Thursday, February 13, 2014

Dear Young Therapist: That Time my House Burned Down

It all started with my StarTAC flip phone ringing. Don't judge. It was 2002.

Without saying hello my friend Tina said "I'm so glad you finally have cell phone service. I got to your apartment a little early. Are you here yet?"

"No," I said. "I'm about 20 minutes away in Concord."

"Okay," she said softly into the phone. I'm having trouble getting to your apartment. There are fire trucks blocking the main entrance to your complex. I'll call you back when I figure out what's going on."

I continued on my way back home not really thinking much of the phone call. I lived in a large complex of apartment buildings and fire alarms went off all the time. Opening the oven door would often trigger the alarm in my apartment. Especially when I attempted to make naan on a pizza stone. 

My phone rang again. 

"Are you still driving?"

"Um, yes," I said.

"Can you pull over?"

My heart sank. "Yes?"

"The fire trucks are in front of your building. There are flames shooting out of the roof."

I accelerated toward home.

In high school I wrote a paper about what I'd save if my house burned down. I didn't have the luxury to make choices about what to save on the afternoon of March 22, 2002. A gas explosion had blown the roof off the building and incinerated the third floor. The only thing that remained in the apartment above me was a charred bird cage. The second floor, where my apartment was located, sustained heavy water and smoke damage.

My lap top sat open, encased in hard shell of ice from the spray of the fire hose. It was a good thing I kept a copy of  my dissertation proposal in my freezer, car, storage unit, computer server at school, and with a friend. 

Tom, the burly redheaded maintenance man, found me in the parking lot. When the alarms first went off he ran into the building and carried my African Grey Parrot out in her cage. She was safe and was temporarily being housed in a neighboring building. Toby made it on the national CNN feed. A local crew caught Tom carrying her out talking to Tom. 

Tom didn't know I had cats. I had two, Merten and Pershing. They were either somewhere in the apartment dead or escaped out the second floor window. At least that's the thought that obsessively filled my mind.

They were found two days later, cold and soaking wet, under what was left of our bed. As Tom carried the cats out of the building, he told us he found them hiding under our bed. "You know, under your bed where you have that plastic crate."

I was mortified. I'll let you figure out what one might keep under their bed in a plastic crate. One has little dignity when their house burns down and the building is condemned.

I didn't really have time to feel and process the fire and the subsequent losses. I was on a very tight schedule in my doctoral program. My advisor and dissertation chair had announced she was leaving the department at the end of the year. In order for me to finish with her signing my dissertation there was a sequence of complicated events that needed to be completed.

Doctoral students each face some sort of exam that must be passed in order to be considered a degree candidate. My program at Antioch required me to write two extensive papers and complete one oral exam. The Friday after the fire I was scheduled for my oral exams.

Quietly, I was told by several people in my department that I could arrange to have my oral exams postponed. "No one would think less of you." My dissertation chair, (who also was my advisor, mentor, former clinical supervisor, research partner, and friend) encouraged me to respect my limits.

I knew the statement "no one would think less of you" was code for everyone would think less of me. This is how graduate school works, and in particular how my cohort acted. We regularly ate each other alive. It was also very apparent, though unsaid, that if I took break I'd not be able to complete my dissertation with my current chair. I couldn't imagine finishing my dissertation without her, and couldn't bear the thought of disappointing her.

I stepped on the accelerator again. I didn't slow down. I didn't miss a single day of my practicum at Wellesley College, I made it to every class, and I was on time for every 7am research meeting. Living in a hotel, wearing clothes that I bought at Goodwill, I drove the following week to my oral exams. My examiners assured me they wouldn't be easy on my because of my recent trauma. They lived up to their promise. They were brutal. I passed despite their repeated attempts to find a way to enter my carefully manicured facade and devour me.

Their parting words to me: "From reading your paper we thought we'd fail you. You saved yourself with your amazing comportment, surprising considering your situation."

The words "fuck" and "you" came to mind but they are generally not associated with the word "comportment." I smiled, thanked them for their time, and left.

I got into my car and accelerated back to my hotel in a daze.

Some period of time passed. I'm not sure if it was a week or a month. I was still living in a hotel and it was time to drive out to Northampton to meet with my dissertation committee. It was time for my dissertation proposal defense.

