It is coming up to the anniversary of my stroke, and I find myself reflecting, in various ways, on where I am now, a whole five years later. I’ll write about different aspects of my recovery in other posts, but today I want to talk about the change in my employment. I’m a knitwear designer now, but as many of you will know, in my pre-stroke life I was an academic, teaching eighteenth-century literature and writing books about eighteenth-century women. One of the things I’m asked most frequently – particularly by academics – is whether I miss working in academia. . . here’s my response.
From a very early age I wanted to study literature. I loved reading and was horribly precocious. I worked my way through the shelves in my school and local libraries and then rapidly devoured everything on my parent’s bookshelves: Joseph Heller, Spike Milligan, Iris Murdoch, Giovannio Guareschi, Patricia Highsmith, Josephine Tey. I recall being reprimanded for reading my mum’s Georgette Heyer novels when far too young to understand them. I also vividly remember, after receiving a radio for my ninth birthday, hearing an interview with someone who mentioned that they had read the Prisoner of Zenda by the age of nine. I was horrified! I had not read the Prisoner of Zenda! Time was passing me by! I had better get a move on reading all those books. By my early teenage years my aim was more determined. I was going to University and I was going to be an academic. I went to York, took my B.A, and stayed there to pursue a Masters and a PhD. I was appointed to my first academic position at the University of Sheffield at the age of 24 – before I’d even submitted my doctoral dissertation. Between then and my stroke (at the age of 36) I taught eighteeth-century literature in three different Universities. I never lost an interview, and was successful in every job I went for. I worked extremely hard. My research was well regarded. I wrote books. I received grants and awards. I was promoted.
But I wasn’t happy. I loved reading, I loved research, I loved writing. I loved the world of the archive and ideas. That world made me feel alive! I was passionate about eighteenth century literature and culture, and about women’s writing in particular. But there’s a lot more to being an academic than being a good scholar. In the UK, permanent academic posts in the humanities are hard to come by, and hard fought for. I was surrounded by junior colleagues who were constantly jostling for those positions, and suffering while they jostled. I saw committed, talented intellectuals failing to be appointed to academic positions, and cobbling together meagre incomes from part-time teaching posts. I had a position. I had a succession of positions. I was one of the lucky ones. I should have been grateful. I tried to be grateful. But I just didn’t enjoy my job. I didn’t enjoy teaching – I was never really able to relax – and though I hope most of my students would say I was a reasonable teacher, in all honesty, teaching wasn’t good for me. I tried to get on with it, and to do it well, but in some sort of deep fundamental way I was simply never, ever comfortable in the classroom. In the academic positions I held, there was of course an awful lot of teaching and there was an awful lot of administration too. Though it certainly wasn’t the life of the mind or anything, to be honest, I was fine about the admin – I took on roles with lots of responsibility (chair of examiners, chair of graduate studies) and rather enjoyed building efficient systems and implementing them. What I did not enjoy implementing, however, were nationally determined policies with which I profoundly disagreed (such as aspects of UK anti-terrorist legislation concerning foreign students) and there were also many institutional policies and practices I had a very hard time accepting (such as actively recruiting poorly-qualified graduate students from notoriously oppressive (but wealthy) regimes simply in order to swell dwindling institutional coffers).
I felt I should be grateful – but I wasn’t. The workload was immense and ever-expanding, the job was demanding and tiring. Teaching, marking, preparation, admin, and an insane mountain of email bled into what little time remained for writing and research. There was less and less space for the actual scholarly, intellectual aspects of my role, the things I really loved and by which I was inspired. I kept myself going with the impetus of the next sabbatical, the next grant that would pay for some longed-for time in the archive. By 2009, I was profoundly unhappy – in fact, I actively hated my job. I began to nurture wee pipe dreams about what life would be like if I went part-time. There would be more space for knitting and pattern writing (with which I’d recently become obsessed) and perhaps I could actually find the time to research and write my next book! On top of the day-to-day grind of my job, the deleterious mental effect of its demands, compounded by increasing feelings of entrapment and desperation, I was being dogged by a micro-managerial colleague whose treatment of some members of staff – myself included – amounted to a form of bullying. I have worked with lots of difficult people in different University environments, but this person was on another level entirely. In November 2009 I hit a low point. Since I’ve been a teenager, I have always found the Autumn and Winter months incredibly difficult mentally, and this was particularly so in 2009. My seasonal mood disorder was familiar and inevitable, and I had ways of coping with it – but in this instance its effects were compounded by job-related stress, general unhappiness, lack of sleep, and a horrible colleague. That November, I found myself suffering from severe depression, paranoia and disturbing psychotic episodes, during which I experienced altered states of perception, and suicidal ideation. Things became critical: after a particularly disturbing and dangerous episode, my GP firmly insisted I took some time off work. After having felt I’d turned a corner, I returned to my job in January 2010. On February 1st, 2010 I had a stroke.
