Why I Left Academia and Life Moving Forward

February 10, 2017

Something that has come with age for me has been acceptance of the fact that I am not a person who can settle. I am an enthusiastic liver of life and I dive into new adventures and opportunities with great enthusiasm and zeal, but when those things no longer serve to better my life I am not afraid to set it down and walk away.

This is who I am. I know this can frustrate people in my life, especially those who I am romantically involved with, but I refuse to apologise or feel bad about it. I think maybe sometimes it appears that I lack commitment, or have some aversion to it, but truthfully I don’t think that is what it is. I mean I have been committed, fully to being an academic for almost 8 years now, it has been something I have pursued with great sacrifice and commitment even in the face of all sorts of challenges, and I can honestly say I have given it a good part of my life, my heart and my being. However, I do believe that blind commitment for the sake of commitment is dangerous.

So no I don’t think it is a lack of commitment or fear of commitment that has led me to many of my life choices, I think it is a twofold thing. On the one hand, I have a real deep respect and serious attitude towards commitment, maybe in some ways more so than others who seem from the outside to commit so easily. I believe that committing to things, to say yes I am going to devote the majority of the time, energy, heart, soul to this thing, job, or person is a crazy serious thing. Time is so limited. Life is so short. I know that sounds cliche but fuck seriously. LIFE IS FUCKING SHORT. We are all dying. We will fade away and our lives will be forgotten. So for me this little time I do have means a lot to me. And I refuse to commit all of that time to a pursuit or person that isn’t aligned with the things I value in this life.  And I am not just talking about being happy all of the time because that is not possible or the most important thing. For me, it is about finding meaning, substance and authenticity. Having something real.

On the other side of things, I also see changing my direction as a set of experiments. I don’t want the cookie-cutter life, the things society tells me I should value. I want to discover for myself what it is I find value in and to do that I have to try a bunch of different things, meet different people, and explore alternative ways of living. The one thing I do know is the pre-packaged boxy version of life is NOT what I want. For some people, this is what they want and that is fine, I think it is awesome that they have found the life that brings them the fulfilment they need, but I know I am not that person. I am not entirely sure what the life I am seeking looks like so all I can do is experiment and trial and error my way until I find something that works.

 

I guess this is the long way of saying that I withdrew from my PhD program a few weeks ago and moved back to the States. There have been a few reasons for this and it has been a tough decision with months of contemplation, but one that I am so relieved and happy I have made. So I wanted to write a little bit about how I came to this decision and some directions I want to go in in the future.

Motivation

I have wanted to get my PhD for years now. Why you may ask, well frankly I stopped knowing a long time ago. I decided it was what I wanted to do when I was in community college. I wanted to do something challenging but I didn’t know what. I went back and forth between being a psychiatrist, a doctor, an engineer or a historian. I loved history and found escaping into the path both exciting and relieving but I knew it wouldn’t pay well. So I played around with the other options for two years before I just decided one day that that was what I was going to do. I have always had a hard time deciding what to do because for me this was more than just a decision about what I was going to do to make money, it was a statement about who I was as a person. Most importantly it was a statement about my intelligence. I cannot tell you when exactly this notion of needing to prove I was smart started but I have a few ideas. These may sound ridiculous to you, but to me, they have had an incredible impact on my life.

1.When I was in first grade I was a great reader and was put into an advanced class in 2nd grade. I was proud of this as a child. The problem occurred when over the summer I didn’t practice my reading and fell behind. I ended up being dropped from the honourable class to the remedial. It hit hard even as a 6-year-old. I remember feeling the shame and embarrassment at not being good enough. It stuck.

2.This shame carried over to 5th grade and most often expressed itself in my absolute embarrassment at my inability to spell (still a touchy topic for me). I remember my younger sister berating me for not being able to spell pickle at one point and I still get all the bad feelings when thinking about it today. But in 5th grade, it took a turn for the worst when I was asked to spell something in front of the class and I couldn’t and my teacher responded by calling me an idiot. That’s right she said I was an idiot in front of everyone. It broke me.

