In the last month I’ve been in Paris, London, Berlin, Munich and as of last night Barcelona. It seems appropriate that I’ve been travelling so much during this period, when my life has finally finished the leap that started almost exactly a year ago. It’s not without a huge amount of sadness that I do this, but I am leaving academia and setting out on the “making a living” road again. For a long time I’ve been sitting in limbo – aware of the need for change yet afraid. But no more.
This time last year I was for the first time facing a major crisis in my long relationship with multiple sclerosis. We’d been limping along reasonably happily for a long time. Yes the novelty had worn off I suppose; I had stopped paying it so much attention, and I’ll admit I’d even forgotten its birthday a couple of times. But we were quite comfortable and you know sometimes it’s nice not to have to try so hard. Last year though, my MS decided it was time to shake things up. A mid-life crisis I suppose. Suddenly what had seemed a reasonably safe if slightly dull future looked a lot less certain. Why go for dull if the safety is in question, I began to ask myself. Is this really all there is? We got over the worst of it, but we were both changed by it, and both knew other things had to change too. I slipped back into my routine at work promising myself I wouldn’t let things get to that stage again. But change is hard and suddenly I found myself heading back to that place where I questioned myself more than I challenged myself, feared for myself more than I trusted in myself.
I’m not by nature a “joiner” – I’m with Oscar Wilde, any club that would have me is not a club I want to belong to. But when MS and I got together it seemed appropriate to settle for a safe option career, it was only when things actually got as bad as I had always feared that I was able to see that comfortable as that was, the cost to my soul and heart was very high. All those years ago I somehow with luck and the goodwill of a number of people around me found myself in academia straddling an awkward line between institutional life and entrepreneurial spirit. I managed to make it work, but only just. As the years passed my ability to survive in the system grew more tenuous. In itself that would have been manageable I suppose, but the demands of MS and the demands of that situation came into conflict too often. Something had to give. And it has.
For too long I’ve been “going to work” instead of “making a living”. I’m not a natural at the former, but I am at the latter. I’ve been a playing a role that doesn’t suit me. As of the end of August I’ll no longer by Dr Cat from Dundee. And I have no idea what I will be – other than that I will be fully me again. I’ve learnt more than I could ever have imagined in my time in academia. The experiences, opportunities and most importantly people it has offered me access too are priceless. And I’ve become a better person for the close view it has afforded into the politics of getting things done together and into myself and my flaws and failings. I have no regrets at all and am deeply grateful that I had the chance to do the things I’ve done.
Before becoming an academic I didn’t know that I was really a teacher at heart – that working with other people to help them grow and change gives me more pleasure than anything else. Before becoming an academic I knew very little about what I felt was and was not appropriate behaviour in team contexts, still less what my own strengths and weaknesses were. I’ve made many mistakes, but as I always tell my students, mistakes are the quickest and best way to learn. I often suspect I have learnt far more in my years as a university teacher than would have done had I been a student all that time.
There comes a point though when one’s true self needs full reign, a point when one’s inability to fully inhabit a role drains more than it enhances. That became clear to me last year when MS pulled the role mask from my face and made me really look at my life, myself, my future, my needs and desires, my capacities. Back then the conclusion was easy – it was time to leave the stage and hit the road again. It took a while to get the courage up, and a while longer to come to peace with the sense of loss and leaving (especially of friends at work, especially as the timing has meant that I leave at a time when I would otherwise so much want to be part of fighting for change within). But the time is right, the university cost cutting which I massively disagree with has sadly offered me the financial cushion that made the choice irresistible and also sadly the imperative I needed, as I know I won’t survive in the what the university becomes afterwards. And somehow the idea that I will leave on August 31st 2014, exactly a year after I returned from the summer that set these wheels in motion makes sense of the fact that at 49 years old, with two kids and MS I am throwing away a secure job and good pension for … who knows what!
I’m terrified, of course. I’ll miss the people I work with and my students enormously. I’ll miss teaching – though whatever comes next I hope/want/expect it to have some place for the teacher in me. I can’t entirely discount the idea that I might be making the biggest mistake of my life. But when I think of letting this role go, of heading back out onto the road as “me” again, I can’t help but smile. When I received the confirmation I had been approved for voluntary severance I was gripped by a huge wave of panic, so strong I had to sit down and focus on breathing. As I started to breathe, I suddenly understood that this wasn’t panic. It was just the unfamiliar feeling of happiness, excitement, engagement. It was freedom from the limbo I’ve been sitting in too long.