Stuck with Migraines

In part two of our three-part series on Recovery, Erica writes about the experience of being literally and figuratively stuck with migraines. Tune in next week for my piece on learning to eat again with functional dyspepsia.

Ever since I had my first migraine at the age of eleven, I get stuck places. Passed down, as many attributes and ailments are, from both sides of the family tree. Carsickness is what I recall most from the first years of diagnosis. This makes sense because where I grew up, we drove everywhere. We lived in the suburbs. My parents drove us long distances to visit family on holidays. We have a gray Plymouth Chrysler minivan with a sliding door on the right-hand side and my mother bought two tiny little car waste baskets with spikes on the bottom, so they stuck into the rough carpet. Lined with plastic bags. At first, I’m sure we thought the migraines were carsickness. But Dramamine didn’t cut it.

Migraines. Said the doctors. I have the same thing, said my mom and she was sorry that I had to get them, too. For the first few years, I was too young to take the available prescription medication. And everyone knows, or you should know if you don’t already: ibuprofen, aspirin, whatever over-the-counter bottle you hand me. It’s not going to cut even a tip off the migraine iceberg that is occupying my headspace.

If you, too, are stuck with migraines, you may find yourself stuck out, far from your bed and suddenly you are attacked by a migraine. Now you have to stick it out through the long journey back to home base, suffer as silently as possible until the bliss of unlit bedroom and ice pack on head.

Since I live in a city now, I ride my bike as often as possible. For me, the bike is freedom. To bike is to live on my own schedule. Biking gets me unstuck.

I got stuck at the beach back in June, on one of the first swimming days of the season, shielding my eyes, holding my head in the crutch of my elbow, my body splayed across a towel, my teeth crunching sand. Welcomed warmth of sun and heat prompted a pilgrimage to this isthmus. But now, a day at the beach had turned into a migrainey nightmare: I came here in someone else’s car and now I am stuck. Even leaving now, at the onset of the attack would not exempt me from the 40-minute car ride home.

(Slow motion, camera pans out as I sit up on my beach towel, head in hands, mouth opening slowly.)

ERICA: Noooooooooooooooooo…


Touring colleges as a high school senior, I got stuck at a bar and grille in downtown Buffalo. The neon beer logos hung on the brick and dark wood of the high-ceilinged, large-windowed restaurant, my mother asking if I am okay, me deciding on whether eating will help or harm me at this point in the migraine’s development.

While studying oceanography on a schooner, I was stuck in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. I know, sounds tough. Stopping along the way for shore leave and an expectant night of revelry, I got stuck on a tiny island. Dusty town square with a light blue painted café serving conch fritters, and banana daiquiris, tiny wild dogs picking at morsels of food out front. As soon as we ate and drank, we were driven in a local jeep up rutted dirt and sandy steep roads over the island’s zenith, down through humid, leafy, aromatic lanes to a beach from a magazine advertisement. Five hours later sunset is nigh, and we are back at the café. Inside, I hear my fellow students laughing, casually sipping alcoholic drinks with fresh fruit and I hear the chatter as professors and deck crew and students mingle in new arrangements, unprecedented opportunities for exchanges.

I sit outside with the growling animals and clucking poultry. I can see the ship from the dock, anchored in the harbor and still another 30 minutes until the next outbound water taxi. Apart from the sharp incessant pain, all I can think about is my bunk belowdecks and the migraine shot coursing through my body to float me into sleep and painlessness.


The point-of-no-return migraine is the one that gets you stuck. The one where you take the medicine, but the pain gets through anyway, persists, pounds into your skull until your eyes must close and your head feels so heavy and the tense neck feels too weak to hold your aching temples.

Last week I got stuck at a friend’s house. It was a Monday and the last week of August. Humid. Air conditioners dripping from windows. That day had me cycling 4 miles to work, then 2 miles to downtown to train for my new job teaching English at the YMCA. Excited and eager to talk about my day, I stopped by and stayed overnight with the person I was dating.

Bed time and I felt some tension climbing the left side of my body. To prevent migraine, I did a bedtime yoga stretch session. I made a lot of progress and did a meditation for migraines, too. Seeing my pain, my friend massaged out the kinks that accumulate throughout my body each day. Kneading beneath and up the left shoulder, the left side of the neck, across the temples. Eventually, I fell to sleep.


Waking up at 8 AM on Tuesday with a searing migraine: the left side of my temple throbbed, and my neck was taut like a guitar string about to break. My head was clamped by a vice. I reached my hand out as my friend brushed past on the way out the door. Please pass me my wallet. I need a migraine pill. I couldn’t lift my head or open my eyes. My hand still stretched in anticipation, I felt a pill in my palm, a glass of water against my knuckles. Thank you. I swallowed, handed back the glass, and dropped my heavy head to the pillow. The relief was great, and I emitted a low whine through the pain until I got comfortable enough to fall back to sleep, the heady numbing effect of the medication flowing over my body now.

Cell phone beside me, I awoke again at 11 AM. Sunbeams snuck in between the dusty blinds and the AC rumbled and buzzed. I groaned and rolled over, texted into my day job. Migraine day. See you tomorrow. Thankfully and with relief, I pulled my arm over my face and slipped into sleep.

Now I was free until 4 PM. Six hours of migraine recovery time. I would be fine, I told myself. I took my migraine pill. Check. I texted in sick to my day job. Check. I had to make it out the door by 5 PM at the latest or I would miss my second day of training at my shiny new job.

Migraine attacked, and you want time to pass quickly because time is the great healer. Eventually, this migraine will pass. I know this. How long this time? 8 hours? 12? 24? 32? 48?

4 PM: Still, the pain persists. 5 PM. I call in sick to the new job. I long for home because I am stuck at my friend’s house without my migraine provisions. Ice pack. Heat pack. Neck pillow. More migraine pills. Popsicles. Ice cubes. Rehydration tablets. The big open space of my bedroom with my yoga mat in the middle.

It will be a while before I can get back to my haven. And I’ve been getting stuck out with a migraine a lot this year. This migraine lasts until Thursday night.

Choose your own adventure. Stop reading here or continue reading for the tale of my journey homeward, featuring the thrilling scene where I vomit on Harvard campus for the second time in my life.


I vomited several times into my friend’s toilet, showered, rubbed toothpaste along my gums and tongue.

Putting on the requisite sunglasses, I dragged my pained head out of bed, dressed, and walked my bike along the sidewalk to the local co-op grocery store on the corner.

I bought some fruit and water. I ate and drank, gasping in desperation, aching for alleviation.

The walk along Mass Ave in Cambridge is busy and I rethink my decision to get home by bike. Thoughts of being in a car cause me to gag and moan, clutching and resting my bent elbow on my handlebars, stumbling along, head down, avoiding eye contact.

When I finally reach the gates of Harvard, I slip past the tourists and head from the Science Center. Sunshine beams on the food trucks, on the paper boxes of rice and noodles and the crispy sugar-coating of the cinnamon waffles. Students and tourists passing by jovially.

Rocks in a circular arrangement interspersed with fountain spouts fixed in the asphalt. Bike propped against a tree, I remove my shoes and socks and sit on a rock sprinkled by spritzing water. Legs folded up to my chest, resting my forehead on my knees.

I was stuck.

Fountain relief.

There were people around and I would need to go into a building to use the bathroom to vomit. But I was stuck. Children followed my lead and a little boy with his mother ran around and around. I tuned it all out, listen to guided meditations on my cell phone.

I wished the pain to go away. An hour passed and now I just needed to get home.

I made it fifteen feet before I threw up on the grass beside the sidewalk. Right behind a Harvard University police car. One person stopped, turned around, and called to me: “Are you okay? Can I help you?”

With vomit in a pile beside me on the grass, I turned to them and said, “No, I’m fine. It’s just a migraine.”

Public barf.

I don’t remember how I got home. Every time I throw up it feels better temporarily.

At home I got ice packs and water and shut myself into my room.


Waking up with the pain still there.

Crying. I cry.

Taking pills, wishing for sleep.

Throwing up.

Eating watermelon.

Throwing up.

Fall asleep.

Use bathroom.



Still having the headache feels like insanity. My whole body is tense and in pain and I cannot even do a meditation because the pain is my only focus. I want to do yoga, but the pain is too bad. My eyes cannot open. My head cannot stay upright, heavy like an anvil. And I wish an anvil would be dropped onto my head, so I could be done with this.

It’s so hot and I’m so thirsty. When I wake up at 3 PM, I know I must drink something. I throw it up. Finally, I empty some ice cubes into a bowl and suck on them, craving water and hydration. And they taste delicious.

