Working Around Work

Finals were this week, and today I wrapped up the semester by attending an award brunch. It’s the third time I’ve been given some kind of award since I first transferred in 2012, but the first time I’ve actually attended a school function like this. Kind of a weird day, and a weird way to end the semester. This is also the first time I won’t be getting a job over the summer. And that’s really, really hard for me.

There’s a lot of factors informing this decision. One factor is timing. While I’ve been submitting resumes and looking into jobs through the school, I won’t be able to really hunt for work until the beginning of June. Unfortunately I go back to school in mid-August, which leaves me little time to get much of anything lined out. Another factor is writing, which I’m trying to get off the ground. I have to get The Crashers pushed through the production and marketing process so I can get it out by fall (I hope), while I take this time between semesters to get the next manuscript finished and typed.

Yet another factor is my current health situation, which has been complicated by chronic spinal pain and my anxiety/depression shooting well beyond manageable levels in recent months. The kind of work I can immediately find (restaurants, retail, or physical labor) is really hard for me to deal with right now, because pain and anxiety kind of feed back into each other in a loop. Pain causes anxiety, anxiety makes my muscles lock and causes more pain, etc, etc.

I’ve always worked before this year, juggling school, writing, and my personal obligations with trying to manage as many hours as possible. The pain and the anxiety had to take a backseat, because I had to hunker down and struggle through no matter what. The shitty abusive working conditions I often found myself in as a broke writer and student had to take a backseat, too, which didn’t help the pain and the anxiety.

Then I had to leave my part-time job in February to focus on getting through this semester or fall behind. Now to be without a job is really scary. I’ve saved money to cover all my immediate expenses over the summer, and my family is helping me, so I’m not in any real financial danger. Even for it, to be here is hard. Most people would find the prospect of taking the summer off to write freeing, but it makes me feel guilty. It makes me feel lazy and stupid. It makes me feel dependent, because I’m 29 years old and I can’t even take care of myself.

Part of that is the depression, and the pain, and the anxiety. Part of is how I was raised, and all the bootstrap-pulling I had drilled into me as a kid. Part of it is my father’s voice nagging at me in the back of my head, because all he cares about is money and stuff and “making sure you get yours.” I recognize that, and I’m working on it. In the meantime, I’m trying to make the most of this time to get some work done.

Homeschooling, Mental Health, and the Trouble with Parents

I never set foot in a proper classroom until I started community college at 19, because I was homeschooled from K-12. This is why I am forever wary of parents who choose to pull their kids out of school. Some parents do it for the right reasons, but a lot don’t know what they’re getting into. They don’t know what they’re taking on, and what they’re agreeing to be responsible for. I’ve seen my share of horror stories to know that well enough.

My parents didn’t choose to homeschool their children for bad reasons, per se, but I don’t think they knew what they were doing. When I reached schooling age, we lived in a really poor area within a notoriously underfunded school district, and I already had a history of pretty severe anxiety/depression. I had panic attacks, always felt compulsively guilty for mistakes I made, and would frequently withdraw. Instead of going back to work, my mother decided to continue staying home to start homeschooling me. Then once I was about ten, maybe twelve, she turned to focus her attention on my younger brothers, and I was left to educate myself.

When I was eight, they moved us to an isolated rural community. I had friends, sure; they lived in our old neighborhood and I got to see them on weekends. And for a while my parents tried to get involved with the local homeschooling groups, but that was disastrous. (See the above about horror stories.) So for much of my formative years I was largely alone, in a big farmhouse, teaching myself all the way through high school. It was unconventional, but it was what it was.

But…my parents never got help for my anxiety or depression. Maybe it was better that I wasn’t in public school, but I didn’t get a chance to find that out for myself. If having outside input would have helped; if having other people in my life would have helped. They never even took me to a doctor for my behavior, and had stopped trusting doctors altogether by the time I was in my tweens. I was supposed to get magically better, or “grow out of it.” Homeschooling was the best thing for me, my mother would insist, because I was smarter than the other, average kids. Because I needed to be separated from the other, average kids.

That was their story, and they stuck to it. Even when I was over-eating. Even when I was harming myself. Even when I was ripping my own hair out by the handful. Even when I was suicidally depressed. Even when I would cry for no reason. Even when I withdrew from what friends I did have. Because, as my petty tyrant of a father would often tell me, “friends make you weak.” He would often scoff and sneer and scream at me for getting upset, or angry, or crying. He would often dress me down over every little thing I said or did or thought that he didn’t like. He was like that (and still is): too busy tearing down his children the way his father did him, all the while swearing up and down he would never be like his old man. Because it wasn’t his fault, my mother would say, because my father was damaged by his parents long before I came along. And I was trapped there, every minute of every day, with no other adults to turn to. No help.

They were both so clueless why I would be damaged; like I was just overreacting to the desperate sense of isolation I was drowning in. They both just scoffed at the idea of me needing therapy, or medication, or any help outside of their care. Because I was supposed to be above all of that, by their very peculiar standards. That’s why I couldn’t be in normal school with normal kids. But I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I shouldn’t be so sad, or angry. After all, they did everything they could for me; they gave me the best advantage they could offer. I was so great and I was so smart and they were so proud of me. I was embarrassing and I was pathetic and I needed to stop being that way. I was Schrödinger‘s Disappointment.

