from 19 July
a ten-minute read
There’s a saying in marketing when it comes to picking your target audience: go wide, or go deep. But it also applies in writing. ‘Go wide’ means describing or relaying an experience that almost everyone can relate to, understand, or at least empathise with – like all those funny/heartfelt parenting articles out there. ‘Go deep’, on the other hand, means creating something based on a set of circumstances or events that may be distinctly unique or personal, for an audience that might only be yourself, or for a handful of others who can relate.
Today, I’m going to go deep. Bear with me if you do read this, as it contains a lot of self-pity born of anger and frustration, and midlife crisis-ness. I’m going to have a cathartic rant here. Trigger warning: whinging ahead. And buckle in for some backstory too.
In my alcohol-free journey, today marks Day 200 for me. Yay, right? Well, yes. But I’ve really been struggling the past few weeks. Not with being alcohol-free, per se. Just with my life. Chalk this up to midlife crisis number…37? I don’t know. I’ve lost count.
Let me say first (disclaimer!): these are totally first world problems kind of stuff. Thank God (literally) there’s nothing major with regard to health, marriage, children, family, unemployment. (There is that tiny problem of the pandemic simmering away in the background, but we’ll just park that for now.) Those aforementioned are The Big Things that can really cause people to become undone – and rightfully so. Mine is more of a crisis of the existential variety. But more on that shortly.
Today, Day 200, also marks the one-year anniversary (thank you, Facebook) of me moving into my very own academic office at the university where I have been teaching as a casual employee for seven years. To my non-Australian reader(s), ‘casual’ in my case means I’m on a contract. But not a one-year contract that automatically gets renewed. I’m employed on a semester to semester basis. And have been for SEVEN years. How is this even legal, I sometimes wonder.
Being on a semester-based contract comes with the following trade-offs: I never really know what my income will be, year to year. Sometimes, I’ve been given very little notice about what I’m teaching/delivering, often being the ‘last to know’. It also means I have no opportunity to take holidays or vacation time when I want – I have to squeeze them in around my contract dates. When my kids were little, not being able to take leave when I needed it was regularly problematic, as their school holidays often didn’t align with the university ones. If my kids or husband (or God forbid, parents on the other side of the world….ugh!) get sick, I also have no family/carer’s leave. And no promise of a job to return to, should I need to take extended time off, unpaid. Because of, y’know, life.
When I create resources for the online teaching platform, they are not mine. They are considered the intellectual property of my employer, the university. I have put in hours creating resources for my classes, only to have them commandeered, without so much as an acknowledgement or even a thank you. On multiple occasions, my resources have likely been handed over for another colleague to use – the one with the permanent job – so that person could do the teaching. It’s all a bit heartbreaking, really. I’m all for collegiality and sharing. But sometimes you can’t help but feeling a bit…used. My colleagues aren’t doing anything wrong. It’s just the way the (broken) system works.
Most worrying about being a casual employee is that I have no sick leave. None. I only discovered this hard truth earlier this year, when the pandemic settled in. Gulp.
In addition to all of these little injustices, the greater subtext of it all means that I’m never guaranteed my job. Now this was something I chose to accept early on. And that’s actually quite easy to do when you enjoy the work you do. I also thought the permanent job would be coming one day in the not-to-distant future, and I wanted to be in the right place at the right time. (‘He promised he’s going to leave his wife – when the time is right…’)
It was short term pain, long term gain – or so I thought. I completed my Master’s degree, hoping that achievement would bring me one step closer to securing the permanent job when the time came. Once I had the permanent job, I could apply to do my PhD. I would have the paid time to pursue getting some academic publications: Publish or perish is the old saying in academia. While my permanent colleagues are spending their off-seasons completing creative works or academic publications, mine is spent hustling for copywriting work. I just have to bide my time.
So, I thought I had a good-ish plan in place. Until.
I know what you may be thinking: yes, I willingly made the choice to sacrifice something more permanent (eg, working in a high school or another 9-to-5 job) for something more…flexible, I liked to tell myself. But really, ‘vulnerable’ is a much better word to describe my work situation. My career, in fact. Unlike many other university casuals who still work in their industry and do some teaching on the side, this is not the case for me. Never has been. This is my career. And I’ve now been slapped in the face with the consequences of this reality in the wake of COVID-19.
