depressed sabbatical is not de best sabbatical

I have a good job. I teach at a nice college, with lots of benefits. As one of those benefits, every few years, professors earn a sabbatical. Professors love sabbaticals! They are nearly mythical beasts, a too rare perk for an increasingly precarious and exploited faculty. So they should be cherished and appreciated. And most do. My colleagues count down the years until their next one, the light at the end of the tunnel of the demands of teaching and service. And when they get back from their all-too-short leave, every conversations starts off with, “On my sabbatical…,” mixing stories of scholarly success with complaints about the difficulties of transitioning back into the day-to-day drudgery of the real world. Ultimately, refreshed and revitalized, they settle back into their normal routine, which means returning to counting down the years until their next big break.

That’s not me. I just started my sabbatical, and I’m miserable. I’m afraid it’s killing me.

Part of this, of course, is that it is taking place while the world burns, and the best I can do is fiddle about. Its destruction is my distraction. Or, perhaps, its distraction is my destruction. Either way, the conditions for productive happiness are hopelessly compromised. But it’s not that. It’s me. And my sabbatical.

I’m depressed. I’ve always battled depression and rarely won. I survive, I guess, but its a burden I can’t seem to shake. At this point, it’s become so much a part of who I am, I’m unable to even conceive of what it would mean to shake it. But under normal conditions, I muddle through. Sabbatical, of course, is not normal conditions. Others embrace it because it allows them to finally do what they really want. I dread it because, finally, I have to become that which I truly am. A depressed, social isolate, consistently failing to live up to my own ambitions.

What’s a sabbatical? It’s complicated, of course, but the grand prize, the one everyone celebrates, is a break from teaching. Teaching traps us in time and place. We have to be in class. We have to prepare that lecture. We have to read those papers and we have to get our grades in on time. A break from teaching, then, releases those constraints, freeing us to do other things. My problem is that teaching is (perhaps) the (only) thing I am good at. Some (especially my students!) might disagree, so it may make more sense to frame it differently. The classroom is the one place where I forget how depressed I am. It is the only place that consistently offers me a way to be free of my normal levels of overwhelming doubt and anxiety. Teaching is the escape. So why would I want to escape it?

What happens when I lose that? When I lose the thing that keeps me off the edge? I am beginning to find out, and initial signs don’t look good. A break from the classroom has simply left me broken, cut off from teaching, as well as the social infrastructures that support it — students, colleagues, public good. My sabbatical so far is an exercise in social isolation. Unmoored, I sink lower. Rather than providing me the time to work, it forces on me unlimited time to think. And when I let myself think, my thoughts turn dark (or blank), caught in a unproductive cycle of self reflexiveness. Aware enough to think I know what’s happening, but too clueless to be able to intervene. I wake up every morning to stare out the window, watching myself slowly drown in the distance, feeling powerless to do anything, and not even relieved when the day is over, since I know it will start again tomorrow.

But it’s not like a sabbatical is just a get-out-of-teaching-free card. You have to give something to get something. Strings are attached. What is expected?Writing and scholarship! The stuff that really matters for academics, since only they contribute to the glory of our institutions, and add to the vast treasure trove of scholarly knowledge. Here my anxiety and doubt, already running deep, runs wild. In this, to be sure, I am not alone (or I am alone, but not the only one). It is a standard tale of woe for writers, academics in particular, to struggle with their writing hang ups. I am no different, it seems. But I do feel particularly bad at writing. Or at least, I feel particularly bad while writing.

Teaching is more than a refuge, it’s also an excuse. Sabbatical relies on this very assumption; just like you’ll sleep when you’re dead, you’ll write when you’re on leave. But now that I’m here, I don’t know what I’m doing. When teaching, I pour myself into its pleasures and challenges, keeping myself afloat and moving ahead. That comes with a price. Now that my sabbatical has come, whatever rudimentary skills I had as researcher and writer have rusted and fallen into disrepair. In theory, these could be cleaned up and put back to use. Confronting the enormity of these demands along with the enormity of my own limitations, it seems impossible. Only a month in, and my leave already feels like a failure. As I sit staring at the screen, I desire nothing more than to get called back to teaching, to fill in for a colleague called away by emergency. (I already did this once, postponing my sabbatical a semester to cover for someone on family leave. Taking one for the team as a way to protect my mental health.) The chances of that happening again are vanishingly small. This isn’t going away. This “incredible opportunity” is a total drag. For me, at least.

It’s not like I don’t have plans and ideas and ambitions. While I suspect that I mostly have them as a way to punish myself for failing to live up to them, they nevertheless exist. They may be bad ideas, but they’re mine, so I might as well do something wth them. I have two stalled (I almost wrote failed, but let’s be optimistic!) book projects that I would like to complete, or at least make progress on. Plus, a little thought experiment I hope to develop, just to see where it goes, where it might take me.

My strategy is simple, which means it’s either brilliant or doomed (or both — or neither). I hope to no longer suffer in silence, to try and overcome this damaging isolation of sabbatical in order to keep it from killing me. This little essay is a first step, although given the zero readership I have developed, it’s clearly more symbolic than material. But that’s all that I have, so I’ll take it and try to make the best of it.

To be sure, maybe writing and doing academic work is not the answer, and my troubles are simply a way for history to tell me to do something else, something more productive. Perhaps. But that’s another story. And depression creates obstacles there, too. I may write about that, as well, at some point.

What happens next? I try to come back. I try to write. I try to create some meaningful spaces beyond the classroom that can help keep me going. Maybe Medium is the place for this. Maybe not. It probably doesn’t matter anyway, but maybe it does, so I’ll pretend that it does. For now.