I don’t blame my parents for homeschooling me. I don’t blame them for not knowing what to do with an emotional hurricane for a child. I do, however, think my parents are stupid, selfish, and short-sighted people. I do think they had good intentions, but that neither of them had any business raising children together. I do think it bothers them that all their children suffer from mental health problems of one stripe or another, but that they’re more concerned with how it looks on them as parents than how it affects our every day lives. I don’t hate my parents, but it is hard to love people who are so willfully out of touch. It’s hard to love people who denied you a real education, then take credit for your achievements in adulthood.

It’s hard to love people when you weren’t really taught how to. You were just given a book and sent on your way, and told to sort yourself out. It’s hard to love people when you were never taught to love yourself first

On Writing, Education, and Comic Books

I feel very strongly about three things: Writing, education, and comic books. There’s a reason for all of this, but it’s a very long story. I never set foot in a real classroom until I was nineteen, and not a real English classroom until I was twenty-seven. As a child I received my education through homeschooling. This was for a combination of reasons, none of which are particularly interesting. When I reached school age we were living in a low income area with a notoriously poor school system; I also suffered from crippling anxiety, which made enrolling in school nearly impossible. My parents put me through art, dance and swim classes at the local recreation center, just to round out my education, but otherwise I learned at home.

From a young age, reading and writing was extremely important to me. I learned to read at the age of three. By five I was reading middle grade children’s books by myself, and at bedtime my parents read me J.R.R. Tolkien and Arthur Conan Doyle. At six I started reading comic books. At seven I began writing short stories about monsters and dragon slayers. I started sending them as contest entries to children’s magazines, but never won anything. At nine or ten, my parents bought me my first children’s word processing program, with clipart and formatting options for print. I wrote a series of fantasy stories and fairy tale parodies, around 10k words in all. Some of them are still in a box in my parents’ attic.

By the age of twelve, I was educating myself. My mother taught me prior to this, but once my younger brothers were of schooling age I had to teach myself while she tended to them. I woke up every morning, dressed, fed myself, and started my eight hour school day. My mother purchased used school text books every year, and I used them to teach and test myself. I read dictionaries and encyclopedias in my spare time. Once I exhausted them, I turned to Renaissance literature and Greek poetry. My mother said I was too young to understand it, so I took it as a challenge. Soon I was working through high school and later college text books. History, religion, art, science, even some medical texts when I could find them. This is what happens when you’re an anxious child, living in a very small town, left to your own devices.

During this time, I taught myself to write fiction. I mean, really write fiction. I didn’t have an English teacher, so I studied what I read to figure out how people were supposed to write. To figure out imagery and motif, symbol and metaphor. I studied comic books and film even closer, trying to understand visual narrative to the best of my limited abilities. That’s where I really began to understand writing, in trying to write what I see in prose, like translating a film to the page. I started writing short stories and fanfiction, longhand novellas that I mailed to friends and family. In high school my parents ended up with an old laptop, and I wrote around 500k in stories and books. When I was thirteen, I told my parents I would write comic books one day. My father scoffed at me. He hasn’t really stopped since then.

A lot of things happened to me during this time. A series of health problems cost me my teeth and my ability to work until my early twenties. Nearing college age, my parents enrolled me in a distance high school program to get my diploma. The school started sending me censures because I was completing the work too quickly. I never got a diploma from them, and instead paid for my GED myself. My scores put me in the 98th percentile. In college I had an English professor scoff at me when I told him I had a GED. He was a hack who taught from his own trashy adaptations of plays. He said GEDs were for losers and drop-outs. Still that anxious little girl from a small town, alone with a room full of books, I believed it.

My parents paid for the first two semesters of community college before they hit financial troubles, then I had to drop out and get a job. A year later I reenrolled and paid for school myself, but dropped out again before I could get my associates degree to help my struggling parents stay afloat. People made sure to chastise me for dropping out twice, for having a GED, every chance they got. I worked a series of dead-end jobs for years, published around fifteen short stories, and wrote and published a novel. I even wrote a comic or two. Along the way I suffered a fall that left me with permanent nerve damage and pain that I deal with every single day. It limited what I could do as work, and kept me working in abusive conditions because I had nowhere else to go. I was trapped. I was still a drop-out. I was still worthless, no matter how hard I worked and how badly I wanted a real, honest education.

When I was twenty-seven, I stayed up all night on the phone crying to my girlfriend because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get an education. I had bad teeth and nerve damage, and I would never amount to anything. With nothing else going for me, I applied for admission to the state college, just to see what would happen. I got in. I made the dean’s list and the honor roll during my first semester, and received small grants and scholarships for academic performance. I walked into real English classrooms for the first time in my entire life and felt at home. I was met by professors who were thrilled by my writing ability, and classmates who were jealous for it. Somewhere along the way, I started three more novels, finished one, and started reviewing comic books.

I still have a few semesters to go before I finish. I don’t know what I’ll do with my degree yet. Now instead of calling me a drop-out and a loser, some people tell me I’m stupid for going back to school. Others tell me I’m making an investment in my future. But I’m not doing this for them. I don’t write for them, either. I’ve worked, studied, and struggled my whole life – to educate myself when no one else could, to teach myself how to write when I had no other guidance. This is why I write. This is why I care about literature, be it a book or a comic. This is why I care about education. And this is why, no matter how hard you try, you will not stop me.