3. Flash forward to high school and we come to the five darkest years of my life, living with my verbally abusive stepdad and resident ass hole John. I hate John for everything he is.. it is probably part of the reason why I hate Trump so much because this dude was just like him. Arrogant, authoritative and controlling. He expressed his control over myself, my sister, my mom and my step brother by controlling everything we did. What and how much we ate. What we did in school. What we were allowed to do at home. Every day was like walking on eggshells. I remember coming home from school and waiting for him to get home. Ashley and I would stay locked in our room. As soon as the door opened my ear would be pressed against the floor to try and anticipate what kind of mood he was in. Often times his mood was bad and it would result in hours of ‘family meetings’ where we sat around and he told us how horrible we were while he chewed tobacco and spit into an old diet Pepsi bottle. If we got home before him we often would try to sneak food from the kitchen because he wouldn’t allow us to have anything. We had to be careful not to take too much because if he noticed he would punish us. Whenever my mom tried to stand up and say she had enough we would pack up and leave and stay at a hotel for the night but then the next day it would be like nothing ever happened. He controlled her. Made her feel like shit. Made her think she was helpless and couldn’t make it without him. This is what abusers do and he was an abuser. He wouldn’t let me apply to college. Wouldn’t let me take the SAT’s because he said I was too stupid to go to college. So I decided to apply to art school because I didn’t need the SAT’s for that. I loved drawing and being creative and I felt like I found something that would make me happy. But most importantly I wanted to do something he couldn’t stop, that he couldn’t control. So whether it was the right move for me or not I went for it. When I told him he lost it. He threatened to kick me out and forbade me from submitting my application. I refused to back down and my mom backed me up. They got divorced shortly after that and we moved out for the second time. I ended up dropping out after a year and realised only later that my motivation to go to art school had been a form of protest against my situation and against John. I needed to prove I could. To say fuck you whether it was really right for me or not. Again his words have stayed with me all these years. At both my college and my master’s graduation my mom and I joked about sending him an invitation as a screw everything you said I made it, but at the same time, the fact that he has always been motivation to my accomplishments makes me sad. In some ways, I’ve done things if not for him but because of him… so can I say he is still not controlling me?

4. During all this John bullshit I was also in my first relationship (secretly of course). Now let me just say at 27 I still think I am working through things and learning how to have a relationship so at 17 I can only reflect and say I was a disaster. Bring all this emotional baggage into my first relationship had its impacts. I really didn’t know what a healthy relationship looked like and I was insecure and vulnerable. When I got my first job an older guy I worked with started hitting on me. Even though I was in a relationship I really liked and felt like I needed the attention. I ended up kissing him and cheating on my boyfriend, who I quickly told and who was obviously devastated. Our relationship ended and I was broken. I begged him to take me back and when he finally did he put me in the unforgivable category. I was basically scum. To him and to myself. The worst was my own self-ridicule, I really internalised being a bad person. Instead of leaving the dysfunctional relationship, we move in together (if you needed more reasons why 18-year-olds are stupid). We worked full-time, went to school and fought. Basically, that year was the most messed up year you could imagine. When I decided to drop out of art school and go to a regular college he told me I should forget about it because I was not smart enough to get in anywhere. Seriously I don’t know what the fuck it was about people telling me I wasn’t smart but god damn it really fucking got to me. We broke up and I moved home and went to college. I was determined to prove I was a good person. I needed to be purified, to be redeemed and I was going to do that with education and god. It didn’t help that at the time I had met someone else what was really intelligent and Christian. So in an attempt to prove I was good enough, I pushed forward to try to be as smart as I could be. I started dating Tom and I felt completely inadequate and dove into being as perfect as I could be to deserve this relationship. It’s hard writing this now because I am now aware of how ridiculous this all is but I didn’t at the time, obviously.

Long story short I went full force into my education to prove to whoever that I was smart enough which has ultimately led to a crazy level of perfectionism that ultimately led to a breakdown a year ago where I started going to therapy to deal with all these issues.

Anyway… my point in stating all of this is my motivations for my education have been to prove that I was good enough to the world. I have relentlessly pursued this path of being a professor and obtaining my doctorate because I thought it would finally give me the satisfaction and confirmation that I was not worthless. Through my work in therapy and now in my new meditative practice I can see these thoughts for what they are and they no longer lack the substance that they used to, and over the past 6 months, I have had to come to terms with the implications of this reality in continuing to go after my PhD. Without that perfectionist need to prove something, being in this academic world that is primarily negative and not very satisfying just wasn’t enough for me anymore. I love my research still and I love learning for the sake of learning, but the sacrifice of money, time and emotional energy just was not worth it anymore.

Love

Upon reflection and with a difficult amount of honest, I realised that a big factor in why I decided to move to the UK was because I wanted to give my relationship with Lewis a chance. This is not the first time I have had to learn this lesson, that changing your path for someone else is never worth it, but hey, sometimes we need a little reinforcement for things to stick. Part of me is embarrassed to admit that, because even when making the decision to go I wasn’t admitting to myself what being with him was a huge motivating factor in the decision, but now in hindsight, I can see that he did impact that decision. So now I have, to be honest, and learn from these lessons. Being with someone is not worth changing my life. It is hard sometimes because we meet amazing people at the wrong times and it seems like it might be worth the opportunity to make a jump like that, and while I am not regretting that decision or past decisions I have made to take the chance of being with someone I cared about (moving to Ireland comes to mind) I think it ultimately will not lead to longer-term fulfillment because I am giving so much of myself and my life up to make the change.