My roommate asks: “Do you think you should go to the ER?”

I laugh and say no, but that I appreciate the concern and will do that if necessary.

I sleep again. I wake up at 7 PM and the pain is real. I call my friend. Please come over and massage my back. And bring some relaxing strain of marijuana.

At 9:30 PM, my friend is there, and they sit with me while I try to recover, hold my hand as I walk like a hunchback, hobbled over, to the bathroom and back. My friend sits outside on the back deck in the warm air with me and I take an herbal remedy. Then I can lift my head up. I smile at my friend. I start to talk, and they say I am sounding more like myself.

Once I start doing yoga stretches, out there beneath the stars in the humid night air, up above the trees on the scratchy rug, I know I am better, almost.

I do yoga stretches until I can almost stand up straight again.

My friend gets more ice from the kitchen, more water. I say thank you, kind friend, and good bye and good night.

I shower and go back to bed.


I can move. Stuck no more.

Putting the “Recovery” in “Recovering Academics”

As the title of this post (and our blog) indicates, Erica and I both live with chronic health issues. When we were brainstorming ideas for the relaunch one of the first we landed upon was exploring this process of moving through life with illness as a constant companion. This post is the first in a three-part series on Recovery. We hope you find a piece of your own journey in these words and know you don’t walk alone.


Writing these blog posts is strange, I think, because we are in process. Writing is frightening like that – admitting our thoughts on a page that becomes a recording of our verbalizations at that point in time. Writing something one day, I anticipate that I may think differently on another day.

Everything is in process.


Moving from self-conscious to conscious is how is how I’ll describe a recovery process.

Thinking of recovery as finding and getting back something that has been lost, the process of recovering is getting back your “self” by becoming more aware.

For example, I walked around in a self-conscious body for many years. I had trouble trusting my body. I felt clumsy often. I listened to negative comments about my body in agreement. I scrutinized myself in the mirror and liked what I saw 20% of the time, maybe less. I had a yen to rid myself of myself: my mind because it seemed so uncooperative and negative, my body because it was cumbersome, required too much maintenance, and, to me, felt and looked awful. I liked neither my mind nor my body.

Being in your body in a conscious way differs from a self-conscious way. We mistake the latter for the former when we associate hair and makeup and clean clothing and fit bodies with a demonstration of “having it all together”. But the self-conscious is defined by fears and externality. The conscious self is the one defined by you.

At some point, I realized something had been lost because I had little trust in myself, and in such situations, we often flail and grasp after the “self”, wondering where our identity has gone.


Today I look around my bedroom and see many examples of what makes me the self who wants to recover, a person who wants to survive and thrive in a changing body-mindscape that is in continual process. I see my piano, guitars, books, plants, pen and paper.

Chances are you already devote time to activities that make you smile and bring your self into view. Knowing the self is knowing and admitting to the idiosyncratic hurdles that each of us have, and then accepting the self who shows you what you need to maintain yourself.


May we be conscious to avoid hurting others in the processes of pursuing any activities. May we behave with positive awareness as our conscious “self” while simultaneously extending our consciousness into the social sphere where we interact with additional, distinct “selves”.


For me, I wonder sometimes why the things I enjoy seem to be so boring and nerdy! And then I turn off the self-conscious voice and turn up the volume on my conscious, individual self, and my conscious, social self, too.

I look outside and there are my friends, whom I see every week. Outside are the musicians in the band, whom I play with every week. Outside is my bicycle. Outside is a dirt bed of vegetables. Inside is my laptop and music, and YouTube yoga and YouTube DJ sets and one-person dance parties. Inside is a nice warm house and people I know.

When my conscious self requires this or that activity to keep going, to stay above the line, I know because we keep in touch.


I was tempted to begin my section of this entry with a dictionary definition: blame my New England heritage for making it difficult to write about my illness without resorting to sarcasm and self-deprecation. Or dictionaries. Can you write about recovery without writing about illness? Surely that’s putting the cart a bit before the horse. Perhaps it’s my tendency to set the horse free and drag the cart myself that has gotten me to a place where I need recovery. Perhaps it’s all the trauma. Likely it’s both. Either way, at this point in my life the word “recovery” has become synonymous with “survival.”

When I came up with the title of our blog, “Recovering” was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the process Erica and I were undergoing: two creatives who’d devoted much of their adult lives to academia and were seeking to integrate these two supposedly non-conflicting halves of ourselves after leaving higher education. Recovery could be defined as reintegration of the self.

At the time I was imprisoned by PTSD: I’d moved home from Wales in order to face my past and it snapped on my brain like a crocodile that’d been waiting fourteen years for this particular meal. It dragged me under, sat on top of me and refused to move for about five years. When you’re face down in the mud under a  thousand pounds of prehistoric lizard it becomes difficult to complete tasks which would seem, to an outsider, like pretty standard life shit: go to work; see friends; get out of that chair; eat. Over time your skin begins to harden and crack into its own crocodile scales, until you and the beast on your back have merged, and the memory of who you once were fossilizes. Recovery can then be defined as a garden of Edenic qualities and proportions: one which you’re told existed, once upon a time, but which is definitely not in the cards until someone decides to get off their ass and unlock the gate. It requires belief as strong as the lungs of a tent revival preacher.

When I talked to Erica about re-launching the blog it was with the assumption that I’d shoved the crocodile off my back and was, if not on shore, at least swimming in that direction. Recovery appeared to be an accomplished task. Heal from a lifetime of trauma and its consequent impact on my mental health: Check. Not long after we posted our re-launch entry I was re-visited not by my crocodile, but by its progenitor. In a well-timed reminder that The Universe is Fucked Up and enjoys kicking you not only when you’re down but also when you’re on your way up, Old Man Crocodile decided to poke his head out of the water and wish me many happy returns. Too many weeks passed, during which I marinated in a stagnant pool of shock, anger, grief, more anger, what-the-fuck-just-happened and incandescent rage. In true New England fashion I kept as much of that hidden under a sardonic veneer as my German half would allow. Those pesky life-tasks became a bit more difficult to accomplish. And then Erica emailed me with a question every single person who has ever had a long-term illness has asked themselves:

How do you get shit done?

Translation: How do you recover enough to live your life?

I sat with this question for weeks. And the longer I sat with it, the softer my crocodile scales became, until they gradually began to flake off. Each patch of raw, red skin sent new signals to old parts of my brain – parts which had been inactive for years – until one day I lay on my back in the Vermont woods and remembered.

Recovery is a choice.

It’s choice to do whatever it takes to be as well as you can in this moment, for this life, with this illness.

It’s a choice you have to make over and over and over again.

It is not a past-tense verb. For those of us with chronic illness, Recovery isn’t a place at which you arrive before writing a memoir and giving a TED talk. Recovery is a continuous state of being; and like all continuous verbs, it is continuously present, continuously acting, continuously available.

Next Week! Erica will share her experiences of being far from home when a migraine strikes.

The Recovering Academics Return

Dear Reader,

You may remember The Recovering Academic from a few years ago. If so, welcome back! You may be a stranger (soon to be, hopefully, a friend). If so, welcome to our blog! Whether you’re a new or old friend, here’s an update about Nicole and Erica: where we’ve been and where the blog is going from here. We’re sticking around this time; we hope you do too.

Our story: Two years ago a couple of friends and former co-PhD candidates named Nicole and Erica started a blog. It began as all blogs do: with excitement, enthusiasm and good intentions. They were going to write about anything and everything related to that liminal space where academia meets art. They were going to publish book reviews, interviews and philosophical-observational mash-ups which Erica dubbed “philobservations”. They were going to start a podcast. They were going to conquer the world.

Then life happened. PTSD. Migraines. Moves. Oh, so many moves. And the blog lay dormant, waiting.

About three months ago Nicole — staring down the barrel of yet another semester of overworked, underpaid adjunct servitude — sat down with her therapist and said those five little words you’ve probably uttered at some point in your life: “I can’t do this anymore”. And, as if those five little words were an alchemical formula, her mother stepped into the breach and gave her the best gift a writer can ever receive: a year’s pay and a room of her own.

Now a truly recovering academic, novelist and freelance writer, Nicole reached out to Erica and said, “Hey, remember that blog we started a few years ago? I think there was something special about it. Let’s bring it back.” And, being the great friend, writer and scholar that she is, Erica said Yes.

So here we are. It’s 2018. The world is an often-terrifying, always confusing and increasingly divisive place.

