating me on the coming out speech and telling me that they thought it was great, that they were excited to have me as a teacher. I was not misgendered or misnamed at all that semester. Even though gender dysphoria is still considered a mental health condition, none of my students saw me as sick. They thought I was strong and a role model. The irony of this, like I discussed in my first essay, is that I actually am sick, people just do not know what “type” of sick I am. While coming out to a large group of undergraduates can turn you instantly into some twisted campus LGBTQ celebrity (which seems glamorous at first), the most important coming out experience I’ve had was much smaller and one that I do not bring up often because I view it as a precious moment of self articulation and mentoring rather than a public show. But, I believe sharing it now is important, especially in light of my last post in which I ended with the image of disabled students and faculty coexisting on campus but never directly interacting, something that should and needs to change.

“coming out” As Bipolar

Given my sadness over this academic climate and the material I teach in my courses (which deals directly with mental illness), I have disclosed my disability to exactly one student on one occasion. I believe that moment to have been one of my most scholarly, even if it was risky and gave me no public gain the way my various LGBTQ classroom coming out experiences did. I was teaching a unit on Ned Vizzini’s novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, in my Sexuality in America course. I talked about teens with mental illness being deserving of sexual lives and how the protagonists cultivated sexual intimacy on their own terms. (Interestingly, I was working through this topic in my own life in therapy at the time, given the mood changes from testosterone, and how they were affecting my bipolar symptoms and medications.) Over half of my class disagreed and were vocally ableist. They told me that people with mental illness were too risky to date, that certain non-heteronormative sexual acts did not count as real intimacy, and, perhaps most jarringly, that if both members of a couple had the same disability then the relationship would be doomed from the start.

I tried to stop it, but it was too late; the discussion got out of hand and I felt personally victimized by my own students even though they had no idea. The tone of the class was one of privilege and ignorance, that each student was certain what they had been reading about had no connection to anyone in the room at all, despite constant vigilance on my part to remind them that our course material was sensitive and that they may never know whether someone in our class was personally identifying in serious ways.

A few days later, one of my students emailed me and asked to make an appointment to discuss how she felt during class. We met and talked about the text, the discussion, and how she was processing the climate of the class in general. It was clear she was having a personal identification with the novel (but did not tell me exactly what). She was shaking in her chair and I knew it was because she was used to the stigma of mental illness and that the act of disclosing to a teacher is not easy. I wanted her to keep her dignity, something I missed when I having to “confess” to faculty members years ago. I made an instantaneous decision and said:

You do not know this, but I have bipolar disorder and it is very hard for me to hear my own students speak like that. This book affects me deeply, too. I feel that it is my job to advocate for anyone who might feel unsafe in class or scared. I will go out of my way to make sure this changes. I feel as if you are very brave for coming to me and telling me that our classroom is not ideal. This is exactly what shows me you have academic maturity. Tell me what you need to feel better about class.

Relief washed over her face and we went on to outline a plan on how to talk to the class about ableism and invisible disability. The following week, I implemented the plan and, while it took some time to take effect, eventually everyone in the room was more mindful (including me) about what was said and the tone used. This type of classroom management was extremely difficult, but once it was implemented I feel the class was one of the most successful I had ever taught. Coming out to my student allowed me to merge my personal and professional lives in a small, but significant way that informed my teaching throughout the semester. If I said before that bipolar is always a student in my classroom, then disclosing the bipolar made me a student in my own classroom for the first time. I learned, I taught, and on some days, I felt free. I do not know if I will ever tell another student again, but on that day I needed to tell this particular student she was not alone, or more importantly, tell myself that I was not alone in my own classroom.

Closing Thoughts

When I got my evaluations back that semester, more than a few students noted that I was “sensitive,” “accommodating,” and “fair.” I believe these comments to be directly reflective of the plan my student and I worked on to actively combat ableism. It has also led me to think that students crave this type of classroom atmosphere, but do not have the skills to ask or advocate for themselves. This is not their fault. They grow up learning test scores are more important than feelings.

My advice to my colleagues (if I’m qualified to even give it), especially those who have suffered at the hands of this life-shattering disease (or countless others), is to give your students the education we always needed but didn’t know how to name. Teach with love, compassion, and mindfulness. Give extensions, leave your office doors open just a little longer, believe your students when they tell you they are sick even if they don’t seem to have the sniffles. But, most importantly, I try to remember what Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) creator Dr. Marsha Linehan once said about surviving mental illness and then devoting her life and career to helping others with also were ill. In a New York Times interview, she said, “I was in hell.  And I made a vow: when I get out, I’m going to come back and get others out of here.”

Invisibly Ill: Notes on Being Academic and Bipolar

sethSeth is a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at a large public university. His research lies at the intersection of feminist, queer, and affect theories, exploring the emotional experience of reading. He has taught classes in feminist theory, American sexuality, and gendered violence. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder six years ago.  In this guest blog post, Seth reflects on navigating graduate school, the classroom, and academia in general with bipolar disorder.

___

Each night before bed, I pack my school bag. I carefully place the next day’s lesson plans, papers, and books inside, propping it on a certain chair at my work table all ready to go.  The routine calms me. Two minutes later I retreat to my bedroom and take my now-reflexive drug regime of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and sleep medication that will allow me to stand in front of my class and critique the very systems (big pharma and the mental health industrial complex) that have saved my own life.

However, my students and most of my colleagues will never know this about me. In fact, from childhood and up to the point where I started writing my dissertation, I racked up several suicide attempts and had willingly overdosed twice. Some of this occurred while I have been in graduate school, but I have taken great pains to keep this information quiet. I know that I am privileged to have gotten emergency treatment on those occasions, to have insurance for my medications, and to be able to go to ongoing therapy even if it is extremely expensive on my adjunct salary. But most of all, I am fortunate have an accepting partner and chosen family. I am thankful for these things everyday; without them I would not be alive.