Now I would just like to say again that I do not regret any of the decisions I have made, even the crazy moving around the world to be with somebody ones because even though they might not have come out of the most self-loving places, they have brought me INCREDIBLE experiences and people who have helped change my life, and that makes absolutely all the heartache and struggle worth it. No, I have no regrets, but moving forward I think it is wise to be aware that I have this tendency to go to great lengths when I am in love and be more selective and guarded with who I decide to make those commitments with… ah yes, see it comes full circle to the commitment thing!

Champagne Socialism

Another reason for my decision has largely come out of the election. Prior to the election I really loved academia because I felt like I was with like-minded people who believed in social justice and who stood for something in this world. Who helped push the narrative forward in making this world a better place. When the election happened my world shattered. Clearly, I was not living in the reality I thought I was, and my sense of my place in the world and the world we really live in really impacted me in a very real way. Suddenly sitting around and talking about social justice in an Ivry tower became unbearable.

I was disgusted by social media and how the bubble I was in sat in outrage and just passed along the same articles to people who already believed the things they were saying. I hated it all. I was so angry at the media for making this possible for giving these people a platform and sensationalising things all for profit. I felt used, with no control and like I was being completely taken advantage of for other people to make a profit without any sort of moral responsibility for their actions. I felt and still do feel disgusted by it all. For the first time, I could see the Ivry tower for what it was and I did not like it and did not want to be a part of it anymore. I was tired of sitting around in circles of academics talking about things with a sense of superior pretentiousness, discussing socialist ideas all the while being so disconnected from reality.

I felt/feel impassioned to fight for something. To fight for the environment I love, to stand up to injustice, and I just couldn’t continue to go into my office every morning and write papers that 5 other people in the world would ever read all the while sitting on my high horse of superior intellectualism looking down at the ignorant and uneducated people who we believed could never get in power but now were. I felt like my life was a lie every day. I felt like I was pretending to be smart, and so was everyone else. I was tired of being surrounded by people who supposedly stood for and cared about socialist ideas but did nothing more than post articles about their outrage.  I am still not sure how I am going to contribute, what I am going to do, but all I know is I couldn’t continue to sit there and pretend like I was making a difference.

Time to let go

After taking a good month to really think about all of the above over Christmas and into the new year I realised it just wasn’t worth the continued time and financial commitment to stay. I was not an easy decision to make, but once made it lifted a real weight from me. I had not realised how long I had been clinging to the idea of having a PhD without truly knowing why. I have been meditating and reading a lot of Buddhist texts over the past few months and they say that all life is suffering, and that suffering comes from attachment. I really believe and can see how this has manifest itself in my life, especially with the PhD. I was so attached to it, so identified with it, I made it who I was, created and ego around it that I could no longer see that it wasn’t serving me. Now that I have let it go I have peace.

Moving Forward

While I now have a pretty clear picture of what I am going to do next, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about some of the directions or guides I want to follow or reinstate in my life. As opposed to talking in goals or plans I want to talk in intentions and values and keep the rest open to what happens.

Mindfulness

Like I previously stated, I have been meditating a lot over the past few months and it was really changed my life. I can see, much more clearly how everything arises and passes away including my thoughts, emotions, and mindstates. Everything is impermanent. I can see how much of my life and time has been taken up by the narratives I create for myself, all the while missing out on what is happening in the moment because my attention is elsewhere, wrapped up in my created ego, in who I am, what I am, and how my thoughts and feelings define me. I have not been living, I have been floating in a state of unconsciousness through my life and I don’t want to anymore. My intention is to be more mindful, to let go of the future and the past and focus on the experience in the moment. It is hard, but mindfulness is helping.

This was a big reason I quit my social media, because I felt like I was just sitting there comparing and reforming my ideas about myself and wasn’t actually looking around and seeing or experiencing my reality. It really made an impact over Christmas when I realised I had not been really loving the people in my life because I had been asleep. Love takes effort, it takes presence. I want to be present for those I love, I want to be an active participant in the everyday moments of my life.

body and consumption

It is my intention to treat my body better. To eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. I also need to align my actions and my beliefs. For a long time now I have been pretty disgusted by the state of our food industry in America, in the implications the meat industry has on the environment and the lack of sustainability in eating a meat based diet, but my actions have not supported this belief. It is time to align the two. I am now eating a vegetarian diet with maybe the possibility of going vegan or as close to vegan as possible. I really believe this is a way I can put what I believe into practice. I think it is more sustainable and healthier in that it forces me to be mindful of what I consume.