A few week’s ago I was informed – via a three-sentence email from one of the university’s administrators – that one of the classes I have been teaching on campus for the past several years would now only be delivered online. And not by me, but by a permanent lecturer. The email also said, and I quote, ‘we value your assistance’. Like I’m just the chipper office gal making the coffees and doing the photocopying! *Cue Mad Men theme song.*
This little bit of news came less than three weeks before the next semester (and new contracts) was due to start – and in response to an email query that I raised. Which begs the question as to when was I going to be told this great news, that my workload and income was essentially halved. (I realise I am still luckier than many, those who have no job.) But this reminded me of the old saying about the bucket of water: when you pull your hand out, nothing remains to ever show you were there. *Cue tears*
Now let’s jump back to one year ago today, when I was given an office on-campus. I was feeling pretty positive. At the time, the university’s Bachelor of Arts degree was being revamped to make it more competitive in this market. (Yes, they speak like that, because education, like all things, is no longer a service but something that has been unashamedly commoditised.) The head of school who had tried a couple of years ago to axe it all together had thankfully ridden off into the sunset, and we had a great new head of school to move us forward (and thankfully, still do).
I thought things were FINALLY moving in a positive direction. And here was my new office as the proof! My employers were finally going to put a ring on it after six long years. My ongoing joke about my employment status is that I am treated like a mistress: I’m good enough for the 3am drunk dial, there to pick up the pieces. But there are no shared holidays, and I’m not worthy of the real commitment – in this case, the one that comes with being offered a permanent role. It’s only now that I’ve begun to realise: he’s never going to leave his wife.
For so many in the ‘modern’ world of work, the employer gets to hold all the cards, to have their cake and eat it too. Apply whatever metaphor or cliché you want to my situation, and countless other ‘contract’ or freelance employees. They all work. (Pardon the pun.)
Other small injustices: attending hours of staff meetings, required training, or completing other ‘administrative’ duties over the years, much of which has been unpaid or has exceeded my allocated bucket of hours for these tasks and expectations. While I had at one point been included on the Staff Profiles page (I had even been asked to send in a picture), I later had my image and contact details removed. Because, I was told, I’m not part of the permanent staff – this, after five years and teaching hundreds of students. Ouch. Wait, tell me again how ‘valued’ I am?
Also: some of the hourly pay rates for contract employees have been “recoded” and changed to lesser dollar amounts. So, my pay for doing the same work is actually going down, while for my permanent colleagues, their rate of pay continues to go up every year. I have often taught over and above what is considered a full time load for a permanent employee. But when you’re casual? You always have to take what’s offered, or risk not being asked again. That means you lose either income or your job, or possibly both.
Another example: the once-standard pay rate that included a ‘lecture’ has now been reduced to a tutorial (lower hourly amount). Same work, less money. It’s always the people at the bottom of the food chain where the The Man sees fit to make the cuts: this has been true since feudal times. But I digress.
Just this past week, ABC News did a feature story on this kind of exploitation, calling out all universities for their hypocrisy (many of which have multi-billion dollar endowments). The article also cited workers’ unions referring to this treatment and the casualization of the workforce as the university sector’s “dirty secret”. This, coupled with the Federal government’s announcement in June to double the fees of humanities degrees and others, (goddamn you, STEM courses!) and I can’t help but feeling like I have put all of my career eggs in the wrong basket.
About a month ago – convinced the universe was trying to tell me something – another job at the university came along. A different role, but one that I still allowed myself to get excited at the prospect of perhaps doing. The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that this one was ‘the one’ for me. After years of waiting for the right position to come along, this was it! It had to be. A near-perfect match to my skills set, and now I had a completed Master’s to help unlock the door! It still involved some teaching. But no marking of papers. Woo-hoo! It involved working with and supporting students, and their pastoral care. Big tick! It involved teaching research and writing – two things I Nerd-Out over, and still what I consider to be at the heart of my craft, of who I am, of what I do, one of my gifts. Whatever you want to call it. Thank you, universe! This was worth giving up a weekend of my life for, to update my resume and complete the rest of the job application. It was definitely a sign for me to move in another, but still related, direction. After all, my career plan as a lecturer was being dealt moral blow after mortal blow. Yes! This is where I need to be now. Namaste.
Well – SPOILER ALERT – guess what? I didn’t get the job. Not only that, I didn’t even get granted the opportunity to interview for the position. I wanted to howl in disappointment when I got the auto-generated and soulless ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ email from human resources. *Cue more tears*
WHYwhywhywhywhywhywhy?!?! This was the next (blind rage) stage of the reaction. When I reached out to ask for feedback a week later, I was told that while I had met all the selection criteria (um, thanks?), there were other candidates with more experience in these X areas. A week later, and I had another fresh round of feelings to deal with. *Cue even more tears*
Then began my very own pity party. Invite list: One. This has been the story of my working life! I thought to myself. I’m always too something (too overqualified, too underqualified, too inexperienced, too old, too young, too American) or not enough of something: experience working with teams/working independently/working on [insert name of] learning/social media/delivery platform, working with X kind of student/working across X sectors/working with X budgets, resources, spreadsheets – you name it. Not enough publications in X. Not enough education/qualifications related to X. Not enough. I AM NOT ENOUGH. I seem to perpetually fall into this weird career chasm of too much of something but not enough something else. A bit like Mae West.
