• Kate West

Between My Safe Space and an Academic Job

Guest post by Benjamin Thorne. Benjamin researches memory and transitional justice, using continental philosophy to explore empirical issues during periods of post-conflict transition. Benjamin tweets at @benjamin_thorne.

A chair – the generic office type – five wheels – stain-resistant upholstery. A desk – generic, like the chair, apart from a chip on the front right-hand side defining its uniqueness. A view of outside, close enough to smell and hear, but protected by concrete so as not to be overwhelmed. A warm hug that is the familiar feeling of worry. Coffee stained circles from yesterday’s caffeine. A mildly creased cardigan half hanging off the back of the generic chair – right-hand cuff touching the floor. Faded sounds of two colleagues chatting in the corridor that brings the warm feeling of being close with others without the emotional minefield of actual social interaction. This is my PhD. This is my safe space.

My status: Close to submitting the PhD; applied for several jobs; no offers; funding stops in a few months; extensive knowledge of completing online job application forms.

My concerns: How will I be able to function in an academic role without my safe space; mandatory and regular social interactions; disability friendly institutions – hmmm?

Doing a PhD can be a challenging, emotional and extremely difficult process. As someone with mental health conditions (MHC); Anxiety Disorder-depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (intrusive thoughts) and Specific Learning Difficulties (SLD) (Dyslexia and Dyspraxia) this is especially true. But my PhD is also, or has become, during nearly three years of study, a place where I feel able to function, where the specific daily challenges I face seem a bit more manageable. Where I can be Benjamin. The PhD has become my safe space.

Soon, or hopefully soon, I will need to untether myself from my safe space and begin a job in the academy. Thoughts of excitement, new challenges, and intellectual stimulation drift into a cloud of doubt and worry: do I want to, or how would I even begin to, untether myself from my safe space? Like ivy that has enveloped the side of a building its roots squeezing their way into spaces created by crumbling cement that must be removed, I too must gently recoil my emotional roots from my safe space as I begin an academic career, or maybe just rip the roots out in one go. Perhaps I can find a new building where to plant my ivy…?

Functioning without my safe space in a new academic job will present challenges. My safe space allows me to manage my work around the changeable impact of my MHCs and SLDs. A fact for you: I can have good mental health days, sometimes several good mental health days, when it has a low impact on my ability to work. On such days I am less reliant on my safe space. But, however, crucially, and notwithstanding the above, there are days when my mental health and by relation SLDs are very bad and having my safe space on these days makes life a little easier, or at least more manageable.

Now, imagine that I have an academic job and, on this day, my mental health is bad: my levels of anxiety are close to unmanageable, because of my anxiety levels my cognitive ability is significantly impeded, and because of my OCD I am obsessively fixating on something that has no relevance to the pile of work I need to do. In this state of heightened agitation and cognitive impediment I need to finish writing a draft chapter, prepare a lecture, respond to numerous emails and hold office hours. My safe space helps to mitigate some of this, or at the very least provides a calming space amongst all the messiness. How would this work in my role as an academic?

I like people. I like talking to people. But social interactions can exacerbate my anxiety and OCD. Add dyspraxia and my surroundings cause a visual and aural sensory overload which can make engaging with people a stressful and even traumatic experience. My safe space helps me manage social interactions. On campus I have an individual office space made available through ‘reasonable adjustments’. If going to campus is too much, I can work from home. My safe space means that the decision and how to socialise is on my own terms. This autonomy may not exist in my role as an academic. Amongst the many different kinds of social interactions there is one that a fear the most—the ad-hoc interaction and its lack of structure and preparation: passing a colleague in the corridor; queuing at the canteen when a colleague asks you to join their table; or, possibly the worse one of all, washing your hands after using the toilet and a colleague standing next to you says, ‘Hi…'. As social interactions go, I feel measurably less anxious presenting a paper at an international conference than I do being invited to the pub at 16.55 on a Friday afternoon.

A dyslexic academic told me that when I start an academic job I will need to ‘deal’ with my dyslexia and dyspraxia because universities won’t make concessions. While I agree that it can be useful to actively help yourself, I strongly disagree with the idea that academics with MHCs and/or SLDs should change to fit institutional systems. The University should adapt to its staff and not the other way around. While there are ostensibly some positive changes occurring in universities’ attitudes towards disabilities, I wonder what the everyday realities of being an academic with MHC and/or SLDs are behind this positive language of disability? When government cuts mean department heads are faced with budget restrictions, what long-term support exists for disabled academics to fulfil our potential?

All academics, all humans, have both physical health and mental health and for many their mental health will be good, but many will also experience bad mental health. The sooner universities understand mental health not as something ‘over there’ that a few unfortunate people have but something that exists in all of us, the more likely it is we will see tangible positive change. In my continuing journey from my safe space to an academic job, a future employer will need to accept me in my entirety: both the polished bits and rough edges.