In general, it is also my intention to be more mindful about the things I consume. With food, this means buying products that have the least amount of impact on the environment and that support the type of working practices I believe in. It also means being more mindful of waste and the products I buy, especially when it comes to plastics.I recently watched the film plastic paradise and it really made me reevaluate the amount of waste I produce, and how mindlessly I have consumed my whole life. The things I buy, especially plastics, have an incredible long-term impact on the environment, one that cannot be taken back, so being more aware in my purchasing decisions I think is my responsibility as a consumer. I have been so wasteful and so thoughtless in my consumption. If I really stand for the things I stand for then my actions need to align. I am not perfect and I am learning so I by no means think I am going to be able to do great at this right away, but it is my intention to work on it.

Exercise is the last bit of this. It is my intention to be enthusiastic again about being active. Not meaning going to the gym and working out all the time but I want to have that child-like excitement again when I have the opportunity to swim or run or play. When I was a kid and I was at the beach I would charge the waves with a careless joy and I want to be like that again. As an adult there are times when I get lazy, I don’t want to get wet or cold or exert energy. There is no joy in that, there is no fun. It is my intention to take on active opportunities with that child-like wonderment again!

Meaningful Relationships

I made some big changes in this department a few months ago, and leaving social media was part of this, but I want to foster genuine relationships with people. For the longest time, I am sad to say, I looked at people for what they could do for me, how they could make me happy, make me cool, make me not bored, and that is a pretty shitty way to be with people.  As a result, it also led to me spending my time with people who weren’t that great and who did not really add the real positives to my life, joy, care, thoughtfulness, meaning. So it was and is my intention to be present when I am with people, to be completely there and find joy and connection in our time together. It also has meant putting in the effort and staying in touch with the people who I care about. I have really helped me improve my relationship with my mom and my sister, and has made some peripheral friendships a lot more meaningful than they were before when we just liked each other’s photos on Instagram or something.

This also means accepting people for who they are and not wanting them to change. This has happened recently with a romantic relationship that I have kind of had. Well, it is complicated but basically, it has taken me playing around with the idea of making something serious out of this relationship when I know, and he knows that it would really be forcing both of us to change who we are to make it work. I heard something really powerful the other day that said in relationships if you are always living for how it will be in the future then that is a sign you shouldn’t be together. Meaning, if your ideal relationship with this person is based on who they might be or who you want them to be instead of who they actually are then it is never going to work. I am realising that you cannot really love someone if you want them to change if you don’t love them as they are. It is hard to realise that sometimes but it makes sense. I want to love people as they are. That doesnt mean if they dont meet my standards I will ignore it and date them any way, it just means I will accept them and our relationship for what it is instead of trying to make it something it is not. Acceptance not clinging.

Closeness to Nature and the people who love it

After living in England and Ireland I realised I need to be in a place where it is easy to be close to nature. I want to spend most of my time barefooted or surrounded by pine trees. I want to be dirty and sitting around a campfire with other people who love being in nature. I have to be in nature. Period. non-negotiable.

Migration

I am also coming to terms with the fact that I like moving with the seasons, I like being transient. Don’t get me wrong, it has it’s downside. It makes it really hard to have relationships and it can get really lonely, but I think it is a good type of lonely that I really need to learn to accept. I really don’t think I will be happy in a settled relationship until I find some peace and acceptance in this type of loneliness fostered by being nomadic. Maybe one day I will find a place I want to settle down, in fact, I think that place might be Hawaii, but I don’t think that time is now. For now, it is my intention to keep on wandering and really embrace it. To let go of this attachment to conventional relationships and feeling like I need to be paired off because society tells me I should. I want to embrace unconventional relationships and see where this all can take me.

Commitment to myself

I have had a plethora of relationships. Some serious, some not. But in a lot of those, as I mentioned above, I have changed course due to the other person. It is my intention to commit to myself for a while and the path I am on. If other people cross that path that is fine, but I want to stay on my own path for a while and focus on me and my growth. I think fostering other kinds of relationships instead of romantic ones will really contribute to the success of this because I can still be close and connected to people while maintaining my independence.

A part of this commitment to myself is also being more authentic, in dropping my ego or caring about how others perceive me. I have let those things dictate me for so long it feels liberating to feel more detached from it, which has come in large part due to my meditation and mindfulness. If I can be authentic and present there really is nothing I cannot get through.

 

Erica
More about Erica

My name is Erica, I am a creative designer, free-spirit, and all-around dirtbag. Heart of the Nomad is a place for creativity, nature, and random musings. I write about life, share my husband's and my photography business, and my designs. Grab a cup of tea and enjoy!

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