Ourselves: We’re Nicole and Erica and we’re Recovering Academics. We live with health challenges. We’re inspired and influenced by everything we read and experience, and we want to share those ideas with you. If you want to share your own related ideas, we’d love to hear from you! Drop us a line and follow our journey.




The Double-Edged Sword: Fear and Apathy in Donald Trump’s America

*Disclaimer: This blog post utilizes the author’s experience with abuse as an illustration of the dangers of apathy and fear to individuals suffering under the control of a malignant personality. It is not the author’s intention to identify a specific individual, or to make libelous or defamatory statements against any individual. All efforts have been made to shield the identity of any and all persons involved in the author’s personal narrative, aside from the author herself. The author requests that any individuals posting comments on this blog post, here or on social media, refrain from using any identifying markers of the individual referred to here as “abuser.” These may include, but are not limited to: name, gender, age, race, physical characteristics, and relationship to the author and/or individual commenting. This is for the protection of both the author and the individuals involved in these events. Libel is a serious thing, folks.

“On November 9th, 2016, I woke up with a distinct certainty that the time for inaction was over. Yet the gulf between feeling the need to act and acting is wide, and filled with the fog of uncertainty and indecision. The fog is particularly thick when the feelings are ones we tend to classify as ‘negative:’ anger, bewilderment, grief. Anger is a great motivating force – provided one is certain of the direction in which we want to point the flamethrower – but without that inner compass, the flamethrower tends to go haywire, spewing its rage all over Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere. The result is a rather charred, unproductive online landscape. And, more importantly, an ignored physical one. On November 9th I walked into my 1 o’clock English Comp. class with the election of Donald Trump hanging over my head like an enormous Weeble which wobbled aplenty, but refused to fall down. And I stuck to my lesson plan, as if nothing had happened. Because it didn’t seem appropriate to address politics in the classroom. Because I didn’t want to get ‘off track.’ Because I believed it wasn’t ‘my place’ as an educator to air my personal views. We got through the class just fine, but the room was subdued, and thick with fog.

On November 21st, 2016, I went with my husband and two of our closest friends to see Bernie Sanders speak about his new book. New Hampshire caught Bernie-fever bad during the Democratic primary; the Capitol Center for the Arts was filled to the rafters, and raucous. That first standing ovation cut through the fog like a thunderclap. Nearly every sentence out of Sanders’ mouth for the next hour and a half inspired a whoop, a burst of applause, a pocket standing ovation. Uncertainty is impossible in such an environment. I’m sure a similar effect impacted the audiences at Trump’s rallies. Such speakers make apathy seem like an impossibility: a vague dream the details of which we’ve already forgotten. For many Trump supporters, apathy shifted naturally into activism: if you define activism as hate speech, violent threats against minorities, and the resurgence of white nationalism. For the rest of us…well, apathy was pretty tempting before the election. It’s the reason why so many chose to stay home, rather than tick the box next to a name they didn’t fully support. And now? Now that the election is over, and we’re squinting through the dust, trying to find a path that even remotely resembles the one we’ve left behind? What role does the liberal academic play in such a red haze?

Well, my friends, it seems to me now quite clear, and quite simple. We pick up a role many of us dropped a long time ago – and some of us never adopted – but a role which all of us are obligated to play. We lead.”

This is where I stopped writing.

On January 21st, 2017, I participated in the N.H. Women’s Day of Unity and Action, one of countless events around the globe organized to protest Donald Trump’s presidency; but more importantly, to take a long-needed stance against our slowly-eroding civil rights. The 5,000 crowding the Capitol Center steps reinvigorated me after months of hopelessness. The speeches reinforced my decision to stop pursuing a full-time academic career, and shift my focus to non-profit work. The young man who gave Daniel Webster a feminist makeover made me shout with childlike glee, and think of a thousand things I could say about re-visioning the white, male, hetero-normative “Founding Fathers” mythos.

And still I didn’t write.

I proceeded to not write for about three months. Why? The short answer is: “Fear.”

There’s been a lot of talk about fear since Donald Trump’s Inauguration. The world-wide protests in response have been a reaction born of fear –and the desire to not become its victim. I began this article with the intention of writing about bringing social leadership to the classroom, but we can’t get to leadership in the face of oppression until we work through fear of that oppressor. And I know a little bit about fear. I have lived with it all my life.

Just as there’s been a lot of talk about fear in connection with Trump, there’s also been a fair bit of talk about his apparent mental instability. Multiple experts have remotely diagnosed him with malignant narcissism.[1] While the diagnosis seems on point, it’s important to understand that Personality Disorders are among the most difficult of psychiatric illnesses to diagnose. Psychiatrists need to have observed the patient over a significant period of time in order to determine whether or not the characteristics of the disorder are present in every aspect of the individual’s life. Additionally, an accurate diagnosis of a Personality Disorder provides cold comfort: these are among the most tenacious, all-encompassing of the mental illnesses. They are notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to treat with either medication or therapy. If Donald Trump is a malignant Narcissist this does little to help us beyond understanding the source of his most bizarre behaviors, and perhaps provides a way for those surrounding him to learn how to work with him, in accordance with the vagaries of his illness. I know a little bit about dealing with an individual with a Personality Disorder, just as I know a little bit about fear, because I was sexually, physically, and psychologically abused for over a decade by an individual who likely had Antisocial Personality Disorder. In common parlance: they are a Sociopath.[2]

It is important to understand that a multitude of people with Antisocial Personality Disorder live in this world without harming a soul. Sociopathology is not directly equivalent to “evil,” despite what Criminal Minds would like us to believe. Just as Trump might have not simply Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but malignant NPD, my abuser’s version of Antisocial Personality Disorder is of the most malevolent kind. They are, in addition to being a sociopath, a pedophile.

My abuser first raped me in a dark basement on a sunny day. Hours later, I remember sitting at a table, in the brilliant light of a summer evening, a group of people laughing as the individual who had just destroyed my childhood held court. I looked at the smiling faces surrounding me and realized something, before I’d entered first grade, which many of us never learn. Monsters don’t hide in the dark. They hide in the plain light of day. This is why it is so hard to topple them from their thrones. They charm, they smile, they tell you just precisely what you want to hear, so they can get what they want. They don’t just pander to the lowest common-denominator: Trump never would have won the election had he done this. He did so because he used his considerable powers of manipulation to deceive good-hearted, intelligent American people, just as my abuser was able to craft a public persona which made them a respected, admired, and loved member of their society. Trump’s multiple wives are a testament not merely to his wealth, but to his ability to deceive others with a carefully-crafted persona; he uses this ability on his own children, who have been conditioned by him from birth to be his obedient, adoring acolytes.

We underestimate the Great Manipulators to our detriment. This is how Donald Trump was able to become “President” Trump. Because we refused to take him seriously. We saw only the buffoon, not the malignant personality behind it. Or, on the other side of the aisle, we saw only the smile, and the charm, and we laughed in the sunlight.t

My abuser left me with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. When I was 19, PTSD landed me in a psych ward. Since I have been dealing with the memories of the abuse, all these years later, this illness has become severe to the point where I frequently cannot leave the house for days at a time. I have been, quite literally, a prisoner of fear. I do not look at Trump and see my abuser’s face, but I do see a variation on a theme: a version of a Great Manipulator, whose supreme selfishness, lack of empathy, and powers of deception pose a great threat to our nation. My abuser’s pedophilic actions were hidden, but after they left my life, a number of people came out of the woodwork as witnesses to the individual’s psychological abuse. They described feelings of anger, fear, and impotence. None of these people actively tried to help me. Great Manipulators can abuse their power in plain sight because good people are deceived, are apathetic, or are afraid.

Living with fear is bad. I would not recommend it to anyone. But apathy is worse. Even if Trump’s policies are not directly affecting you, they are harming your fellow human beings. You may be sitting upstairs, in the sunlight, while he is steadily taking away the rights of fellow citizens in the dark. You may think it’s not that bad, because it’s not happening to you. It is. You may think you are helpless to stop this from happening. You are not. Apathy and willful blindness nearly as destructive as direct abuse. If one person, when I was a child, had taken me in their arms and said, “I am sorry this is happening to you. You do not deserve it,” I might have had the courage to speak out about the sexual abuse, and been spared from over a decade of psychological torture. We are not children anymore. We are adults, with all the power of voice and action that adulthood brings. If you, as an adult citizen of the United States, do nothing to help those being abused by Trump’s so-called “policies,” you are complicit in that abuse. I do not say that lightly. The old adage, “Evil triumphs when good people do nothing,”[3] is not a cliché. It is truth. Don’t fall victim to the Great Manipulator. Don’t fall victim to apathy. Take back your power, and do something.