Navigating Academia With Bipolar

I am a walking contradiction. I teach my students about celebrating difference, but I actively hide and conceal this part of my “difference.” Sometimes it is scary for me to even wear short sleeves during the summer because I worry my students will notice the self-inflicted scars on my arms while I am handing back papers. It’s not that I do not spend hours thinking about telling them. I constantly wonder if speaking about my invisible disability could serve as a transformative teaching moment. But I resist partially because I am afraid, and partially because I want privacy and to keep my dignity intact.

Interestingly, I am out to my students as transgender; they know both my preferred and birth names due to the school’s computer systems and we talk about it in class. I feel no shame about my transition, social or medical. They have seen me physically change, pried apart my body with their curious eyes, heard me talk about my boyfriend as well as various ex girlfriends.

But, I have never spoken publicly about having bipolar disorder or how this diagnosis, which came suddenly during my master’s degree, was devastating. I rarely tell people that during my initial episode: when I brought him letters documenting my disability and the accommodations I needed in order to merely survive, my Latin professor told me that my illness was just a sign I was not strong enough or smart enough for graduate school or academia in general. In that moment I learned that silence was the unspoken rule to sneaking through the maze of graduate school with mental illness. I never spoke about it again, until now.

When I defended my master’s thesis a year later, it did not feel like a celebration of my achievements or scholarly future, but more a militant statement of productivity in the face of hate and discrimination. I showed up at the door of my doctoral institution refusing to register my disability with the campus disability office, knowing that the more that I could “pass,” the better. I now believe this was wrong and the result of an academic climate that values robotic productivity and turns away from any difference, physical, mental, or other.

At my university, as with many universities in the United States, in order for a student to get accommodations or recognition for having any type of disability, they must register themselves through a disability services office that uses various criteria to determine what, if any, help to which they are “entitled.” For example, students with ADD might be given extra exam time, which the office decides on based on the students’ medical files. The problem with this model is that these offices run via a complex mixture of gatekeeping and fear. And with mental illness, something so personalized and dynamic, the situation is infinitely more complicated. Students needing accommodations due to mental illness first have to find doctors or therapists willing to meet them and then ultimately write on their behalf, all in a potentially new city and while on their own for the first time, sometimes without parental support or even understanding. Plus, this requires time, knowledge of insurance companies, and money. Yes, there may be a free counseling center on campus, but appointments can be booked months in advance (as with my university), so students often suffer in shame and silence.

Given these barriers, faculty are faced with the difficult task of deciding whether to give accommodations to “undocumented” student. Often, these students will explain to their professors that they are coping with a challenging situation, but found the disability services office too scary to navigate, or that counseling services was full and they did not have a car or funds to get to an off campus therapist. For example, I’ve had students tell me they were mourning the loss of a parent and that they needed extra time for assignments because they were depressed and at times could not handle their homework. Some of my colleagues choose not to give any accommodations to these students unless the depression is a registered “reality,” because they say students lie. But, I always treat these afflictions as tangible and serious. To give up privacy in this way usually means something is truly happening. Even if the university processes students and their individual affective problems as broken worker bees who ruin the hive, I refuse. I always think about my Latin teacher and how he processed me.

Bipolar Disorder As A Disability In Academia

As someone with bipolar disorder who is heavily medicated, I consider myself to have a disability. I know this is not the case for every non-neurotypical person, but it has helped me mourn the loss of a certain type academic life I know that I will never have due to the limitations of both bipolar and its accompanying treatments. I am currently writing my dissertation, but it is taking me longer than other students. I go to conferences, but maybe only one major association a year and one smaller one. Every step I take, paper I grade, or time I set up a student appointment is influenced by bipolar. For example, I have had to cancel class numerous times when my medications were adjusted because I could not mentally focus on my course material; I cannot schedule exams too early in the morning because sometimes I am shaky or too tired to leave the house; I flinch and become jarred when my students scream out during class because loud sounds scare me. And sometimes, even my huge arsenal of medications and various treatment team fails me. But, that’s the nature of this illness: I get manic or depressed, which leaves me hoping I will not have to go to the hospital. Bipolar is always a student in my classroom every semester; I always wonder how much he will join the discussion.

In an academic climate that favors unparalleled perfection and rewards those who reject affect-based learning, it would make sense why I have remained mute to my students (and lots of faculty) despite teaching classes on disabled sexuality and writing a dissertation focused on psychiatry, sexuality, and affect. I fear that I will be exposed as unproductive, incompetent, or weak. From Day One of graduate school, they told me the best scholars wrote the most books. With a life-altering illness, it is hard to think of myself as ever having that ability to compete on that level even though I technically haven’t even centered the arena because I am still in graduate school. Bipolar has taken so much time from me and I mourn it everyday I see yet another colleague publish an article or win a fellowship. I simply cannot do all of the herculean academic tasks demanded by the current state of affairs. I can do some and try to modify, like when I went to an Ivy League summer school and snuck away from several of the large evening lectures to rest in my dorm room and call home for some grounding. Humanities jobs are scarce (like we all know) and I am already at a disadvantage because of my health. I know that I need to adjust my idea of success and what it means. I am learning that this adjustment does not equate me with failure, just difference.

Mostly at this point, at a time that I feel stable, I worry for my students who are learning that silence is the only way to get through college, that is it is better to fail a course than to tell a teacher about one’s anxiety or depression because the stigma of mental illness is worse than the stigma of perceived laziness. To those students I say: I may never see you and you may never see me, but we are not alone.