Almost two weeks ago I wrote a post on rejection and disappointment. I was suffering, and weepy, and exhausted. Writing it made me feel better, as did the love of my partner and friends, performing some of my work outside of academia, and some very strong cups of tea.
And then I received this comment, from ‘S’.
OMG, sorry I realise you are going through a tough time but I find it hard to empathise with you- you’ve listed all your achievements in your Phd and it reads like a list of an over-achiever….how do you manage all this with kids? I’m pleased if I even make it to campus on a good day. I’d be dancing if I managed to achieve 1/2 of what you’ve achieved and so would many people that don’t have kids.
And I was kind of thrown back there all over again. I admit, after I’d listed all the things that had gone well in the last six months, I failed to show sufficient gratitude/amazement/humble joy. I was too tired. What I said, after that long list, was that it “was ok”. I probably should have said it was spectacular and I could hardly believe how fantastically lucky and blessed I was, but I didn’t have it in me. Also, I often find success much harder than failure. I have failed, often and well, for most of my life. When someone actually wants to publish some of my work, or better yet, someone reads some of my work, and then talks to me about it, I am often besieged with a kind of pre-emptive, gut-wrenching grief laced with shame. Where does this particular feeling that really has no word to describe it come from? It comes from a life aching towards writing, and wanting to be read, and not being. Nearly always. It comes from knowing that this brief, shining, wren’s egg moment, all blue and translucent and lighter than nearly everything I’ve ever held, is about to break; that success is a quick bright thing, that will always be replaced with a return to the slog.
So yes, at that moment, all I could say was that the journal, and the publications, and the teaching experience, and the international conference, were ok. Because they were. And because they took a great toll. And because I was completely and utterly spent. And because as well as managing all of those varied, thrilling (but kind of empty) moments, I was struggling with asthma that was so bad I spent one afternoon in emergency, canulated, unable to say more than two words without gasping. And because every other member of my family was also struggling with their health (and not just in a I-have-a-head-cold kind of way).
I read that comment and got it again. That rush of grief and shame. But not from success this time. This rush (the tingling in my scalp, the clenching stomach, my burning cheeks) was from being torn down. I’ve felt it before; I know it well. I couldn’t work out where the tearing was though, so I gave this reply, and tried to leave it alone.
I guess everything’s relative. Yes it’s a big list of achievements, and I manage it because I have to. I’ll be 39 this year, I’m facing a job market at the end of my PhD that has slim offerings at best, I’ve been either unemployed or a casual employee for most of my adult life (the joys of being a writer), and this is my shot at a career. So yes, I take it seriously, and work my guts out. Those achievements don’t mean I don’t suffer when I hit bumps in the road…
I couldn’t leave it alone. I felt angry, and wronged, but couldn’t work out why. It was something to do with that term: over-achiever (and in this case, the three ellipses that spooled out after it; oh that pause). I niggled at it, because it’s a term that’s been applied to me before, and one that I’ve never liked. But why? What’s wrong with it? And then a friend said this:
“You’re not an over-achiever, Karina. You’re a high achiever. There’s a difference.”
And suddenly it made sense. He was right. It was the word ‘over’ that I took umbrage to, and deeply. And also the sense that I was being told that I had no right to my hurts and disappointments in the face of so much achievement.
Yes, I’m a high achiever. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel battered when I don’t hit the mark. And what is it about those achievements that makes others want to pull me down? I don’t do what I do to make others feel badly about what they don’t do. I do what I do because I must. Because I spent most of my adult life in severe untreatable depression, in a melancholy so deep I could barely move. And there was no writing. No text spooling from these fingers. Just a vague memory of having wanted to write.
Occasionally that vague memory would turn razor sharp and slice me open. I remember very clearly watching the movie Iris one day. It came on the telly and I was still in my pyjamas, comatose on the couch. I watched, and saw a woman writing, fairly up to her elbows in words, and I sobbed with the deep and sudden grief of having lost more than I could ever quantify.
Yes, I’m a high achiever. I’ve got so much lost time to make up for it’s ridiculous. And this life I’ve had, of mental illness, and wrenching pain, and oblivion-seeking, and then the love of my life (who is patience, and depth, and the smell of sun on skin) and those children of mine (button-bright, back-jumping, monkey-screeching, banshee-hugging) have made me. And now, finally, I write.
So this is what I think. I’m new at all this. I’m learning how to deal with rejection, and rejection is spectacular. Rejection means I’ve written something, that went into the world, to be rejected. I’m also learning that if I put my stuff out there, some people will want to bring me, or my work, down. And that’s how it is. I especially like this little pearl of internet advice-for-writers goodness that landed on my screen tonight out of sheer serendipity:
…on mean commenters: Don’t internalize the crackpottery of others; on grad school: You’re not loving grad school? It might be just that you need to give it time. It might be that it’s not a fit, and you should leave. You can’t really know which it is yet, most likely; on success: You are not supposed to have success. You’re supposed to have a life.
And I have a life. An amazingly good one, that most days, I’m incredibly grateful for.
PS: if you’re going to comment on this, please remember that there is a real person reading your words, and if you wouldn’t say to me in person what you’re about to write, then please, refrain.