I’ve begun by finishing this post.

[1] Describing a personality disorder as “malignant” is merely a means of emphasizing the negative effects of that disorder on the individual and those around them. It is not part of the DSM-V definition of NPD.

[2] This is an educated guess of the author’s, made in discussion with a licensed psychotherapist, and is not a clinical diagnosis.

[3] Describing a personality disorder as “malignant” is merely a means of emphasizing the negative effects of that disorder on the individual and those around them.

Book Review: The Life and Times of a Badass

In the second part of our philobservations on the process (and industry) of self-actualization which has taken the past two generations by storm, this week Erica has written a review of Jen Sincero’s best-seller, You are a Badass. As with all things Recovering Academic, this is book review-as-self-reflection; Erica examines the life experiences which she brings to the text, and how those experiences shape her response to Sincero’s commandments of actualized living. We’d love to hear your responses in the Comments section below!


You are a badass, says Jen Sincero, and you will be if you read her book, says me.


After reading Nicole’s piece for the first time–such an honest and yet humorous account of intersections with twenty-first century cures and acculturations of Eastern meditation and yoga, therapies and ahimsas–I started to think again about self-help books. First, I want to talk about one particular item from this genre, and then I want to talk about how reading these types of books dovetails, or not, with dealing with long-term, chronic, mental un-wellness.

I had just read Sincero’s You Are a Bad Ass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life (Running Press, 2013). The first time I picked up this book I was in the Barnes and Noble at Kenmore Square by Fenway Park in Boston. The cover is bright yellow and the biggest word in thick black letters is YOU.


I was intrigued. The page before the Table of Contents had a dedication to her father and brother and a quotation from Rumi. I moved on quickly. The quotation before the first sentence of the introduction was some nonsensical adage from a recovering addict. I was ready to put the book down and inwardly berate the publishing industry. Yet, Sincero’s first sentence was this: “I used to think quotes like this were a bunch of crap. I also didn’t understand what the hell they were talking about” (2013, p. 10). Intrigue turned into amusement. Maybe this book isn’t so bad, after all. Finally, someone to turn a cynical eye on the self-help industry! Finally, a cringing compatriot to hold my hand whilst I vomit from the pit of my over-cheesed stomach (in fact she riffs on this very premise from her first sentence).

But that’s kind of what her book is all about. Those hesitations that we all have. The negative voices in our own heads, and the negative take-aways from our interactions with others and their judgements and accidental insults. I later found that Sincero calls these negative voices “squirrels” because the thoughts run around your head, moving nuts and bolts here and there and arranging your thoughts, and thus your emotions and behaviors and outlook on life, all willy-nilly and seemingly beyond your control.

At work, glib adages had become meaningful to me. What would once have incited scorn and ridicule in me had started to convey meaning. Phrases like “I cannot change yesterday, but I can change today” and “You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first” or “Dream until your dreams come true”. These short, sweet life lessons had started to take on a meaning that had heretofore been dismissed or perhaps had not been transmitted to my faulty receivers, plugged up with the dust of derision and despair. This recent shift in perception was, in part, because I work with college students to explore their dreams, to set goals, and to motivate by way of positive psychology. So we inserted these phrases into our course packs and hung them on the walls of our offices. (To my great content, my 40pt font cut-up quotation from Vonnegut remains on the back of the Advising Room door: “Writing is a very human way of making life more bearable”. Amen.) While I had started to think about my life in terms of these snippets of advice, the skeptic in me would not give up. With Sincero’s book, I thought finally here is a self-help tome that understands the inanity of seeking platitudes and riddles in the face of true adversity.

I didn’t buy Sincero’s book that day. I was on my bicycle and, honestly, I’d already found two books I would purchase: Alec Ross’s Industries of the Future (2016) and All the Single Ladies (Rebecca Traister’s 21st century feminista’s-must-have). Plus I felt awkward reading a book that says in big black letters on a bright yellow book jacket: YOU are a BADASS. Surely a kindle version would be more suitable for my rides on the T.

Months later, a colleague of mine handed me the book one day with a post-it note on front: “Erica, I couldn’t help but think of you as I read this. Hope you enjoy.” (I later asked him why he had written that, and he said: “Because you’re an author, too”, which was very encouraging and uplifting.) At the time of receipt, I thanked him profusely and put it on my shelf. He also had given the badass book to one of our mutual friends. She started reading it and raved. I hesitated. There it sat on my shelf.

I had been in the country for two years since leaving my ex-husband and my life in Wales, where I had lived for seven years. The transition back into US culture and society, after a total of ten years abroad (my entire adult life to date), was shaky. I had a job and a great team to work with. I lived in a shared apartment with two men who were also becoming my friends. I didn’t miss the UK but I did miss having a “life”: a group of friends who knew me, a band to play music with, a network of colleagues who offered me projects and jobs. In Boston, friends were proving hard to come by, especially when you move to a city in the dead of winter where the average age is 31 and you don’t drink alcohol. Little by little, I was making strides to turn my life into what I wanted it to be. Keeping the job was the first priority. I excelled because I worked very hard. I excelled because I had an excellent and supportive boss and a reliable, trustworthy, and positive set of colleagues. I excelled because I wanted to excel.

I went to the doctor about my migraines (now frequent and debilitating), I went to the psychiatrist about my depression (cyclical and tiring); I even tried to go to the Unitarian Universalist Church. “I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains, I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain.” And then I realized that the Indigo Girls had been right all along: “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” Just like Nicole’s meditations had an adverse effect on her recovery, I often felt that focusing too much on the problem made it more of a problem. I was focusing on the symptoms of a life unexamined, and not on the root causes for this unexamined life I was living. What I needed to do was accept myself for who I was, to finally accept that I would live with these conditions. To finally accept that I am who I am because of these very real roadblocks, and to be thankful for the ways in which these barriers had shaped me as a person.


I yam who I am (Photo taken by Dr. Marla Lowenthal, one of my personal heroes).


I could rather perceive of depression and migraines as part of the me that I could grow to love. In fact, Sincero does a clever thing in her book. Each chapter ends with a reason to love yourself. Here are a few examples:


“Love yourself: Unless you have a better idea” (p. 100)


“Love yourself: No matter who you really are” (p. 83)


“Love yourself: Be grateful for all you are and all that you’re becoming” (p. 120).


This is all harder than it sounds. If you’ve had a lifetime of depression and migraines (or any other debilitating conditions or illnesses), this is perhaps even harder. Since age 11, I have had migraines. Since age 15, depression. So as a young person I was trying to grow up, to become “who I am”, to find my way in the multitudinous maze of dialogues, advice, unprecedented events, puberty, relationships, friendships, familial affiliations, public behaviors, while missing out on a lot of interactions because I was lying in bed, suffering, and hating myself. Why am I like this? Why can’t I just be normal?

And then there are the “what is normal?” questioners . And then the “snap out of it” crowd. And the “look at all you’ve got” people; the “how can you complain?” cajolers. And the “it’ll get better” motivators. All the while, I thought, yes, I know, I have thought about all of these things that you say and I agree, but still there is something inside of me that just won’t awaken, or won’t go to sleep, or some poison that invades my brain. What can I do? Just keep going, they all would say. “You’re not as bad as many others,” said the college counseling center. So I walked away. I’m not that bad. I’m actually fine. But I wasn’t fine.

I knew that I would be fine someday. Yet, as I started to get into my late twenties I wondered when “some day” would arrive. Could I have children? Could I have a stable job? Could I do the things everyone else seems to do so easily? Is everyone living in a mud puddle of low energy and lack of motivation and just covering it up really well? Why does no one else seem as confused I am?


What is fine?


So when I read self-help books like Sincero’s, and when I read sincere accounts like that of Nicole, I try to remember that these books and this advice must be viewed through a slightly different lens; it’s like we who suffer from long-term chronic conditions must wear special glasses that allow us to read the words in ways that are meaningful to us. Like these books are written for those who wake up most mornings and think: “Today is another day,” rather than waking up thinking, “Oh god, why?” Self-help can help anyone who is open to its adages and advice. Yet, as Nicole’s therapist imparted: “If it’s not working for you, stop doing it”.