So I spent an entire day this last week (Thursday, in fact) just hating on the universe – not hating my life. Because, yes, there is a difference. Perhaps more accurately, I didn’t like what the universe was trying to tell me. Because I’m still trying to figure out what the feck that is as I go along. As my wise friend Beth says: the universe is a funny bitch. Indeed.
When I was deep in the throes of my hate spiral, it even made me regret doing my Master’s in writing. (I thought you were only supposed to regret the things you didn’t do, not the things you did do?) Why didn’t I pick a Master’s that was more ‘marketable’? How im-fucking-practical of me! Follow your heart, go with your gut, if you build it they will come. All that kinda new-agey, post-The Secret clap-trap! And I fell for it.
All of this positive-vibe saturation I’ve really been trying to immerse myself in? (Which, incidentally all basically say the same thing, and that is this: Believe.) It all dissolved with one good rattle from the career gods. *Cue mirthless laughter and Book of Job references*
So, what does any of this have to do with being booze-free? Well, as you probably gathered, this was a time – perhaps the time – when I most wanted to have a goddamn drink. I don’t even like whiskey, but something about that sweet burn and sweet release really appealed to me.
But as Carolyn Knapp said: my psychological safety net was gone. ‘Booze’ she writes, is ‘the liquid security blanket; the substance that muffles emptiness and anger like a cold snow.’ Yes, I definitely wanted some serious anger-muffling. But it would not be there for me this time. I couldn’t cover myself in a mental blanket of whiskey or even my old trusted friend, red wine.
I’m lucky I’ve never been a (consistently) mean, angry or sobby drunk. So a few glasses would have worked a treat to anesthetise myself for a few hours. Just blur the edges and escape for a while. I thought about it. I wanted to. These events – both a consequence of, and combined with, the pandemic – have possibly contributed to some of the hardest days that I’ve had during my AF-existence. Even harder than during the early lockdown days, when all those Quarantini recipes and booze memes were circulating bigtime on social media.
In the past months, I’ve lost both hair (I have recurring alopecia) and sleep over my work situation. The lost sleep is like having a recurrence of a long-forgotten affliction. Since quitting booze, I’ve generally been sleeping like a baby. But lately, I’ve had that middle of the night plaguing restlessness, monkey-mind whirring like an old-school electric fan.
So it’s been hard. Because who isn’t feeling fragile and grumpy and scraping through the day when they’re sleep deprived? All problems become bigger problems at 3am. They are the monsters in the adult’s closet.
Work is so closely tied to your identity. So you can’t help but take this kind of stuff a little bit personally – at least on some level. Two: it makes you realise how little control you have over some situations – even when you have all the right things, and tick all the boxes, and there’s still nothing you can do to change the outcome. (Like that dude Chad in your Lit 101 class that you crushed on and totally matched with ‘on paper’…but he just wasn’t that in to you! You later found out that Chad was – as the name indicates – a total jerk-ass, so you dodged a total bullet there, my friend!) Three: sometimes as much as we hate to admit it, it’s not the time for what we think we want. Or what we think is best for us. (Ask my mum: I HATE this lesson. It is the bitterest pill of all for me. No matter how many times I learn it, it never gets any easier. Unlike, say, playing a Bm chord on the guitar.) And lastly: it was hard to process all of this because I had to feel all the feelings.
Because I’ve broken up with alcohol (for now at least), it means I can’t just drown them out, temporarily. Or cover them up. Or put them in a box and come back to deal with them later. Which is what alcohol does – for me anyway. I had to actually – brace yourself – work through those feelings. The roller coaster of the disappointment, the hurt, the anger, the frustration, the eff-you-ness, the you’re-not-enough-ness.
All of it. I had to just let myself indulge in the cathartic sulking for a day or so. But I actually gave myself permission to do that. If I had drank, I still would have felt sorry for myself. But then I would also have the added problem of being mad at myself for caving on my commitment. And so far in! The day-after drinking cloak of shame is as easy to slip on as a favourite dressing gown, but as hard to shake off as an anaconda. It’s like walking around in a big, wet British greatcoat of guilt.
But after my day(ish) of hating on the universe, I was just able to just kinda move on. It was like a stormy day, and then the clouds lifted. Hurray. Onwards and upwards. What do you really have in store for me, universe? I know it must be better.
If I drank – would that have just prolonged the processing? Would I have interrupted the ‘feeling and healing’ only to have it drag on for days, incrementally, making me touchy and sour and quick to anger? Like so much that I’ve been discovering on my AF journey: I don’t know for sure. I’m like the Anti-Oprah: there is no shit I know for sure.
But I do know this, right now: I’m happy I didn’t drink. Everything else? I can deal with.