I have a three-inch scar on my left forearm, winding thin and white across my yellow-brown skin. The dog who gave it to me, with his childlike retriever excitement and sharp toenails, died of cancer almost seven years ago. Every time I look at it I feel the dusty, desert-like heat of a Prairie summer without rain, and I’m reminded of the choices we have and the choices we make, and what can happen when we think we have no choice at all.
That scar marked the beginning of loss that gathered speed like a Prairie dust-devil whirling tumbleweeds high in its core. Loss of one young dog and then another nine months later; loss of confidence from having to prove myself to colleagues, students, and funding agencies; loss of mobility following a fluke field accident; loss of time and self into the deep well of work and mental illness; and – most troubling – almost loss of a marriage.
I was in South Africa co-teaching an undergraduate field school when I received the initial offer for my tenure-track position. I’d had the interview well before we left northern British Columbia on our expedition, and was simultaneously enjoying the spectacular landscapes (but appalling social conditions) in South Africa, and fretting about my first world future. By the time I’d returned from our trip and negotiated the details, there was a scant month left to make the inter-provincial move.
This position seemed like my only choice. No new academic jobs had appeared on the flat, distant horizon. I’d been offered one of several other faculty positions for which I’d applied, but it was far from home on an island stranded in the South Pacific Ocean. Desperate for a job and feeling that I was an academic failure without one, I gave up dreams and freedoms I might not have otherwise, and made decisions that ignored signals from both my heart and my family. I saw only the options fading around me, like the petals of a dandelion closing tight in the dark of midnight.
It wasn’t long before my job choice came back to haunt me. I fell into a depression deeper than any I’d had previously, and my psychiatrist couldn’t seem to treat it. I decided to take what I hoped would be a temporary medical leave from my job.
It wasn’t as temporary as I’d thought. Within a year there was no change in my mental health, so we moved back home to the November dampness of the west coast of British Columbia. My days were draining slowly to their emptiest point in months. Christmas is normally my favorite season: I enjoy our homemade Irish cream liqueur and the daily gift of a chocolate from the advent calendar. But this year, Christmas was just another dark day in a long line of dark days. By January, my GP advised I increase my medication in an attempt to salve my parched mind, and managed to get me in to see a new psychiatrist.
I suspected I was largely seen as the stereotypical almost middle-aged woman, over-medicated and over-coddled for the depression and anxiety that runs like a rumour, a virus, amongst our privileged lot. Based on this stereotype, in which you take your medication and suddenly rainbows and unicorns abound, I’d held out hope – foolishly – that the “normal” me would eventually return, even two years after the fact. The me – like Kelly Ripa on steroids – who could complete a staggering array of tasks in a day, whip up a decent dinner, and read a couple of books in the evening, without breaking a sweat. If I just did everything right: took my medication, went to counseling, didn’t overdo things, I’d ride out the storm. This, too, would pass.
Leaving the new psychiatrist’s office after my first visit, I felt the awful Prairie wind rising up inside me, filling my eyes, ears, and mouth with dust, tumbleweeds, and garbage. I was no longer just a depressive with anxiety. Instead I had a mood disorder: Bipolar II. With this new diagnosis, I’d strayed into the darker, less well traveled alleyways of mental illness. Where psychiatrists read the DSM-V to determine your diagnosis, like fortune tellers read tarot cards or the lines on your hand, like a drug dealer on a street corner, pushing new cocktails that even they don’t know will work and – if they do – why.
Though the psychiatrist’s diagnosis didn’t turn me into someone else, it closed the door once and for all on my future as a professor – a job for which I trained for ten years. I could no longer juggle a handful of tasks like a carnival clown, and had to focus on one small thing at a time. I couldn’t do complex mathematical calculations required for my research, and going out in public completely overwhelmed my senses. I had to process these major losses: both in functional mental abilities, and of a way of living that was no longer sustainable for me.
I tried my hand at knitting, persisting despite the memories it invoked of the plastic needles and grubby white polyester yarn I’d used as a child. I repeatedly unraveled my rudimentary attempts at a scarf because of dropped stitches, added stitches, and stitches so tight I couldn’t even slide them on the needle. Turns out it’s not about how many rows you finish, but more about the silent click of wooden needles and the repetitive looping of wool blend yarn from right to left. Research shows that crafting is a meditation, reducing anxiety, depression and restlessness. The only time I count rows now is to find out when to switch to the next color.
Knitting gave me a sense of how I could salvage my life: by changing my perspective to redefine success not as what I’d achieved in terms of items in a checklist, but what I’d achieved in terms of stillness, contentment, and the ability to manage my illness. The difference between doing and being; the space between process and product.
My latest health diagnosis was simultaneously gratifying and nullifying. I could relax, as it were, into a future where I wouldn’t be aiming for big goals, such as getting that exclusive grant, full professorship, or a prestigious publication in Nature Geoscience. Instead I’d focus on much smaller goals: minimizing stress, maintaining an even keel, preventing major mood swings. Keeping an eye out for symptoms of a relapse, having a management plan in place for when one occurs.
Unfortunately, the quest for accomplishment has been drilled into me since I was a child: if you’re going to do something, you must do it better than everyone else. My parents sent me to the best piano teacher in the city, one whose students went on to Julliard. When I tried my hand at composing my own little ditties on the piano, I was strictly ordered to practice what the teacher had given me. I had lessons with the viola player from the city’s symphony orchestra. And if I received 90% on a test, my parents would ask, what happened to the other 10%?
When I was still an academic scientist, I used to write about equifinality in scientific modelling: the notion that the same model outcome can be reached via different internal model pathways. Having a chronic illness means I’ve had to change how I see my life – both for myself and in the context of those with whom I interact. Like acknowledging equifinality, it’s healthier if I focus on process and acknowledge that there are many different routes to a goal, rather than focusing on product and considering only the goal itself.
My visit to the psychiatrist was a turning point, a small moment that could almost be forgotten beneath the accumulation of everyday events. But it’s these small moments that stick with you. They make your illness real, and remind you that you’re different than other people. My family and friends will likely never understand the period of mourning I fell into, grieving for what I could have been and done versus what I was now limited to given my new life trajectory.
I’m aiming smaller now – or maybe just more realistically. I may not have the great Canadian nature book written by next year. Instead I’ll just plug away an essay, a paragraph, even a sentence, at a time. In the end it’s the process, not the product, that makes our days sing.
Sarah Boon was an environmental science professor for seven years before returning to writing. Her articles about the environment, women in science, science communication, and science literature have appeared in LA Review of Books, Literary Hub, Terrain.org, Hakai Magazine, Science, Nature, Water Canada, CBC’s The Nature of Things, and more. Sarah is a co-founder and serves on the Board of Science Borealis, where she was formerly the Editorial Manager (2013-2015).