Sincero emphasizes that we should: “Focus on that which makes you feel good and ye shall find (attract) that which makes you feel good” (p. 31). She talks about this in terms of “Source Energy”, which is some sort of universe energy that she says we can all tap into. Basically, it’s about being positive. Like, if you’re positive, then people will respond positively, and positivity will just envelop you and swallow you up until you’re so happy and content that you really are a badass and no one can mess with you. Or something like that. Here’s one way that she describes this process:

“The trick is to have both parts–energy and action–working in unison: unless your energy is lined up properly with that which you desire, really desire, any action you take is going to require way more effort to get you where you want to go, if it gets you there at all. Once in a while you may get lucky doing one without the other, but if you get very clear on what you truly want (rather than what you think you should want), believe that it’s available to you regardless of your present circumstances by staying connected to Source Energy and keeping your frequency high, and take decisive action, you will eventually succeed” (p. 33).

Positive psychology and optimism ooze from this book. It is certainly uplifting and you will feel better if you read it. You may disagree with some points (I know I do), yet overall I would say the status of this tome as a New York Times Bestseller seems justified. What I like most are statements like this:

“You get to choose how you perceive your reality. So why, when it comes to perceiving yourself, would you choose to see anything other than a super huge rock star of a creature?” (p. 50). Or: “We are all perfect in our own, magnificent, fucked-up ways. Laugh at yourself. Love yourself and others. Rejoice in the cosmic ridiculousness” (p. 50).

Since I can remember, I have shaped my life according to what I wanted to do. I have rarely fallen into the trap of another’s life plan for me. Working with first-year international students who often have demanding and/or over-bearing and/or just very caring and worried parents, I realize the reaches of my untethered existence, which I have reveled in, and rebelled in, and perpetuated because it is what I want. Like Sincero urges:

“If you have to, make massive changes in your business and your personal life to include more time doing what you love. Figure it out. Don’t just hand your life over to your circumstances like a little wuss. You can take your life wherever you want it to go so grab it by its nether regions and make doing the things you love a priority” (p. 107).

Many of us millennials try to inhabit and execute this mindset. I try, too. Yet sometimes, just like my students cannot disentangle their parents’ goals from their dreams, I cannot separate my history of depression and migraines from the decisions I’ve made and the actions I’ve taken in my life. While I have always done “what I want to do”, I have also been imperceptibly bound to my existence as someone who–with varying degrees of frequency–simply cannot get up to face another day. I live with this. This is me.


I will love myself because I have tried hating and it hasn’t worked. I haven’t got any better idea. I give in. I am eating the cake without remorse. It’s part of who I am. I’m eating the yam, too.

Self-Improvement Sickness

After the rather serious nature of last week’s blog post, Erica and I determined our next would be about, to use her words, “kitten butts and puddles”. This isn’t about kitten butts and puddles, sadly, but it is a very tongue-in-cheek rant about the business of self-improvement. We’d love to hear about the practices you’ve abandoned, the self-help books you never read, the diet you said “screw it” to, in the Comments!

~ Nicole


“Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked”.  – Jane Austen, Letters


Is anyone else sick to death of self-improvement?

Lately I’ve begun eating Little Debbie snack cakes again. Nutty Bars and Swiss Cake Rolls were minor obsessions when I was in college, born of a certain deep drawer in one of my childhood kitchens. You know the drawer I’m talking about it…it’s dark, it’s delicious, and it’s strictly verboten. That drawer held crisps and Drake’s Cakes, primarily. I individuated by switching brands, but have no doubt the carnivorous manner in which I eat my little twin-packs of synthetic deliciousness is due entirely to the fact that the contents of that drawer were held before me, and withheld from me, throughout my youth (To see Will Ferrell as the new face of Little Debbie, click here).

Once I left undergrad, however, I embarked upon this course of Mental Health and Wellness which continued for one long, grueling decade.  You know what I mean:  the kind of course touted by celebrities and celebrity-gurus; by everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Rodney Yee. I became a green-tea drinker. I flirted with yoga and meditation. I did “exercises” which involved imagery and writing dialogues with my “Train Wreck Self”.  And I stopped eating snack cakes.

The goal was to become one of those shiny happy people on a magazine cover, standing on a mountain of Fair Trade, organic dark chocolate, a bunch of kale in one hand and a pair of hiking boots in the other.

“Let it be known by all these present here that I am a fully-actualized human being”.

And then I got sick. In a way which no program of Mental Health and Wellness can cure. For a long time this flummoxed me. I downloaded apps and filled them with a ten-item daily to-do list, which included reading both a fiction and non-fiction book as well as the requisite yoga, meditation, and morning pages. And none of it helped. I was reduced to a coil on a chair, reading interior design magazines and dreaming that my life was as clean, and bright, and shiny-happy as those pages. About a year and a half into this, I found myself sobbing in my therapist’s office (of course I see a therapist). These weren’t the uncontrollable sobs of hysteria; they were the long, moderate sobs of sheer exhaustion. My therapist told me I needed to take time off work. And then he said something else. Something he’d said before, but which I hadn’t listened to. “We’re going to nix the meditation”.

“Say what?”

Isn’t meditation a requirement in this scenario? Finding the “blue sky behind the storm clouds” and all that shit?

My therapist reminded me that I experienced debilitating flashbacks every time I meditated; not so much finding blue sky as gathering together all the storm clouds of the past. But doesn’t this mean I need to push on through these, hiking till my feet are bloody, surviving on raw kale until I collapse on the peak of that great big dark chocolate mountain of Mental Health and Wellness?

You know the therapist “look”? If you’ve ever been for long enough to receive one, you’ve got the image in your head right now. If not, it’s the fraternal twin of the teacher “look”: the one which says, without words, “If you’d read the syllabus you’d know the answer to that question”.  Well that’s what I got. I also got this transformative maxim: “If it’s not working for you, stop doing it”.

Let’s ponder that for a second. This is a licensed therapist, with a PhD and everything. There’s a zen garden in his office. His calendar has a quotation from the Tao Te Ching for every month. He told me to buy a Buddha Board. And now he’s telling me to stop meditating?

Because it’s not working for me. In fact, it’s actively harming my Mental Health and Wellness. Just like the app, which “killed” my avatar whenever I failed to check enough items off my To-Do list. And the FitBit, which made me obsessed with counting calories and glowed an angry orange whenever I ended the day just shy of my goal. And those shiny happy people in those shiny happy magazine pages who were eternally questing for the next superfood, debating the levels of antioxidants in raspberries versus blueberries. Who puts berries in competition with each other? Aren’t they all delicious? Why should I stop eating sunflower seeds just because pumpkin seeds have more of some magical chemical that will make me live forever, wrinkle-free? Kale may move my bowels, but I know a guy who drank a leafy-green, homemade organic smoothie every morning and then shit. For hours. Painfully.

That’s not my idea of Mental Health and Wellness.

For those of you worried about the bowels of that guy, rest assured my husband told him the human body is not meant to digest that much kale in one go, and to just stop. Just stop with the smoothies. Have a bowl of cereal. That’s my vegan husband, folks.

I stopped too. The meditation, that is. I’d like to do yoga more than once in a blue moon, but it just isn’t gelling for me right now.  I’m too busy writing: morning pages, this blog, a book. The app sits on my phone and the Fitbit on my nightstand, both unused. I still see my therapist, because he helps keep me sane, and I still drink green tea, with local honey, because it’s delicious, healthy, and helps ease my hayfever.  Erica and I are going on a hike soon because it’s autumn in New England, and few views are more satisfying than from the top of our mountains when the foliage is turning. I also eat the occasional snack cake: only two a week, because I’m still not keen on stuffing my face with synthetic food; but you know, I just love those little cream-filled rolls, and the crunch of a Nutty Bar is a satisfying stress-reliever after a long class.

Some people might call this “balance”. Others might call it giving up, or giving in to the seduction of shelf-stable sponge cake. I call it living.

I’ve no advice for you, dear reader, because I’m sick of giving and receiving advice. But if you want a take-away from this article to make the time spent here seem more “worthwhile”, it’s this:

Eating the fucking snack cake.

Forgiveness Deferred

Maybe it’s the turn into autumn, but we’ve found ourselves shifting into a more serious mode lately. This week’s post builds on the previous’ philobservations about home, guesting, and being a guest (and the social gaffes which inevitably result), by musing on the import not of saying “I’m sorry,” but of saying some version of “you’re forgiven.”


Two words could be reintroduced into our daily exchanges.


“Apology accepted.”


We seem to say sorry to people night and day. Yet, when you are in the wrong, and you know it and you apologize directly, there is very rarely a verbal acknowledgement that the apology has been accepted. Thus, the moment of accepting forgiveness is deferred. Without this opportunity to receive forgiveness from the victims of whatever misdeed we committed –from forgetting to close a window to rear-ending a Porsche; from neglecting to notice you’re in someone’s way to accidentally kissing another person at a party; from misjudging your deep-throat capabilities to stepping in wet cement. — whether social gaffe or felony, the wrong-doer remains stuck in that position of wrong action.

