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I’m Nobody! Who Are You?

My new official job title is a hoot—no, really. I am a “scientific communications scientist”—me, a person with a PhD in Pretty Pretty Poems! If the root for “science” appeared only once in my official job title, it would be amusing . . . ironic. But twice? TWICE?!?! ROFLMAO

So then today at lunchtime I ran to the pet store to buy a Feliway diffuser to help my cats, who are super-pissed at me for drugging them, caging them, and then moving them with no notice and against their wills to this shitty apartment in West Lafayette. At the cash register, some anti-anxiety soft-chew cat treats caught my eye, and I thought for a second before telling the clerk: “Naw, I need to try one thing at a time. It wouldn’t be good scientific method to do both.”

I got to the car and was like “Who the fuck am I?”—the same question I asked myself last week while biking home from work—I, who have biked to work I think twice in the thirteen years I’ve worked at my previous job, biked to work three times last week. Who am I? If you were to plop me down into a new life in New Orleans, I’d have a southern accent in like five minutes, and in the same way (apparently), I make dumb science-y jokes now instead of English-major jokes. ~shrug~

My gorgeous bike commute to work

Eight years ago, I wrote a little essay about Buddhist ideas of non-self and my then-recent experience of trying two different SSRIs to help me deal with the massive anxiety triggered by going through the tenure and promotion process. On Lexapro, I learned what it’s like to be bored: “I would walk from my car to my office thinking, ‘I have no pep. I have no pep. I am pep-less.’ Come 9:00 at night, I would start thinking about going to bed, not because I was tired, but because I wasn’t interested in doing anything else with my day.” My doctor switched me to Prozac, and suddenly I was “Rachel 2.0! . . . But then I went past Rachel 2.0 into Too Much Energy: I would lie in bed trying to sleep, and it was as though I could feel every cell of my body pulsing with energy.” I concluded:

I’ve been going to the library every day since Thursday to watch some visiting Tibetan Buddhist monks create a sand mandala, which they will then destroy in a ceremony on Tuesday evening. One Eastern religious concept that has always been hard for me to grasp is the idea that what one thinks of as one’s self—personality, predilections, interests, tastes, etc.—is actually just ego. I have identified completely with my personality, and so it was nearly impossible to understand that idea. And yet, in the past two months, my personality has changed three times: from my normal state to my anxious state, to a bored and lethargic state, to a hyperenergetic but non-ruminative and also non-creative state. So who is “I”? I feel less sure of that than I did before, and also, at least this morning, slightly less attached to the idea of “I” that has been a source of pride for all these years. Being around the monks makes me, at least temporarily, a nicer person. Being on these medications gives me experiences of other types of lives: bored! hyper! Being rushed makes me anxious. Skipping exercise makes me sick. When teaching goes well I get energy; when it doesn’t go well, I lose energy. I am not “I,” but a process, a series of interactions with the rest of the world, with the rest of you.

This whole thing of finding a non-academic job started a year and a half ago, when I had an epiphanic experience that included the insight that I needed to care less about what people thought about me professionally. I had started to recognize the insatiability academia had created in me as insatiable. It always made sense before that I wanted more, because there was always the next summit: finish PhD, get tenure-track job, get tenured and promoted to associate professor, get promoted to full professor. Once I had achieved those things and still felt hungry, I started to realize that it’s not possible to get full at this particular feast. I had managed to avoid craving material possessions, but I began to see my craving for respect and recognition as being a stumbling block to peace. I worked consciously on detaching from my professional identity for the sake of peace, and then I ended up succeeding enough that when a job for an English teacher was advertised at the state-supported boarding school for gifted 11th– and 12th-graders where my daughter was to be starting school this fall, I applied. I made it to the campus interview stage, but when I began to feel sure that I wasn’t going to get the offer, I decided to look for non-teaching jobs. It was time for a change. Fortunately, my experience with medical editing, which put me through graduate school in Pretty Pretty Poems, was enough to get me this gig as a “scientific . . . scientist,” lol.

I feel like a different person in a different life, but I don’t want to press too hard on the idea that I have no essential self, because one thing I remembered in my first week in this job is that something that feels like one of the basics of my personality is that I love to learn. After fourteen years as a professor, I spent a lot more time teaching than I did learning, and way more time on committee work than on learning as well. And of course it’s valuable to teach, and of course the more one knows, the deeper one’s learning in a subject area can be . . . but my delight in my new job so far is the delight of new learning, the delight that it is *my job* to learn about a whole new physical condition and the medical device designed to cure or palliate that condition, to write a report on the clinical evidence for the safety and performance of the device, and then move on to learn about something else totally new, every four to six weeks. And if I also ride my bike to work, and if I also makes friends in the woods by the Celery Bog with little guys like this . . .


It’s because I’m Nobody, really, just like Emily Dickinson.

4 Replies to “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?”

  1. Rachel this is such a lovely post. I am in the middle of exiting academia (not by my choice, it’s 6 humanities programs and 12 or so senior tenured faculty that are gone with the wind. Anyway I really needed to read this today!


    1. Beth, I’m only just now seeing this comment (I’m not very on top of Blog Management, alas). There is going to be life for us both after academia, and we will still have the jewel of what we know and what we learned — the sad thing is that the next generation won’t even know the jewels exist and will be taught that education is only job training and that there is no reason to use education to search for meaning in life.


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