Despite having assigned many failing grades as a professor, I don’t actually believe in the concept of failure. Sure in academia it means a lack of mastery of the material, but unless a student has earned an absolute zero then I would argue that they probably learned something. But when it comes to life, what really is failure?
When I consider the multiple times I thought I was failing in life – lack of friends in grade/high school, sucking at grad school, taking a leave of absence from my doctoral program, not being able to get to the post office by noon on a Saturday (if you have a sleep disorder or any other chronic illness that leaves you exhausted, you’ll totally get this one) – I take stock of what happened as a result of those situations.
My grade school and high school years were fraught with emotional dysregulation, immaturity, over sensitivity, and the beginnings of an autoimmune sleep disorder that unfortunately got misdiagnosed for 16 years. It took a lot of therapy, meditation, self-reflection, and help from integrative doctors, but I finally came to peace with my past and, in fact, have developed a stronger sense of sympathy and empathy for those I encounter who are still struggling, especially children. Plus, it informs my writing in ways I never would have been able to achieve when I first started writing.
I kind of got my act together in college, mostly because I could take long naps throughout the day, and I had more autonomy with my schedule. The same was true in graduate school, but then my narcolepsy (still undiagnosed) went full throttle to the point where I could hardly function. I was sleeping 20 hours a day, just barely getting my school work done and getting to class. I ate one meal a deal from Wendy’s, a biggie bacon double cheeseburger, biggie fry, and biggie sprite. I took antidepressants and saw doctors, but they would just keep switching the medicine or dose. I had a sleep study. It was invalidated because of doctor error. I felt demoralized, exhausted, and ready to give up. I fell behind in school and I wanted to drop out. But I didn’t know how I would tell my family and friends that I was quitting. At that point in my life, there was nothing worse than being a failure and I admit that in my darkest of hours I considered suicide as a possible way out. Then, I wouldn’t have to face anybody.
I credit my dogs with keeping me going.
I couldn’t imagine leaving Jack and Limit to be on their own because they had brought joy to my life like nothing else had. They also helped get me out of my apartment and moving around even though I was exhausted.
But I was still struggling, especially with school so I ended up taking a leave of absence from graduate school. That choice, one I initially thought would be the biggest failure of my life, turned out to be the single best decision I ever made.
I ended up getting a job as research assistant, but I ended up with so much more than just work experience. I made new friends, a group of women who are so delightful and loyal, that we still love and support each other to this day. In fact, we just celebrated our 10th anniversary of friendship with tea at the Carolina Inn this past October. I found a mentor who is incredibly skilled at seeing the best in people and helping them achieve their goals. He invested in our professional development and encouraged us to write journal articles. It was from this encouragement that I started on my path towards becoming a good writer. I also ended up with a research project I turned into my dissertation. After a year in the research assistant position, I returned to graduate school and two years later I graduated with my PhD.
I wanted more than anything to return to my research group and work there full time, but they couldn’t fund a full time position. I cried at work that day, feeling a sense of loss and fear. I ended up applying for assistant professor positions across the country (except for Kansas because I am terrified of tornados) and I started that fall in a tenure-track position.
That year was a miserable one, where I felt lonely and exhausted. I desperately wanted to return to NC and I talked about it all the time. I started falling asleep again at inopportune times, like on my desk at work or my couch when I was cooking something in the oven for dinner. Again, thank God for my dogs because they would wake me up.
I wanted to quit (again), but then some interesting professional and personal opportunities presented themselves and I decided to stick it out for another year. But I knew I couldn’t spend another year this tired, so I found a new doctor, this one specializing in sleep. Within five minutes of our first appointment she said to me, “I think you have narcolepsy.” No, that’s ridiculous, I thought. I knew what narcolepsy was and I even taught it in a survey of psychology course. But it turns out like everything else, narcolepsy is on a continuum and sure enough, one sleep study later I was officially diagnosed.
It was like I won the lottery that’s how different my life became.
I don’t think I ever would have been properly diagnosed had I kept my research assistant job or quit after my first year in academia. So that’s why it’s okay if I “fail” at writing because every time I’ve “failed” in the past it’s lead me to something even better. And I’m certainly not going to stop writing. I am a writer. Failure can’t take that away from me.