Rather like stepping in wet cement, we need a generous hand to lift us free.

Whatever the misdeed, the moment the wrong-doer decides to apologize (and the longer the apology takes, the more the relationship weakens), a significant and necessary exchange occurs. Contrition for Absolution. Even when Martin Luther broke out of the Confessional, the assumption was not that misdeeds need no forgiveness; rather, that sins committed against god need forgiveness only from god, not some dude in a robe behind a screen. Luther’s conception of sin and forgiveness was that only the being who you’ve sinned against has the ability to offer forgiveness. If you haven’t sinned against that dude in the robe, his absolution is meaningless. You’re still stuck in that wet cement. Another of Luther’s revelatory ideas about sin and forgiveness was that no amount of bead-counting and recitation, let alone a few choice bits of gold dropped in the church coffers, can wiggle you out of your sticky situation. Luther recognized that the material of the exchange is not material; it’s not tangible.

The exchange of apology and forgiveness is much more precious than the concrete things we can hold: it is composed of respect and self-esteem.

Yet we frequently forget that this is an exchange. We focus on the wrong-doer’s obligation to offer us contrition. And depending on the nature of the individual, we state that seeking absolution is either “more than just saying the words” or “you need to say the words”. The language of apology is insufficient without action, and acts of contrition are insufficient without language: the verbal acknowledgement of wrong-doing.

But this holds true for the wronged as well. If we’re standing beside that person in the wet cement, neither of us can move forward until the helping hand is offered, and the words of forgiveness spoken. We must show and tell forgiveness. It is in the Lord’s Prayer. It is in the Truth and Reconciliation approach implemented after apartheid and genocides. It is in the marvellously haunting play by Ariel Dorfman, (made into an equally haunting film), Death and the Maiden.

Dorfman’s play centres on a forced confession. None of the three characters: Paulina, her husband Gerardo, and the man she is convinced was her rapist while she was held captive, are freed until Roberto acknowledges his sin. Tellingly, the play ends with the audience unsure of whether or not Roberto was actually Paulina’s rapist, despite the extracted confession. One might argue that this uncertainty is, in part, the result of Paulina’s refusal to fully accept Roberto’s contrition. She needs to hear the words “I’m sorry.” But she also needs to speak the words “Apology accepted.”

When you apologize and do not hear the words “apology accepted”, there is the feeling that a debt is still owed.


“I owe him an apology.”

“He owes me an apology.”

“I don’t owe you any apology.”


We monetize wrongdoing.


“You’ve made me pay for it.”

“I’ll make you pay.”


Surely equating currency and exchange with errors, apologies, and forgiveness lexically leads our brains into associating misdeeds and mistakes with theft. And some do amount to theft, either literally or figuratively.

Yet all too often a party is repeatedly made to apologize for a wrong-doing that is, in fact, not a wrongdoing; merely a manipulated idea of misbehaviour that has been established in the accuser’s mind as a result of too-high-expectations of others and/or intolerance. Possibly, the accused could also hold a warped vision of self in which all is and always will be their fault. This type of personality has suffered greatly and assumes that they are always in the wrong. “In the wrong”– as if it’s a place you can be…Again, we try to physicalize and monetize the intangible. The result being neither party can move forward. They are both stuck: one in the cement, the other unable to look away.

It is only when forgiveness is granted that both parties are able to shift focus and move forward, whether together or apart.  Contrition and Absolution…Luther recognized that these are not things we can hold in our hands. We can only pass them on to others through our words and actions.

There’s a reason why portraits of Martin Luther depict a man experiencing a combination of jaded exhaustion and barely-restrained defeat. It’s hard to get people to apologize to you; and it’s even harder to get people to accept your apologies. If anyone ever “owed” someone a massive debt of apology, it’s the Catholic Church. Martin Luther was only one of a countless number of people still waiting to hear their “I’m sorry”. Yet I suspect Luther wasn’t sitting around, waiting for that debt to be repaid. I think he realized he had better things to do with his time than hang around a massive institution mired in wet cement.

And I also think that, if the Catholic church were to reach out a hand and say, “I’m sorry,” Luther would  have replied by extending his own and saying: “Apology accepted.”

Homes, Apologies, Comedies, Fears, Taboozled

Dear Reader,

What follows is the first in a regular series Erica has dubbed “Philobservations:” a wonderful coinage which encompasses the philosophical observations we all make about the weirdness of life. This is piece is by her, as are the images. Enjoy, like, comment, share!


You can learn a lot about someone by seeing the objects they keep and the spaces where they sleep. Like this plant, cared for lovingly and repaired with rubber bands and hair clips, which tells me a lot about my friend L, the occupier of this Brooklyn apartment.

I like to hang out in other people’s homes, other people’s spaces. You can feel who they are by the objects kept, placed, arranged. What kind of space is it? What activities happen in this space? You learn a lot about a person or a family by seeing habitat.

Entering other people’s homes, I think: What will the space tell me about this person I thought I knew? Will it confirm my doubts, suspicions, irrational thoughts? Will it reinforce my anxieties that this person or this relationship really is too good to be true? What will the apartment we’re staying in through Air B-n-B show me about the owner? They said they were an artist. It will be interesting to see how an artist lives. (As if there’s one way.)

I particularly like to hang out in other people’s homes when they’re not there. Not like I’m a robber or a stalker or a home invader. I mean you can only really look around when someone’s not there. The staring would be weird in company. Alone, you can look behind doors and open cabinets. (I was looking for a water glass. I needed some ibuprofen!!) Alone, you might even muster the pizazz to sneak a glance at the bedroom, and then, if the coast is still clear, to furtively step across the carpet to see what’s on the night stands. Of course you wouldn’t go any further than that, unless you saw something alarming or incriminating at first glance. But curiosity killed the cat, and it can also kill friendships.

Taboozle is the verb I use for “committing a taboo”. This can also relate to the word “bamboozle”, which means to trick or perplex, a definition that relates to what happens when you commit a taboo in the company of others. Taboozling in someone’s home seems to me the basis of many fraught interactions and uncomfortable silences, of unspoken offenses, and broken connections.

A host inviting you to lay your weary head within the boundaries of their living space is an extension of trust. After all, we could turn out to be some sort of Tom-Ripley-identity-thief creeps. When building relationships with strangers that’s what we’re always trying to decipher, right? Is this person potentially harmful to me and/or my family and friends? That’s why I like being in other people’s homes with or without them around. I am confirming a trust connection by visiting, or having someone visit me in my, home.

That’s why even just the act of being invited into someone’s home is exciting: for dinner, a movie, a jam session, an after-school play session (that was always the best day at school…a different bus, no way!), a work project, a games night, an orgy, a book club, a poker game, a Super Bowl Sunday, a Ouija séance, or for a cup of tea. When you are invited into someone’s home, you are able to feel more trust towards them because you now see how they live. Vice versa: they’ve extended trust to you.

Vice versa, too: if someone always insists you come to their home and never visits you in yours, you feel as though trust is not being extended in your direction. Don’t they trust me to throw a nice dinner party? Don’t they trust that I’ll clean before they come and have food in the fridge? Don’t they trust I’ll put my drugs away so their kids won’t eat them? Don’t they recognize and respect my or our identity as an independent adult, as housemates, a couple, or family? Why can’t they come to my house, to show respect to me? I go to their house and I show respect to them when I’m there. Lack of exchange between living spaces can lead to unspoken taboozlings. Of what trick am I unknowingly a part?

The next time you invite–or are invited by–friends or family, you’d do well to remember that there is direct reactional symmetry between the small gestures of respect you show when in someone’s house and the level of hospitality and welcome your host shows towards you. This begins the moment the door is opened and you step inside. (Remember: a vampire can’t cross the threshold uninvited, so it’s good to remember that there aren’t that many vampires out there, just people whose houses you haven’t been to. Or people who have been living alone and unloved for far too long.)

The next time you leave someone’s house and think: Gosh, they don’t seem to like us. Is it something we did or said? Is it them or us? It’s you. You did or said something that, from their perspective, was disrespectful, no matter how outlandish that possible perspective might seem to you. So apologize. If you want a comedic dramatization of this phenomenon watch any episode of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Larry David gaffs again and again inside the domestic realms of his friends and co-workers. Outside of the home, too, Larry’s social faux pas and indifferences towards societal guidelines taboozle him hilariously across LA.)


