I’m at a medium-sized conference, one I’ve attended several times before and I am in a deep depression*. An anthropologist I don’t know is looking at me, intently. She has just told me that she’s especially interested in what I thought of her paper. I’m flustered because I heard almost nothing of what she said. I register only that she is flattering me. The odds are that she knows nothing about me at all. I’m fairly sure that my opinion matters to her only because we’d been introduced earlier by a well-known and brilliant colleague. This is a game academics play on the quiet all the time. They don’t know, and haven’t read, everyone they think they should, so they cover. Conferences can be like mini-tournaments of value and cachet. I know this and sometimes I even enjoy playing this game. But right now, I can’t remember her name let alone make a plausible comment about her paper.
I don’t think my distress is visible. I’ve worked out how to arrange my face so it looks like I’m listening. This is an exercise in presenteeism, the phenomena where people turn up for work physically but not mentally. I have learned how to look attentive when I am absolutely not. I wasn’t bored or distracted during her paper. I am not thinking she was beneath my notice or that there is someone more interesting nearby I could talk to. It is just that my brain is fully occupied holding itself together.
Winston Churchill once wrote I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything . It’s assumed he feared ‘the black dog’ of his depression would have him hurl himself over. I know those thoughts. But the kind of dark edges that trouble me when I’m low are not the kind I can throw myself over. Taking action, any action, becomes far too difficult to support such a decisive course. The smallest of choices, between toast or soup, eating or not eating, can maroon me in the kitchen for an hour. Thinking is reduced to a white repetitive noise. I remember only fragments of the knowledge that academics past the first flush of early career are expected to have on tap. The keywords are somewhere in my head but I can no longer arrange them in coherent sentences.
I cannot explain this, of course, to the anthropologist who is still waiting for me to respond. Some academics hide the injuries of stress, failure and overwork – though many complain loudly and often to anyone who will listen – but very, very few disclose their mental health issues. Stress and overwork can be useful excuses, or proxies. ‘Sorry, I am a little distracted, have a terrible headache, didn’t sleep well.’ But such excuses are never adequate. There is no acceptable language to say ‘sorry I am not thinking today, I cannot presently think, no offence, it’s not you, it’s me.
I have just started taking anti-depressants again and I feel very unwell. I have been to Boots and for days now I’ve been swallowing the maximum dose of the strongest painkillers they sell without prescription. They hardly help but I am desperate for any kind of comfort. In clusters outside the conference, people are smoking. I don’t always smoke but I will now. A lot of academics only smoke, and many drink more than usual, at conferences. Smoking, drinking too much, are all part of the fun we say. And so they are, sometimes. I have no desire to drink today. I accepted many years ago that that form of self-medication would kill me.
As an undergraduate, I was asked how I passed exams despite spending lots of time in the pub and little in the library. I said that if you commit only to light study, you can answer only by making connections between the remnants you retain and expressing them as an argument. I may even have recommended this strategy to over-working, anxious students. In the social sciences and humanities making connections across theories, evidence and ideas is important. The ability to do so is notoriously difficult to teach but some students seem to have it innately. They are the fast, natural, creative thinkers, they just ‘get it’. I had this ability, I used to think I always would. Today, I have it sometimes in relentless spades and then it disappears completely.
In his book Strictly Bipolar, Darian Leader describes the sense of connectedness, and the particular need to express it, as characteristic of mania. Language, he says, is the medium of connectivity in our worlds. Our realities are shaped by words, ideas and the associations between them. These associations are legion but it is in no-one’s interests to be able to see too many of them all at once. Seeing associations is essential to any kind of thinking. In academic work, it’s the first step before describing and explaining how they work. But the world of all possible associations is vast. To think clearly- and to live comfortably- we cannot follow every possible association. Academia has a whole tool-set devoted to justifying what to cut out of the frame. We need only to be able to follow some paths.
The nature of my condition is that I travel constantly between holding in my head the most extensive map of the territory, the sketchiest and all points in between. In a world of superabundant information, premature publication and a REF policy context that anticipates nauseatingly frequent shifts of knowledge paradigms, no-one expects you to know everything, not even in your hyper-specialised sub, sub-field. They do expect you to have a story though, a line you can walk.
I am not the same person every day. Sometimes my story has huge gaps. Names, ideas, dates, the point of it all, can just drop out of my head. This is not useful ignorance, it’s an arbitrary cognitive desert that is profoundly debilitating and deeply humiliating. I am certain that I am not the only one who negotiates an academic career with an undisclosed mental health condition but I am beginning to wonder why. Why don’t we disclose? Who do we think our reticence is protecting?
* Notes: This piece was originally submitted to The Guardian’s Anonymous Academic in 2014 but never published. The decision not to publish was not mine, perhaps it got lost in an inbox somewhere, but I never heard back from them after they accepted the pitch. I took this as evidence that my writing was poor and/or of no interest. Today, I’m trying to think less often about what the other thinks of my writing or of me. Since, if you’re like me, part of the problem is orchestrating the dance between the thousand conversations of hypomania and the total silence of severe depression. I have never been a graceful dancer.
About the Author: Liz McFall (@allartmarkets) is Chancellor’s Fellow in Sociology and the Edinburgh Futures Institute at the University of Edinburgh. She co-edited Markets and the Arts of Attachment with Franck Cochoy and Joe Deville (Routledge 2017) and wrote Devising Consumption: cultural economies of insurance, credit and spending (Routledge 2014) and Advertising: a cultural economy (Sage 2004). She is Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Cultural Economy. With Sapphire Goss, David Moats and Darren Umney she co-founded the arts collective AWED. She is also bipolar 2.