Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Steps for ‘Recovering Academics’?

Ever since coming across the wonderful blog The Reading List by Canadian writer Leslie Shimotakahara, I have been contemplating the growing phenomena of the post-academic community and its potential comparison to the support system offered by Alcoholics Anonymous Fellowship. This curiosity was prompted by Shimotakahara’s self-identification as ‘a writer and recovering academic’. After enjoying her academic successes as an English undergrad and later MA and PhD, like so many other grad students, she followed the expected path of higher education adjunct teaching, moving along most likely (although it isn’t explicit, she implies this is the case), with the expectation that she would eventually land a tenure track faculty post. What else is there to do when you have had a great history as an academic success throughout your school and university life, are passionate about your area of study (perhaps so passionate that you feel addicted to it?) and imagine living an existence where you can indulge in this love and inspire the next generation of thinkers?
Luckily, unlike some of us, she taught for only two years before realising, after having ‘a breakdown’, that this dream was an unhealthy fantasy that only dragged her down. Her departure from academia led her to return ‘home’, back to the security and love of family. It is there where she began to rebuild her life while reconnecting with her father by sharing his love of reading. Throughout this time, she returned to her love of creating writing and has published her memoir recently in February 2012.
Reading about Shimotakahara’s decision to move out of academia after an emotional plummet to what some may call the ‘rock bottom’, echoes some of the discourse we often hear about individuals’ struggle to live a life without alcohol addiction. Recovery narratives for alcoholics and others with experiences of addiction, follow a similar mode. They are stories about lives that become overtaken with stress and other triggers that lead to the reliance on alcohol. Sometimes this reliance arises out of learned behaviour – perhaps from family history or friendship groups. Eventually the addictive ‘crutch’ takes over, leading to destruction of family life and relationships or the loss of a professional career. Reaching rock bottom, the breakdown, is when things need to change. But it is a long and hard road back to sanity. Those who are addicted must move away from other addicted friends and the dangerous aspects of their lifestyle that led them to their descent.
While many post-academic bloggers may not have experienced the same kind of ‘breakdown’ noted by Shimotakahara, what is often revealed in blogs is individuals have reached a point of revelation about how unhealthy their working academic lives have become up to this point where they have decided enough is enough. This moment of revelation that life has to change is the crucial time when the support of others who have experienced, or who are living through the same struggles and confusions, is necessary – these connections can be a life saver, some might go as far to say. The phrase, ‘Remember you are not alone’ has been used across several blogs that I have discovered recently, and it was these words that comforted and inspired me to set up my own blog and ‘tell my story’.
I would not go as far to make the ridiculous claim that living with the decisions about whether or how one should leave academia is anything like living through the difficulties of alcohol addiction. What I am interested in is exploring the metaphor of addiction as it relates to academic activity/ies. While we come across addiction metaphors frequently when they relate to pleasurable pass-times or enthusiasms like watching our favourite tv series as long-term fans (and thus write fan-fiction, claim membership to the wider fan community, go to fan conventions…), read certain genres or writers as fans (and thus maybe write fan fiction, contribute to discussion forums and so on…), what sense can we make of the addiction metaphor when it relates to our academic working identity, where the spheres of work/play, labour/passion-love, are now so blurred, but in an unhealthy and destructive way? While I have many ponderings swimming around in my brain at the moment, I don’t have any conclusive answers to this question.  I pose it as an intriguing territory while we are on our paths to ‘post-academic recovery’.
Many of you will be familiar, through popular references, with the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. I have listed the steps here, but want to make it clear that I do not want to propose that I am making a direct comparison to ‘recovering academics’ and post-academia experiences, or that A.A.’s ‘steps’ to recovery correspond completely with our own. And I am not promoting an inclusion of a connection to ‘God’ or religion in our post-academic world. If that decision suits your life-needs, fine, but I am not here to sell it. I am really just curious about how we might see ourselves and our identities as those who are in ‘recovery’ from academia. Aside from the references to God below, I can see that some of what I have been doing over the past few weeks compares with these steps. Admitting that we are powerless over the structures and constraints of the academic institution – ‘that our lives have become unmanageable’; become willing to makes amends with others (my children for example who had to witness all of my academic work-related anxieties); continue to take personal inventory; try to carry the message to others. The decision for many of us to remain ‘anonymous’ (the fear of discovery of a weakness from others in academia?) also reveals a strong correspondence here. Of course, these steps do reflect much of the moves towards self-discovery/the self-identity projects that are so common now in contemporary society. But I would love to hear from others about your take on the addiction metaphor and how your experiences of post-academic transformation might be aligned with this metaphor.

The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
The relative success of the A.A. program seems to be due to the fact that an alcoholic who no longer drinks has an exceptional faculty for "reaching" and helping an uncontrolled drinker.

In simplest form, the A.A. program operates when a recovered alcoholic passes along the story of his or her own problem drinking, describes the sobriety he or she has found in A.A., and invites the newcomer to join the informal Fellowship.

The heart of the suggested program of personal recovery is contained in Twelve Steps describing the experience of the earliest members of the Society:

1.     We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
2.     Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3.     Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4.     Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5.     Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6.     Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7.     Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8.     Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9.     Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10.  Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11.  Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12.  Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Source: Alcoholic Anonymous Great Britain website.


  1. I do think that you bring up an interesting idea about the parallels between alcohol addiction and academia. In both cases, there is an unhealthy balance of lifestyle, or at least it is encouraged, where the alcohol or passion for subject permeates all aspects of life. I'm still transitioning out of academia, but it does help me think about what kind of lifestyle balance I want and also supports my hypothesis that academia does not support a healthy lifestyle (at least for me).

  2. Great post! Very thoughtful and insightful. Food for thought, definitely. I don't have anything to add on your metaphor of addiction to academia, as that has not been my experience. My PhD years were very toxic though, because of the culture that makes people behave in the ways you've described.

  3. Thanks to you both for your reponses. As I keep thinking about this, I get the sense that leaving academia might feel like a harder transition than leaving other career choices that individuals just finally got fed up with or eventually hated. The personal 'love' for the subject that takes us down the path of post-gard study is so hard to let go of and what I hear often from others in the game is that they keep doing it because of this passion and in spite of the many problems - not to mention, unhealthy outcomes. Of course, I realise too that this is often the story from the more well established academics I know who have secure roles and salaries (considering cuts and recession I guess that could change at any time though!) and have learned to live with and accept the many lows. My observations, overall, also show that many of my younger PhD colleagues are indeed a lot younger than I, single, no kids and have more freedom to go across the country for their first jobs etc, if they are lucky enough to get an interview and the job over the average of the other 180 applicants. That's been the stated number for Lecturer job-hunters in my field.

    1. Great post! And yes, I do think leaving academe is more traumatic than many career transitions. Few careers encourage the "this is your life, your entire life, a complete way of life" that academe does.