As do many, I relate to David’s character. Just this weekend, while staying at the Brooklyn apartment of my best friend from high school, I taboozled. L went out at noon to work a shift at her bar, a divey saloon at the Atlantic stop on the NRQ. She said, I don’t know if you have any weed with you, just don’t smoke weed in my house. I stopped smoking weed and I don’t want it in my house. Okay, I said.

I know you’re thinking that I smoked weed in her house, but I didn’t.

Yet, still, I managed to break a few of her other rules.

Now I’m not saying that everyone who comes into your home should receive an oral or written list of your rules (though some people do do that to their guests). I am saying that I respect other people’s spaces and things. My main goal when I’m in someone’s home and I am alone is to not use or touch anything unnecessarily and to always, always, always move things back to exactly how they were before that person left you alone with their things. Of course, I never, ever manage to do this.

So it’s a hot day and I get some frozen mango, bananas, blueberries, cucumbers, and a can of coconut water at the local market around the corner. I come back to L’s and I see her dishes need doing. I also see her coffee press machine is a little dirty. So, as a gracious host, I start to do her dishes. I get really into it. Then I fold her towels all neatly and hang them on the oven door rod. Then I notice her floor is pretty dirty and I find the broom and dustpan and start sweeping. Now, when you sweep you move stuff. So, I tell myself: Okay, remember where everything is right now and then you can put it back. No problem. And L will be so happy her floor and dishes are clean when she returns from work. No problem.

I don’t want to disappoint you so I’ll warn you now: nothing extraordinary or surprising really happens in this story. Yet it does relate to this mini philosophical essay I’m composing, so here goes.

I move a few plants, I move a stool, I’m sure I moved a cutting board and some pans. I’ve put away the dishes that were in the rack drying and I’m pretty certain I put stuff where L would never put it. I’m worried about this because I’m a house guest and I shouldn’t mess things up or ruin my host’s routine. This is important. Dr. Moore recommends you remember this: One must respect others’ routines. And when you’re in your own home, you can ask others to respect yours. It’s all about recognizing and, importantly, not judging others’ boundaries. So I move a few plants and then I decide to take a break and eat some frozen mango. It’s a hot day, approaching 95 Fahrenheit. Only the middle room with the sofa and TV has AC. The kitchen is hot and sticky and sunny as I open the cupboard to find a suitable bowl for my summer-vacation-mango-chomping and see this:



You can spot my choice right away, and I figure because they are not on a high shelf, but the middle shelf, that they must get frequent usage. The glass is delicate and pink and I feel dainty and summery already.


I find a miniature spoon and sit in the air-conditioned room with the orange curtains, Danish mid-century furniture and the abstract painting on the wall.


Now it has to be said that I’ve stayed with L many times. I’ve been staying with her–or with her family–since I was 12 years old: sleepovers and Christmas Eves and long weekends on visits from college, or on visits from my mother’s new (far a away house) to our old Long Island hometown in the summers, where her Brooklyn-born parents live to this day, and which holds “the-town-I-grew-up-in” status. We’re tight.

That’s how come I know she is unhappy when people mess with her shit. She doesn’t like people moving her shit or using her shit. She has a big brother and a big sister, which could be why. They are all strong-willed individualists. They fight like hell. So, L doesn’t like her shit to be messed with.

I mean L doesn’t even like to be touched. She’s a hard core independent person. Knowing this about her, I am careful not to disturb her routine. I respect the routines of any and every one. Respecting routine is the definition of respect. Challenge of a routine is the definition of controlling. (Unless of course the routine is causing negative consequences or ripples for that person or others, then you can challenge, but only through “learning conversations”.[1]

I especially respect someone’s routine when I am in their space, when I become a function—helpful or hindering or neutral—to that routine. The moment you enter someone’s home, you become a temporary function of their routine. How well two people work together on their routines is the definition of long-term relationship stability, whether it be as roommates, housemates, partners, children, relatives, or blissful marriage. (I will go into the challenges of challenging others’ perceptions and paths in another essay.)


As I sit admiring the interior design of L’s awesome city apartment, these thoughts cross my mind (as well as thoughts about what it means to stay in someone’s home).

I taste and enjoy mango.

I return to the clean kitchen post-feast, carefully wash the pink glass and tell myself to return it to the cupboard before I leave. I drink my can of coconut water and place it, empty, beside the front door, telling myself to take the can with me when I leave, to recycle it in a trash can on the sidewalk outside. I look at the plant on the floor, see some empty space for plants in the kitchen window, pick the plant up and put it on the window ledge. I look around. All looks good. I take a shower, I drink water, I eat some beetroot chips (purchased by me at the market and I’ve left some for L, too). All of a sudden it’s 4:30pm and I have to leave to catch two subways and a boat to get to the festival in time to hear Alabama Shakes. I pull the blanket over the sofa where I slept, replace one of the back cushions, fold all of my clothes and items into my bags and into little neat piles on the coffee table. I look at the kitchen and bathroom and nod satisfactorily. I leave.

On the boat I remember that I didn’t throw away the can by the door and I ponder texting L to warn her. I decide against it because it seems rather trivial.

At the concert, I get a text: Is there a reason you needed to use my most vintage cocktail glasses? And put a plant that wants indirect sun in the window?

Now, some of you might be thinking at this point that L is a rude person. Maybe she is. But she doesn’t do me any harm because I always stand up for myself. And I like her. I think: Oh, shit, what is she talking about? Then I vaguely remember that sweet little pink mango glass and putting it back like I’d planned. I can’t recall doing anything wrong with the plant, though, but I guess I have. I text back: Just that I was cleaning. Sorry to annoy you. L doesn’t agree that using an antique alcohol glass counts as “cleaning” and sarcastically thanks me for cleaning it. I write again: I needed the fancy glass for my frozen mango. Honesty and comedy reign supreme, which are really synonymous because comedy shows us our funniest fears. L responds: Fancy fuck. And then apologizes, saying she was tired and grumpy after work.

I am happy we are open in our communication. I appreciate direct communication and feedback about behavior and choices because it means you look into yourself and ask: What happened? Did I make a mistake? Did I convey a meaning or a feeling contrary to my intent? To me, this is constructive confrontation, which offers introspective thinking on the extrinsic level. Confrontation also forces you to ask the other person: Why do you feel that way about my actions or behavior?

Of course, not everyone views confrontation like this. But I think if we viewed all confrontation as a chink in the communication chain, or as an other’s ear that hears you in a way that you cannot or might not even be able to fathom to begin to understand, then you are emphasizing the importance of communication and perspective to tackle the world’s biggest problems.


But grandiose philosophizing aside, this situation with L: this type of story is usual for me. I do a “Larry David” almost every day and almost every time I stay at someone’s house. Every time. From clogging toilets with tampons, to breaking vases, to using someone’s hairbrush, floss, or sports bra because I forgot mine, I am a wealth of house-guest taboos. Yet, unlike Larry David’s finely crafted, comedically unaware, and unrelenting character, I am aware, I take criticism, and I communicate. Most importantly, I say I’m sorry.

Yet we can look to Curb again to further establish the wider point here: Communicating boundaries is crucial for good communication. It’s also crucial for comedy. Comedy is the act of breaking boundaries. This is my claim and I’m sure it relates to previous claims, too, which I will expound on in a later essay. For now I will say this: Comedy is funny because we all agree on the social expectation that is being broken by the comedian (in actions or words). Comedy is talking about the taboo. Funny situations arise when we Taboozle. (This is also why humor does not always translate across cultures.)

The power of the media is its ability to shape and also to change our minds, pervasively and ubiquitously and trendily. To change what we laugh at. To change what we fear. To change how we see the world.


Back home, changing our minds means seeing what’s inside the alleged bogey man’s home. It’s all about perspective. In life there are always those friends and lovers who never invite you to their homes for dinner, or for board games, or for sex, and eventually those relationships dwindle. Trust is neither extended nor accepted.

If we could see the insides of people’s homes, we would trust our neighbors more. If more people invited each other into their homes, we would open communication and trust across our neighborhoods and our nations. The willingness with which people of other nations opened up their homes to me, as an American—while I was living for ten years abroad in several different countries—was a lighthouse on the unknown shoals of foreign shores, and a favor that I return to visitors from any country in the world who I meet, cordially and pleasantly, including those from my own land. Greg Grano and Sarah Sellman’s documentary American Bear: An Adventure in the Kindness of Strangers (2013) is all about this phenomenon in the USA. (Dr. Moore recommends.)


