Content Warning: Suicide 

This is a narrative I wrote at a particularly low point in recent years. I am on a much more even keel now, but these words still feel true:

Dear University,

I loved you once. And though I wouldn’t admit it, I wanted your love too. Your recognition. Your respect. Some sense of my self worth bound up in your gaze, and to receive your praise was verification and success. Even though I always knew that really, it was bullshit. I knew that those who earned the badges of success didn’t always have integrity. I could always see that it was a game, and some people played it well – amassing brownie points through having the right connections and the right sales pitch, landing the big money, pumping out the papers.

I knew I was never a good game player. I had competing loves whose demands I thought more important. The emotional well-being of my small child, who thrived when her days at childcare were short, and didn’t cope when she was asked to remain in the company of strangers for 8 or 9 or 10 hours at a time. Witnessing how much better everyone was when I could switch off from work and the unachievable running list of tasks and the bottomless pit of emails. So I chose to work part time and stuck to reasonable hours. I didn’t attend the after hours networking events. I missed the meetings that were held on my days at home. I believed all that could wait. I still worked hard though. I taught my classes, I applied for grants, and did research, I published like mad and went to all the right conferences. I may have left the office early but I settled down to work once the kids were in bed. I pursued work I really believed in, the work I held close to my heart, taught the stuff I thought was important. And I still tried to be a loving and compassionate mother and lover and daughter and sister, to care for my community, nurture my friendships. I didn’t sleep much.

But you never saw any of that. And certainly you did not value it. Then I made a terrible mistake. Desperate for that permanent job you said you would give me, I went hard out trying to prove myself. I spent summer holidays sitting in the campground with my laptop writing grant applications when I should have been chilling with my family. I said yes to all the invitations to give public talks and attend symposiums and apply for grants. I pushed myself hard. Too hard. So hard that I flipped into a state of permanent anxiety and despair. No longer was I able to set aside that endless running list of tasks, and I let the emails follow me to playgroup and ballet classes…  But at last it all paid off. I got that Big Grant, the one that is supposed to make a career, the one that would be followed by better conditions – a pause perhaps, and space to do the research, maybe even an employment contract that would make that possible. But no.

Thanks for the prestigious grant, you said, but we’re still not going to give you a job. Forget the contract extension, it’s down to casual work now.  I thought perhaps I had done something wrong, perhaps I hadn’t done enough. But I couldn’t actually have done any more. I limped onwards, still trying. Coming back again and again the way an abused wife keeps returning to her abuser to be beaten again, convinced that this time the love would prove strong, and maybe it would all work out after all. I started contemplating suicide.  The survivors of domestic violence eventually stop going back for more. At some point the accumulated violence becomes unacceptable, and no amount of remorse or new set of promises can erase it. That’s when you run, and when you’re at a safe distance you apply for divorce. I’d like to be a survivor.

I am writing now to let you know I am filing for divorce. I thought we had a future you and I. But I was wrong. You will keep asking for more and again more, and it will never be enough. I will become ill with stress, my body will bend to the cost of hours of anxious typing and not enough sleep and never relaxing and needing a bottle of wine a night just to get some relief. I look around me and I see my colleagues, stretched so far they are paper thin and their skin is permanently grey. This is no longer the place I loved. There is no more space for genuine scholarship. There is no longer a place for nurturing our passion for knowledge or our search for understanding, let alone a full humanity. This is no longer a place where we can, with heart, share what we learn and build a new generation of thoughtful and compassionate people. We all stay, and we all put up with inadequate pay and unrealistic expectations because we still see the glimmers of what used to make universities so worthwhile, and we still hope for it. But not me.   It’s over.     …oh. Hang on, what did you say? A fellowship? Oh. Well… maybe it will be different this time…

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