Leaving the university

Have you ever felt like the floor was falling out of your life? I have. Several times.

The worst was when I was teaching in the Mathematics Department at Iowa State University. I had gone there full of so much hope, excited to teach and to have the chance to do interdisciplinary research. I immersed myself in various activities and loved my first year, but by the middle of the third my enthusiasm started to flag.

View looking east towards Roberts Hall.

My lungs are a perfect reflection of my mental health. When I am stressed, my asthma gets worse. When I am relaxed and happy, I breathe pretty well. I began having bouts of bronchitis. The doctors upped my asthma medications. During my fourth year in Iowa, I decided to sell the house I had bought, but I still wasn’t sure what I would do. My fifth, and last year, was the worst. I was lonely, depressed, and my lungs never cleared. I couldn’t work. I had nightly nightmares in which I was trying to escape from prison or being hunted by awful zombies.

You would think it would have been easy to resign, but it still seemed impossible. Teaching at a University had been my goal for a long time. The outside world seemed a scary place, for which I was horribly unprepared. Finally, I dreamed one night that I was run over by a car and died. I walked into the Department Chair the next day and said I had to go. He wasn’t happy about it. He asked me to take a leave of absence, but I knew in my heart that I could never return to that cold, windy prairie.Iowa

Some of the self-help books I’ve read imply that when you make a major choice that’s really scary but you know you have to make, the world will open up to you and you’ll know your path through life. If that has happened for you, I salute you. It didn’t happen for me,  but at least things have never felt that entrapping again. My nightmares stopped immediately. My lungs improved over the course of the next year to a point where I use a minimum of medication.

I have gradually come to see that none of my agony had anything to do with the reality of being tenure track at a major state university and everything to do with my world view and my personality. You can probably see from this why life choices, career choices and personal development have occupied a lot of my time and also are a focus of my fiction writing.

Please leave your comments. I would love to hear about your difficult times and how you got out of them.

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  1. #1 by Mike P on July 9, 2012 - 8:27 pm

    • #2 by annstanleywriting on July 9, 2012 - 8:50 pm

      Thank you! That’s so sweet. I wonder if she will help people.

  2. #3 by Mike P on July 9, 2012 - 8:22 pm

    Very interesting. I was a classmate of yours at Caltech, one of the few who did not eventually go into academia. I used to envy those who did get the tenure track positions. I have run into a handful of classmates over the years and no longer envy those in academia. It seems like they have all had a hard life.

    You did do some important work, however. Just today I read a paper referencing your AIDS research (which caused me to look you up on the internet). A few years ago I ran across a testimonial from a young girl saying she wanted to be just like you. Were you aware of that? (I could probably still find it.) Maybe she will – in ways she didn’t know back then.

    Congratulations on your course correction. We should all be so lucky.

    • #4 by annstanleywriting on July 9, 2012 - 8:48 pm

      Hi Mike, Nice to hear from you! It’s weird to be found…. I was written up in a publication called Women in Mathematics years ago, and I think it still gets sent out. It was a lovely thing, and, at the time, I was happily engaged in my research. Sometimes, I still really miss it. What did you end up doing?

  3. #5 by anushamujumdar on December 29, 2011 - 4:10 pm

    Hi Ann, I feel very connected to your stories, since I’m pursuing academics and also committed to finding my true purpose.
    I am the writer at Vie Hebdomadaires for this week and was wondering if you would like to be the next. Thank you for liking my post today
    http://viehebdomadaires.wordpress.com/
    I look forward to hearing from you soon.

  4. #6 by Liz Main on December 28, 2011 - 9:18 am

    What an amazing story you have, and you relate it with great honesty. No wonder you are drawn to use your life experiences in fiction. I look forward to reading more from you.

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