I’m writing this from Brooklyn, still in L’s apartment. I get back from the concert after 1am and L has already gone to sleep. I have a shower and collapse on the sofa bed with a crowd-anxiety-induced migraine. We both wake up around 2pm the next day. The sun is shining and the thermometer says 98 F. We sit around talking and I make us some granola with fresh banana and blueberries. She apologizes again for her texts and we have a laugh about it. How I don’t even drink and she thought it very strange that I used a cocktail glass. How I thought it was an ice cream glass. How I had written all this stuff about being respectful in someone’s home and then gone and been disrespectful in hers. I read her some of my writing. She laughs a bit. How she’s a tight wad about everything. How she claims she’s a tightwad because she’s lived alone for the majority of her adult life. We think about it and realize it’s true. She had a recent long-term relationship of 3 or so years. I had a relationship of 9: 6 years of traveling and grad school, which ended with a marriage of 3.


If I think about it at the most simple level possible, my marriage ended because I did not feel safe, supported, or loved in my own home. My home had become a place where I could not relax. I was about to kill myself over it.


And then I think of war-torn nations. How a whole country you call home becomes your safe-space no longer. How sad is that.


So just remember: Homes are trust ships; Apologize if you Taboozle in someone else’s space; Comedies are based on agreeing on and then overturning our shared notions of “rightness”; Fear is based on our imagination of the unseen and what to fear or not fear is propagated in everything we read or hear; and Taboos happen all the time. Forgive and move on.



Go home.

[1] Stone, D. et al. (1999). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York: Penguin.


Welcome, Dear Reader

“I’m a doctor of cowshit, pigshit, and chickenshit […] When you doctors figure out what you want, you’ll find me out in the barn shoveling my thesis.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952)


The Recovering Academic

Do you find yourself in a post-academic slump? Have you just finished your degree? Are you having trouble transitioning back to the “real” world?

If Yes:                                                                          If No:

This website is for you!



Well, okay, but perhaps you want to stick around to learn from, listen to, or just laugh at a couple of literature PhDs from New England.


We are in an after-education-terminal-degree-state: confused and curious about how theories relate to daily life.


We’re also creatives, working to find a place where fiction and theory can happily coexist.


Whether you answered “yes”, “no”, or are hovering somewhere in “maybe-so” land: read our blog!

It has lots of different entries on a variety of topics like books, food, pornography, political issues, films, armchair philosophies, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. It also has interviews with people from a wide range of backgrounds, educations, and careers. Nothing is off limits and everything is fodder for the grist mill of our insatiable thirst for learning, questioning, and holding forth.

This is what we’re all about

We’ve all been educated to think in a certain way.

Education—no matter at what level—shows us a specific way of thinking, approaching problems, writing, reading, and sharing ideas.

Malcolm Forbes (1919-1990) claims: “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one” (Forbes Magazine).

Yet certain types of education close your mind before opening it. In fact, education must do this, to a certain extent, to uphold the rules and standards it has set for all of us. You must learn this because x. You must write your essay like this because x. All of these rules are enforced to ensure exchange of information is as clear and as informed as possible. And while clarity and consistency are essential to the ultimate goal of education (the transmission of information and opportunity) that type of uniform thinking inevitably narrows the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable intellectual inquiry. I once had a fellow PhD student tell me, during what passes for casual conversation between academics, “No one can write anything without writing about Derrida, because Derrida has written about everything.” (Jacques Derrida, 1930-2004, Algerian French postmodern theorist). This is the kind of theoretical fixation/idealization that runs rampant in academia, and by its very nature prohibits creative, independent thought.

So if we look at Forbes’ statement, we can see that there is a step between an “empty mind” and an “open” one. That step is an “academic” mind. Nowhere is this more apparent than with recent graduates of college. If they’ve learned their lessons, their minds are now “opened” to new possibilities. Yet the educational system has taught them a certain way of thinking, depending on the political leanings of that institution. In Western countries, this is usually a liberal, left wing mindset characterized by social constructivism and emphasis on “nurture” over “nature”. Politically correct professors espouse their theories and ideas to students throughout their 3-5 years of study at the undergraduate level.

After this, if a student pursues “graduate”, or “post graduate” study, the sculpting of the mind takes many more steps towards becoming so open that it is closed. What do we mean by this? Take Shakespeare studies, for example. Poor Will Shakes’ bones have been picked over for so many centuries by the academic community (which shows no signs of slowing its voracious feeding on his corpus), that potential future Shakespearean scholars have to squeeze their dissertations into the most narrow of topics. At a certain point, when does this kind of criticism become so delimited by theoretical and academic strictures that it is intellectually limiting?

It is difficult to think outside of the parameters of an academic mindset. This is why leaving an institution of higher learning—after a BA, a BS, an MA, an MPhil, a JD, a PhD, or even an MD—leaves long-lasting footprints on the murky landscape of the mind.

This is also why leaving that liberal, left wing, politically correct environment, can be a painful and painstaking process of re-acculturation into the mode of job routines and every day thoughts. I remember my Early Modern Literature professor at Cardiff, Professor Martin Coyle, telling us: “The woman at the checkout in the grocery store doesn’t want to talk to you about Ophelia’s scene in Hamlet. This is the only place where you can talk about that sort of thing. No one else cares.” At first I was flabbergasted: What? Why not? But in all seriousness, Professor Coyle’s point helped me to remember to take advantage of the institution while I was a part of it, and to foster my relationships with fellow academics in as many ways as possible.

It also reveals that, however stridently the lady doth protest, the ivory tower is a very real place. As academics, we both wrote about popular fiction (science fiction and fantasy, to be specific). These genres have only recently been considered “worthy” of intellectual study. Yet while we may have been analyzing paperbacks that, when first published, could be bought on a rotating wire rack for a few bucks, our own dissertations would never be read beyond the circular walls of the tower. That circular structure matters. Academics write books for other academics. They argue passionately about topics of central importance…to academics. They hold conferences where they share their work with…wait for it…academics. The irony of the institution is that it takes material written for the public and creates commentary and criticism accessible, in many ways, to only those within the rarefied walls of the tower.

Students who share academic subjects have common characteristics of thought and mutual backgrounds. Sharing these languages and ways of thinking are important and essential for your identity as an accepted member of a social group. And that’s okay. Hell, it’s necessary. But we hope that by posting our thoughts and making the voices of our network of friends and colleagues heard in postings, discussions and interviews, we will create a welcome space for open and informed creative, intellectual and academic exchange. The Recovering Academic was inspired in part by the storied literary salons held by Gertrude Stein, who, with her partner, Alice B. Toklas, created a space where creatives and intellectuals of all stripes could share ideas without censure or censors. In this vein, The Recovering Academic is an act of breaking free without breaking down. We don’t want to destroy the tower, we want to open our own doorway, throw down a bridge, and see what happens when academia meets reality.

So let us introduce ourselves:

Dr. Nicole A. Thomas and Dr. Erica Moore are creative writers and academics who met as ex-pats entering the  Master’s in English Literature programme at Cardiff University, a Russell Group institution located in the capital city of Wales (see below for a map of this fantastical place). That was in ’07. They spent the next four years sharing an office while grinding through their PhD’s at the same Institution. Nicole’s first attempt at the literary salon was a regular “CakeSpeare” night, during which a group of slightly-intoxicated PhDs drank wine, ate cake, and read Shakespeare. Erica kept Nicole’s inner actress under control by introducing a random-selection process of assigning roles. Despite their mutual intention to remain in the U.K., these inveterate New Englanders both found themselves returning to the United States post-PhD and rekindled their friendship, this time as real people. One night over dinner in a faux Irish pub, Nicole spilled the beans on her Recovering Academic idea and her inability to get it off the ground. It was kismet. Erica leaned over the table and into the project, and what started as a shaky little idea became a full-fledged four-legged baby. (Try getting that image out of your head.  Alliteration, baby. It works.) We’re thrilled to be partners on this journey, and thrilled to have you along for the ride.

This is what we’ve got coming

Next Week: The Glass Ceiling as Magnifying Lens and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential Campaign

Soon: Erica’s take on what “Home” means from both the host and guest perspectives

Moving Forward: Weekly Posts and Regular Series

In Medias Res: a regular check-in with Erica and Nicole, post-doc

Whatchya Reading?: our comfort zone, literary analysis

Guests Posts from our wide circle of fellow creatives and academics

In Future: The Recovering Academic podcast!

From you: Comments, Criticisms, Creative Approaches! We want this to be an active forum for intellectual exchange, so you, dear reader, are a vital part of The Recovering Academic community. We can’t wait to hear from you!