It was fine. My committee was lovely. I got back into my car and accelerated home.

Time continued to lurch forward. I was living in a new apartment, surrounded the things we could save from the rubble. I had a desk and a computer so I could work on my dissertation. I slept on the floor. My partner was working in Washington D.C. on assignment.

Everything was falling apart. I could only pay attention to my dissertation and my practicum. I had to let everything else fall. I undoubtedly disappointed many people in the process. I was falling apart but didn't even notice it.

Then the phone call came. My house was burning down all over again.

The first call was from a committee member. She made a scheduling error and was going to be out of the country when my draft review was scheduled. Based on university rules, the entire committee must be physically present for a draft review. My committee member offered, at her own expense, to be present by phone, or at any other time, no matter what the inconvenience for her. She was very kind. Her kindness, however, was not enough to save me from the fire that was about to be unleashed.

I phoned my dissertation chair and asked her if it was possible we could move the proposal meeting by a week in any direction. She lit up like a field of parched summer grass might when exposed to a spark.

"You knew my schedule before we started. Did you think I was going to give you special favors because we have a relationship? I will not change the date. You'll either have to finish it within the schedule we've outlined or get another chair. You should know this, Jason: your dissertation is weak. I'm sure you know that. I want you to finish because you've worked so hard. I will push it through. If you decide to work with another chair, I can't tell you what will happen. You might have to start over. You probably would. If I wasn't leaving I would make you start over."

My life had been accelerating since the day my apartment stopped burning. Now I was on fire. My dissertation chair lit me on fire. I was devastated.

She had said what is the most damaging thing anyone could have said to me: I was a fraud. I was unskilled, not intelligent. Incapable. My dissertation was weak (and as it was an extension of myself at the time, I was weak). My only ability to get through school was the kindness of my advisor.

I told Glenda that I'd need to think about what she said. I'd call her back.

I hung up the phone and sobbed. There was likely also liquor involved. It was the first time I had cried since my apartment burned down.

I couldn't imagine not finishing with Glenda. She was my mentor. She opened me up to a world of ideas that I hadn't known existed. She encouraged and nudged me in directions that I didn't know were possible. She took me to conferences across the country to deliver research papers. There were promises of future books and articles to write together. I could envision an academic career that I never thought I was capable of. She was my clinical supervisor and helped me learn to trust my voice. She was my friend.

I also couldn't imagine finishing with Glenda. I know I had let her down in many ways since my apartment had burned down. I accomplished an amazing thing by pushing my way through qualifying exams, a dissertation proposal, and all but a paragraph of a dissertation draft in less than a year. To do that, I let a lot of things drop. I didn't know how to recognize my limits, I didn't know how to ask for help, and no one seemed to be able to slow me down. No one, in fact, tried. I was encouraged to soldier on.

I know she was probably mad at me. Being mad at a person isn't a reason to destroy a person.

I made a decision about my future.

I rehearsed the conversation I was going to have. There was more crying and more liquor. I wrote out a script. I called Glenda.

"I thought a lot about our conversation. You've told me that sometimes I need to move slower to get things done. I'm going to take your advice, Glenda. I'm so sad to not be finishing with you, but I think you are right. I'm going to do a much better job if I give myself time."

She told me she respected my decision. That was the last thing she ever said to me.

The semester came to a close and we all went on break. When summer session started I dropped in to visit the department secretary and say hello. She looked tearful. She said Glenda had left something for me. My heart lifted a bit--perhaps she wrote me a letter. Perhaps there was some sort of invitation back into a relationship. Maybe there was an apology.

Catherine handed me a box.

I couldn't tolerate looking at it in public. I brought it to my car. Inside the cardboard box was everything I ever gave Glenda. She returned to me my data for my dissertation (as she should have), her partner returned some VHS tapes I lent her (as she should have), and there were some CDs that I lent Glenda (we'd often sit in her car and introduce each other to new music we enjoyed).

Where the hell was my apology letter?

At the bottom of the box there was a large manila envelope. Glenda must have had a lot to say. My heart lifted again.

I opened the envelope. Inside it was a scarf that was given to me as a blessing by a Tibetan Buddhist monk in a traditional ceremony. I gave it to Glenda at the end of clinical supervision to mark the meaningfulness of that experience.

She returned it to me.

