A friend of mine was suffering depression during her PhD, and was working with diversity services to try to figure things out. It was infinitely frustrating. Not only did they have no real policies in place to help grad students – it was all designed for undergrads – but they were so interested in preserving a division of labour (so as not to get sued for failure) that no one could ever deal with anything effectively, least of all the thing that is depression affecting the entire mind, body, and spirit. The campus of course was full of the wonderful inspirational posters one sees on diversity and inclusivity on campus – talk to someone if you are suffering mental illness etc. So she did. And encountered frustration. As she put it, the posters were mocking her.
I have recently found myself in a similar situation. I’m not naïve enough to think that my experience of mental illness is the only reason I am having trouble getting an academic job – there are perfectly well people who don’t either, and that’s simply because it’s a brutal and bad market. And yet, I also can’t help feeling the effects of having OCD when I apply and interview; let me explain.
For far longer than it has been known as OCD, OCD has been known as the doubting disease. This is because compulsions are the response to obsessions that involve doubting and rechecking things – whether the door is locked, whether one washed one’s hands thoroughly, whether one is appropriately pious in one’s mind. It can affect some areas and have absolutely no effect on others – for instance, much to the chagrin of my wife, the tidiness so often stereotypically associated with OCD is not something I suffer from at all.
Now, the way to manage OCD is (among many other things) some version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which can involve a number of mental tests, which at the end of the day work because, with OCD, there is always a part of one’s brain that knows how irrational one’s obsessions and compulsions are. One of these is the “reasonable person” test – one thinks oneself into the mental space of whomever is the most reasonable person one knows – and proceeds based on what he or she would do rather than on the gnawing fear to check again and again and again. Another test is called the “gun test.” This is a matter of imagining oneself with a gun to one’s head, and one has to make an impulse decision immediately or else someone will pull the trigger. Aside from the fact that the experience of OCD very often makes you feel you would prefer someone to pull the trigger, it can work very well. The idea is that, in our gut, we know what is reasonable – this is what differentiates OCD from actual delusion – and can act on that in moments of crisis. It is a variation of what O’Connor’s Misfit says of the grandmother – we with OCD would be able to make good decisions if someone were there to shoot us every moment of our lives.
But there is a cost, and that cost is emotional. When we make decisions like this, we are doing so either emotionally blind or in crisis. We do what the reasonable person does – and we decide as though a gun were to our heads – but there can be no emotional distinction for us between doing every day things in this way and pressing an A-bomb button that will explode the world. In areas of OCD, every decision is anxiety laden. The theory behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is that the more reasonable decisions we make like this, the more desensitized we will get to those feelings. The better theories suggest pursuing things one loves and desires – at precisely the times one is desensitizing oneself to the anxiety – to try to replace the anxiety with appropriate joy and happiness in appropriate areas. Yet when, as for me, part of the root of one’s OCD consists in a deep fear of one’s desires and joys (restricting them carefully lest they contaminate the world), that doesn’t really work. So we are left making decisions either based on a map given us by others or on a gut we have to work into a traumatic fever pitch in order to force it to give us the answers.
This leads to a condition I would like to call “affective stutter.” As one might expect, the person with OCD navigating all these matters is very often not immediately sure how to respond to things in the moment. If s/he has learned how to work with his or her OCD, s/he can eventually come around to a decision or response, and it has been my experience that this circuitous means of figuring something out, difficult though it is in practice, can sometimes produce results more surprising and beneficial than those produced by normal people. Even so, it is those who are well and can put things straightforwardly who get listened to, just as those who speak confidently are trusted over those who physically stutter, even in cases where those latter may be more intelligent and thoughtful.
Now, I can understand how certain levels of OCD could in fact keep one from fulfilling the duties of a professor – in its worst form, it could make it impossible to lecture, mark and write. Yet, there can be workarounds, and I would dare suggest that there may be even benefits for students who have professors with OCD – an understanding of suffering and the grace that can come with it can be a good thing, as can the eye for detail that often accompanies those personalities prone to OCD. Yet, as I experienced recently, none of this matters in the interview. The way the person with OCD comes across is indecisive, unprepared, and scattered. It is because he knows that one is speaking hypothetically of particular contexts – that deep listening would be required before definitive answers could be given – that in fact caring would mean waiting and listening rather than decisively knowing the answer immediately. But what is meant as carefulness compounded by the difficult set of cognitive processes for decision making demanded by OCD simply comes across as a lack of investment. Caring too much – and treating the questions the committee asks as real-world problems that one might encounter daily – is precisely the way not to get a job. It is those who are normal – or those who have a better skill set for performing normality – who get jobs.
I can understand this – it is not as if those with mental illness or other impairments have been treated otherwise throughout history. It is our lot to be kicked about. But what I would at least like is a bit of rhetorical honesty, and this might mean packing up the inspirational signs and programs, the rhetoric that mocks, the tokenism we use to remind ourselves what wonderful benevolent people we are in a liberal society. It breaks my heart to say because there is a secret and real inclusivity, sensitivity, breadth, and diversity at the heart of the humanities – which is in part why I love them – and it is right that universities should be aspiring for such things.
However, the current situation is that we have failed and do not want to admit failure. We want to cherish the illusion that we are loving and inclusive people. We are not. I have no problem living in a world like this; it is the world we have always lived in. But let’s at least call a spade a spade and pack up the sexy rhetoric. A friend of mine of African American descent once told me of his grandmother who said the only people she trusted were the ones wearing pointy white hats – because she knew what they were thinking. I would not want to categorize my own experiences of marginalization anywhere near the experience of such deep and horrible racism, but the principle applies. If I know you hate me and think little of me from the get go, there might even be a chance we can be friends later. But don’t patronize me. Don’t tell me things are fair and then let “nature’ (or, in this case, the blank face of administration) take its course. At the very least, give us the benefit of acknowledging those of us dying by the side of the road before you proceed to walk by. If you cannot love us, at least do us the honor of hating us in a human way, a way that is not the oblivion of the machine. It is too much, I think, at this juncture, to ask for a job. But at least let me be despised properly, like the human being I am.