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Volume 54, Number 4 Fall 2021
Edited by Dominique Thomas, Morehouse College and Allana Zuckerman, Mesa Community College
Written by Allana Zuckerman, Mesa Community College
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”
During my fifth year of graduate school, I was teaching an undergraduate class, working on multiple projects including my dissertation, and submitting 6 abstracts to one conference believing I could do them all because they were theoretically connected and because I am a superhuman...no wait, just the first one actually. When they were all accepted, I was excited but quickly after the initial excitement emerged terror. Heart pounding, anxiety spiraling terror. Insomnia, an old friend of mine, coupled with almost daily panic attacks led to extreme exhaustion. Thankfully I was in therapy during this time and my therapist advised that for my mental health I needed to remove myself from the conference. Step 1 was telling my co-authors that I would have to remove myself from the conference for health reasons but I would still work on the presentations even though I could not be there to present them. Step 2 was fighting the internalization of my seemingly neverending imposter syndrome in academia. Step 3 was more difficult and really didn’t help me in working on step 2. Because next came dealing with the fallout of losing professional connections because, at that exact moment, I needed rest.
I share this story because this kind of thing is not uncommon. We espouse empathy, sympathy, connection, and community in the field of community psychology and psychology as a whole. However, once someone is unable to produce, once they need a break, they are discarded. The message was very clear - I am only worth your time or attention if I can produce but once I need to rest I no longer hold value to you. The lesson learned during the third step was the hardest of my academic career.
The recent emergence of Black women in sports preserving their mental health over performance speaks to me on so many levels. Being a Black/biracial queer woman who has experienced a plethora of microaggressions (and macroaggressions) within academia and beyond, I am not surprised to hear the toll being in toxic environments has on those of us from intersectional identities. What delights me is what Black women like Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Sha’carri Richardson, and Simone Biles are doing with the power they hold in their fields. When Naomi Osaka took herself out of the Wimbledon because of the toll these toxic spaces have on her mental health I thought “Wow, what a powerful message”. I also wished I was still in graduate school when it happened because her act of self-preservation, an act of resistance as Audre Lorde reminds us, would have given me added strength during a difficult time. The added strength being - I am not alone.
Graduate school is extremely isolating, particularly when you are a first-generation college student, let alone a first-generation graduate school student, and few in your familial support fully grasp the unique experience of the academy (A constant answer to the question of monetary compensation for my work was “Yes, I am still working on that article and no, I will not be paid once it is published”). Particularly when you are from a lower socioeconomic class than your peers and find yourself without the benefits of a paid-for car or apartment or even enough money to pay the bills. Particularly when you move from hundreds or thousands of miles away without the resources to see your family during times of joy or turmoil. Particularly when the demographics of the professors and students who are now your major source of interaction after a hundred or thousand-mile move know little to nothing about your lived experience.
Those of us who come to these spaces, moving thousands of miles away from support, from everything we ever knew, to be in spaces where we are then overworked, underserved, or worse abused, deserve more from the academy. And one day, we may not be around for the academy to find out.
But community psychology is not Wimbledon, right? We are community. We are research, and action, and practice. We are academics. We are practitioners. We are mental health professionals. And we are also more than the titles we hold. How can we, within a field of mental health, argue the need for rest while simultaneously punishing those within our own field who need the same?
So I planned on a one-semester mental health break, moved closer to my support system, and moved in with my then-girlfriend (and current wife). During this time, my family matriarch became fatally ill. Being closer to home allowed me to help take care of her in her final days, an invaluable time I would never have been able to do while full-time in a graduate program being 1800 miles away. So what started as a semester turned into over a year away from the academy where I moved across the country closer to my family support system, moved in with my future wife, helped take care of my family matriarch in her dying days, and then, I completed my Ph.D. And guess what??? The work was always there! (Spoiler alert!) But the final days of my family matriarch would not have been (and the family I am building with my wife may not have either).
And unfortunately, power dynamics add another layer to who is even able to take a break and the consequences that await you. In an effort to persuade me to stay (even when I was advised by my mental health professional to take a break for my health), I was told by an academic advisor that leaving would affect my ability to receive quality recommendations for post-graduate employment...I am now a tenure-track professor at a major community college who received multiple quality recommendations, they were just from people who never gave up on me when I took a break.
There is a path for everyone, even if you or those who profess to support you cannot see it themselves. Do not let anyone bully or threaten you from taking care of yourself. The work will always be there. And the work is not worth your life because that is what we are talking about at the end of the day. When you overwork yourself physically and mentally, what resources do you have to survive, let alone thrive?
Unfortunately, breaks are not easily obtained in graduate school. Every “break” and “holiday” has a constant cloud of work hovering, following, reminding, weighing you down. “I am always working” is a mantra I often heard repeated in academic spaces. If you are always working, when do you rest? When is there time for a break? Time for you to recharge so you can actively engage with the world around you? The answer is there is none. And for me, I found anxiety (and sometimes depression) soon follows when I am “always working”.
Rest is a radical act. Recovery in the face of constant abuse is an act of resistance to oppression. The guilt that quickly follows is a tool of the colonizer, effectively used to keep you working yourself for the good of the system until physical or mental impairment or death. I’m not here to play “Oh woe is me” but rather to break this cycle. And I’m going to say something that may seem controversial but really shouldn't be...it is not okay to work anyone to death. And I ain’t here for it. Period.
We can break this narrative. You are worthy, even when you want to hurl your computer against a wall in frustration or simply cannot look at another thing today. I am worthy even when I need to take a break. We can let each other know that we are worthy even when we cannot produce and need a break to rest and reset.
I am now on the other side so to speak and I model this idea for my students with what is called a wellness statement. I found the idea from a post by Dr. Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, Department of Sociology, Brown University via Twitter @nvancleve. In the wellness statement, I let students know upfront that working themselves to mental or physical exhaustion is not the goal of my class. I share the Audre Lorde quote that I opened this article with, that self-care is an act of political warfare and should be treated as such. I drop the lowest grade on several assignments for students to have the freedom of a needed rest or potential unexpected life event without having this impact their grade. I share this because students are constantly amazed by this concept.
Those of us in positions of power within the academy have said power to make changes to convey to our students and to each other that we matter beyond our contribution to the academy. That rest is a radical and revolutionary act.
Who’s ready for the revolution?
This piece was conceived before Susan Wolfe stepped down as president of SCRA in the name of her own health. Thank you Susan, for your invaluable contributions, your leadership, and for your revolutionary act as president - the radical and revolutionary act of rest.