Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Grad School, Part Two

Another unedited excerpt of Wrecking Ball

In seminar my behavior could get tongues wagging. In a small program, the same fifteen people took courses simultaneously, several times a week. I got to know several of my classmates well as a result and I’m sure they got to know at least one prominent side of me. A year or so before, I’d attended an intense, highly partisan Unitarian Young Adult conference. For the first time in my life, I was introduced to an aggressive dose of queer theory and radical politics.

Memories of the experience stayed with me for a long time. I suppose I’m still processing the shock today. I’d been afraid of many of those parts of myself until then, but the energetic presentation I observed boosted my confidence considerably. But then I had to go home, back to a culture diametrically opposed to what I’d learned.

Upon my return to Alabama, I’m sure I courted gossip in bushels. To most of my fellow students, I think I was probably considered something of a radical leftist. It was true that I had been recently radicalized and empowered, but I returned to a very conservative state and a very conservative school. Few shared my beliefs and a few were hostile to them, though they never directly challenged me.

I’d previously conducted my affairs with men incognito, but I was no longer willing to stay closeted. Had I not been in the middle of mania, I would have never had the courage to be so open. Today, with thousands of dollars of therapy bills to show for it, I’m still afraid and made uncomfortable around other men. One of the paradoxes of my life is that only being inhibited or intoxicated allows me the ability to truly relax and not feel mortified in male company.

One day, on some errand or another to the history department office, I shyly asked a student in my program if he was gay. He was seated behind a desk in the front, the de facto secretary. I believe I passed him a note written on notebook paper, not courageous enough to ask point blank. He indicated that he was, noting that he wished there wasn’t a need for such secrecy. Now he was in on what would become the worst kept secret of all.

From then on out, I took great delight in being a huge tease. I discovered he wasn’t bold enough to suggest we go to bed. For the sake of shock value alone, while seated a chair over in seminar, I’d leave my notebook open where he could see it. Inside, I’d earlier, quite deliberately, hidden a particular magazine that showcased the physical profiles of attractive, very naked men. With a kind of glee, I delighted as he took a sharp intake of breath in surprise, as I immediately closed my notebook resolutely shut.

I enjoyed having control in situations like these, situations that I’d created myself. Earlier in my life, I’d been placed in a submissive posture where I’d been unable to assert my own free will. Now, seeking to even the score, I got to be the one who called the shots. It was pleasurable and gratifying to encourage men to pursue me, or at least to acknowledge that they found me sexually appealing.

In the unique circumstances mania provided,  I wanted as much as I could get. This recently adopted attitude influenced all aspects of my life. For example, I audaciously chose to review a book for class that explored the intersection between homosexuality and southern identity. Once I’d given my presentation, the professor moved across the table from me. I’d dared to show myself as queer, and he couldn’t deal with it.

Nearly ten years later, I could feel more scorned, more rejected, but I don’t. Our personalities and ideas were similar and I thought of him almost as a colleague, not an instructor. Perhaps that is what got to him, the idea that someone who wasn’t heterosexual could hold similar views with the same no-nonsense logic. I still hold him in high regard as a scholar and intellectual. Though his behavior disappointed me, I greatly respected his intellect and the ideas he introduced. Many still percolate in my mind, influencing the words I write today.

To his credit, he made a concerted effort later in the class to redeem himself. I could tell he was uncomfortable with me as I was. He was not used to this display of boldness. In the South, being queer is a private matter, where it might conceivably be less of a societal taboo in a different location. There were too many ironies at play for me to be indignant, even for wholly justified reasons.

To return to the minutia of class, I found my life constantly occupied with reading, writing, memorizing, and theorizing. School usually came easily for me. I focused now exclusively on my strongest subject, history, and assumed it would be only moderately challenging. Instead, I found myself stretched in ways I’d never before thought possible. I was never given an exam or a test once during my master’s program, but was expected to spit out completed assignments and analysis on a nearly daily basis.

For a while, mania came to my aid. When some students would spend two or three hours on a paper, I’d be hyperactive enough to devote nine or ten hours. Had mania not reached a state where I’d border and teeter on the edge of psychosis, which simply means being out of touch with reality, it might have been helpful. I made mostly A’s on my papers. My contributions in seminar were uniformly strong, and sometimes I even dazzled, reaching heights I’d never before dreamed I could manage.

In academia, eccentricity is expected and not necessarily thought to be out of the ordinary. Provided I could get my work done, no one really objected to my frequently erratic behavior. As is the case in many separate instances throughout the course of my life, I wish people had intervened well before I got severely ill. Environment was also a factor in why no one thought to reach out. I spent most of my time in situations among other people whose behavior and demeanor was often not considered ordinary or usual.

It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before I got too high and too ill. Final presentations came due. We were to observe and comment upon the work of others. A classmate wrote a paper on the history of The Beatles. He played a video segment in front of the class on a laptop as part of his presentation.  I’d seen it myself several times before. As it played, I energetically mimed, word perfect, the words of John Lennon during a particular interview.

My overstimulated mind performed flawlessly with the mimicry. Even when mentally well, my recall and memory was thought by many to be impressive. But in any case, my behavior during the presentation made me seem even stranger than before. Everything came to a crashing, clattering halt shortly thereafter. I was so manic that I began to dominate class discussions with rambling commentary.

My manic depression was common knowledge because I made no attempt to hide it. My professors were concerned about me, but likely didn’t know how to respond. Disaster struck. I lost the ability to write papers, read, and keep up with my classroom obligations.

The ability to produce expired with two weeks left at end of the term. It seemed unfair to have completed 90% of the work, only to fall flat at the end. I would have failed all three classes, had I not withdrawn from them. My first hospitalization specifically for mania, not for depression, followed next.

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