This was a break up. No apology in sight.

The first thought that went through my mind was a big fuck you. Fuck you and your arrogance. Fuck you and your inconsistency. Fuck you and your pious holier than thou approach to life. Fuck you for believing in me and then leaving me. Fuck you.

And fuck my dissertation.

I drove home. There was likely some liquor involved. And tears.

I gave serious thought to dropping out of school.

I didn't look at my dissertation for almost a year. It was a toxic poison.

Susan Hawes, my new dissertation chair, finally called me into my office. She had previously sat on my dissertation committee. I had never told her--or anyone else--what had happened.

"What's going on? I don't mean to pressure you, but why are we waiting so long for you to write your last paragraph of your dissertation?"

I held my nose and wrote it. Within the month I sailed through my draft review, and a month later I had my dissertation defense. I finished my dissertation near the end of my fourth year of graduate school.

On my last day on campus before leaving for internship, Susan met with her advisees and gave each of us a mug. Her dissertation chair gave her a coffee mug when she finished, and she continued the tradition. I drink coffee from that mug every morning to this day.

I lingered after the other students left her office. I told Susan what happened. She expressed sorrow that I went through this alone. She gave me assurances that my dissertation was strong and clear: that I was strong and clear.

It felt hollow. I know Susan tried, but we didn't have the same kind of relationship that I shared with Glenda. While I passed my dissertation, and I did it on my own terms, I got no enjoyment from the experience.  I was glad to be done but had lost my connection to my text.

The fire left behind doubts that still linger. They are smaller now. They will never be totally extinguished.

I find some grief still, a decade later, chronicling this story of my final years on campus at Antioch. My apartment burned down and I lost many personal possessions. The future that I had imagined for myself had been altered. My dreams of books, articles, conferences, and a tenured professorship went up in flames.

After I said goodbye to Susan, all four years of students gathered for the traditional send off. We had a potluck, pretended to laugh and like each other, and put on a snarky skit. Previous years showed a great deal of love for each other and gently poked fun at the process of Antioch. Our year developed a skit that looked inward, and directed our anger toward each other in hostile barely hidden ways.

The students remaining after the four seemingly endless years of challenges were called up one by one by our advisors. Our internship sites were announced, the department chair shook our hand, and we were handed a yellow rose to remember our home as we were each dispersed around the country.

I walked out straight out of the community room and drove away. I remember farting for nearly the entire 70 mile drive. The potluck food didn't mix well with my anxiety over getting the hell out of that building.

More than a decade later, I'm frequently called upon as a consultant for doctoral students struggling with dissertations and dissertation committees. Some people in my Twitter community asked me to tell this story as a source of support for current doctoral students who are struggling with their own dissertation experiences.

My advice and support about your dissertations and dissertation committees?

Burn the mother fucker down.

Burn it all.

Take a torch to it and salt the ground below so nothing else can grow. None of it matters because in the end, contained in the ashes, what you'll finally uncover is your self. The only way to get there is through the fire.

Let it burn.

For more letters to a young therapist see Dear Young Therapist: Don't Be Afraid of the DarkDear Young Therapist: That Time My House Burnt DownDear Young Therapist: Cultivate Patience and Listen to the MusicDear Young Therapist: Consider Your De Rigueur Requirements | The Post-Doctoral Tie IncidentDear Young Therapist: Are You Ready to JumpDear Young Therapist: Perspective is EverythingDear Young Therapist: Sometimes We Can't Put Humpty Back Together AgainDear Young Therapist: Sometimes Race and Sex MatterDear Young Therapist: Don't Be Afraid to Love; and Dear Young Therapist: Allow for the Unexpected.

1 comment:

  1. I just discovered your blog. I am so glad I read this. I am a Ph.D. strident in clinical psychology, I am on internship and am struggling with my dissertation. Internship is a husge challenge because I have never experienced a workload like the one I have at this site and I have worked as a masters level therapist for 20 years prior to starting the Ph.D. I had to take an extended medical leave from internship because I developed a severe infection and had to have part of my foot removed (I am an insulin dependent diabetic). I told myself that during my rehab I would turn lemons into lemonade by doing some dissertation writing. Instead I just stare at the computer screen. Thank you for posting this story. I don't feel so alone in my desire to say "Fuck it all!".