Was my stroke related in any way to my poor mental health? On a purely physiological basis I believe it was. As a result of the depression and psychosis, I had lost quite a bit of weight and by that point was around 6.5 stone / 90 pounds (I am depicted thus in the photographs for Manu). My blood pressure had always been on the low side of normal, and due to my weight loss and general malaise it had become even lower. When my stroke occurred, my blood pressure, from its usual ultra low point, spiked to a high point, as it was suddenly elevated by by the stressful thoughts that were running through my head. This sudden spike in blood pressure caused two quite normal blood clots to pass through a hole in my heart and find their way to my brain. In the milliseconds before the stroke occurred, I was worrying about how, in a forthcoming meeting, I was going to defend my sanity to my micro-managerial colleague. She didn’t cause my stroke, but I’m sorry to say that for me, she will forever be associated with that moment.
It is perhaps something of a ludicrous cliche that stress and stroke are related (“she was so stressed out, she had a stroke!”), but the very real physiological effects of poor mental health certainly give one pause for thought. While many strokes in young people are cryptogenic, the cause of mine was pretty clear: I had a hole in my heart creating a leaky passageway between my arterial and venous systems – put a couple of clots into the equation and I was a ticking time bomb! Perhaps what happened was inevitable, and I would have had a stroke at some time in the future anyway. But it still seems significant that it occurred at the very point when my mental health was at its poorest, and when my physical health had suffered severely as a consequence. I’m not sure what a neurologist would say about this, but my stroke has certainly impressed upon me the relatedness of mental and physical health, and the real importance of looking after both.
Sometimes I am annoyed at myself for not realising earlier just how ill I was. How could I let myself get into that state? Why could I not acknowledge I was so severely depressed? Why did I rush back to work when I still wasn’t well? Part of the problem was something pretty common in sufferers of my particular kind of nuttiness: a complete lack of insight into the severity of my condition, coupled with a total inability to be objective. When you are in that state, depression makes perfect sense. Suicide makes perfect sense. There’s something unanswerable about it. And when it gets to the stage where you are seeing things, and believe that your mind is responsible for changes in the light and weather conditions, and you should probably be sectioned, and are only saved from ending your own twisted, unreal reality by a brilliantly understanding GP and a wonderful and equally understanding partner, things have really got to change. If I’d realised how ill I was, perhaps I would have made that change. But I simply didn’t grasp the critical nature of my situation, and I could never bring myself to give up that scholarly dream: the dream I’d had since I was nine.
My stroke meant I had to walk away from academia. It was initially tough to do so – I did grieve about it for a while, feeling I was giving up so much intellectually – but I look back now and I have no regrets at all. The things I enjoyed about it – the research, and the writing – are things I still enjoy, and can now pursue with much more creative freedom. How I wish I’d known I could run a business, and that it could be fun! People are, in general, much much nicer in the world of knitting, design, and small publishing than they are in universities. . . . I am now able to pursue and develop ideas from the things that inspire me, to work with people I genuinely like in a wonderfully creative industry, and to make things I really believe in. I find my work massively enjoyable and completely fulfilling – and it comes with the additional benefit of supporting me financially.
I was recently asked what I missed about my academic job, and I could honestly only think of one thing: a thing so shallow and inconsequential that it is barely worth mentioning (but I shall tell you anyway). I miss getting dressed to go to work: I used to really enjoy styling clothes, putting outfits together, and donning something smart on a daily basis. Nowadays I mostly sport what Tom refers to as my bumpkin suit – a suit that befits a country-dwelling person who runs her business from home and spends a lot of time outdoors in all weathers. But then I still get to dress up whenever I feel like it, and I still enjoy exercising my styling acumen putting together outfits, particularly when photographing my designs. So, what do I miss about academia?