The Legacy and Labor of Psychological Abuse #highered #alanon #recovery #addiction

September 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Amidst the clutter on my dining room table sit two hard copies of my dissertation. They are printed and cerlox-bound with transparent covers. These are my copies of the dissertation that I submitted last Friday to the department of graduate and post-doctoral studies. These are my personal copies, one to keep for the defence, the other to lend out to interested friends who actually have the patience to read it.

I expected, after seven years of labor, to feel proud of this accomplishment. Instead, to my dismay, I feel shame. I feel so embarrassed that it took me so long. That I continued working in an abusive relationship even as I watched others leave my toxic ex-supervisor. That I protected ex-supervisor from the critical comments of others even as I was being subjected to ex-supervisor’s manipulations. In fact, I can see now, that my protective comments were part of the whole web of emotional, psychological and mental abuse perpetrated by ex-supervisor.

I have announced to family and friends that I have achieved this milestone and they are reasonably happy for me. They await the invitation to attend a celebratory party with me, to participate in the glory of getting to the end of my graduate program. They would be dismayed to hear how I actually feel. That I want to cry, that I almost lost my marriage, that I almost lost my house, that I came so close to declaring bankruptcy, that I feel depressed, that I have been having panic attacks.

Here is the ironic twist to this horrible tale. The day before I submitted my dissertation for external examination preparatory to booking my defence I visited my department. There was a delay getting the printed copies from the copy shop but I could still pick up the paperwork that needed to be submitted with it. I checked in with my graduate secretary, my department manager, the department head, my new supervisor, and my new committee member. It was very nice to see them and know that they all have my back, that they all want me to get through.

I expressed my concern that my ex-supervisor, who is now barred from any communication with me or my committee members or even the graduate department regarding my case, would be allowed to attend my defence. I was worried that ex-supervisor’s presence in the audience would cause me emotional and mental distress that would impinge on my defence performance. My new supervisor did not think this would be a problem because the defence itself would be tightly programmed and there wouldn’t be an opportunity for any disruption from my ex-supervisor. My new supervisor could not grasp how upsetting it would be to have ex-supervisor in the room.

However, new supervisor had been told, unofficially, by the committee member who had replaced ex-supervisor, that ex-supervisor would not be allowed to attend. I next visited my new committee member and he assured me that ex-supervisor would not be allowed to attend the defence and that I don’t have to worry on that account any further. This was deeply reassuring, and I felt a mass of anxiety evaporate. I could now focus solely on my defence and not worry about whether I would have to contend with disruption from ex-supervisor.

In the aftermath of these momentous occasions, I am left observing my own reactions to changing conditions. I observe how concerned I was that ex-supervisor would attend my defence. I observe the shame I feel as I contemplate the documents on my dining room table. I observe the depression I am coping with in the aftermath of the relief that I am actually going to get out of this graduate program (with a degree). With these observations I deduce the depth of damage I sustained under the abusive tutelage of my ex-supervisor. I infer the magnitude of injury to my health and well-being. I realize I must take steps to recover from the injustice, the threat, and the unrelenting obstruction (in the form of belittling, invalidating, stonewalling, obfuscating, threatening behaviours) received from my ex-supervisor. I realize I must recover from my sincere efforts, in the continuing face of irrefutable evidence that ex-supervisor would never let me graduate, to try to win approval, to appease ex-supervisor’s criticism.

Today is Sunday, and I am going to clean my house, walk my dog, kiss my husband, and prepare for the week ahead. I am also going to work on developing my own program of recovery, so that I can make sense of what I have endured, ascribe meaning to the significance of these copies of the dissertation sitting on my table, and rightfully feel proud that I endured and I prevailed.


a really struggling day #recovery #mentalhealth #familyrelations #marriage

July 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

I had a really tough day today. On the outside I managed to keep things somewhat together, although I was not cheerful in my work. At home things have fallen apart altogether with Husband. I got angry yesterday at him and I still don’t want to talk to him.

It is amazing how quickly things can collapse into a stunned silence in our marriage. Most of the time we get along pretty well. We are not as physically close as I would like, but that is to be expected. One is going to want more of somethings and less of other things. Husband suffers from depression and co-dependence. I suffer from anxiety and co-dependence. You can see we have a match made in heaven. The only thing that has made it possible for us to keep our relationship together this long has been each of our commitment to recovery. In fact, our marriage vows included the principles of 12-step recovery. We vowed that we would seek outside support when we needed extra time and attention.

Last year on June 21 Husband’s mother passed away. All that summer we worked furiously to finish our house renovation so we could get our basement suite rented. We were within a week of having to lose our house before we got the suite rented and the mortgage refinanced. It was a very tough year. Since then we did get refinanced, we did get the suite rented, and we both found employment as carpenter apprentices. Also last summer I was writing furiously to try to produce a full draft of my dissertation. That all came to an end in early September when my then-supervisor threatened to fail my defence if I didn’t change my theoretical framework. Another super tough sequence of events.

This year, a month ago, Husband’s father passed away. Whenever Husband has to talk to his siblings he gets extremely depressed. He also gets kind of nutty. He is very demanding emotionally, but he will never admit how demanding he is. His also demanding of my attention on other things, but he will never admit how much of my time and attention he is taking up. If I try to point out the contradictions of his behaviour – his attitude of superiority, his emotional needinesss, his demands for my time and attention, and his depressed affect, he gets very angry at me. Those are our worst fights, when I try to stand up and say, “Enough already. Leave me alone. Or change your comportment and composure. Because I am sick of this!” Granted, I am not always the most gracious or graceful in my expression at these moments.

In the past this situation in our relationship would trigger extreme abandonment and betrayal anxiety in me. I would become extremely anxious and try to control the situation. Usually my efforts to control would blow up big time in my face. My ‘control’ of the situation was usually to trigger a major relationship crisis by announcing I wanted a divorce. Yes, I would go there, have gone there, many times.

I have worked very hard to learn not to panic in these instances. I have been learning to allow Husband to have his bad moods and dysfunctional behaviours and not take them so seriously. I have been learning that just because he is not okay that does not make my not okay. I am just what I am. Right now I am not so okay, but not just because Husband is being an ass. My biggest bugaboo is this dissertation and my daily struggle to carve out enough time to work on it while I am working full time Monday to Friday carpentering.

All day yesterday I had been looking forward to getting home, taking a break, and getting in a few productive hours of writing on my dissertation. But when I got home Husband needed attention because some administration work that he was doing for our contracting company was not going as planned. This administration work was processing data in my self-made database for our contractor. From this little system we are able to generate weekly contract labor data and client invoices. The system is in dire need of a re-design but there has been neither time nor money to do it. So we have been limping along with the system as it is. Husband offered to take the administrative tasks off my hands so I could have more time for dissertating, but all that has happened is I have sunk a ton of time into training husband to input data and generate reports from a very quirky set up that was never designed to be anything but a temporary working model. What this has meant is that every week Husband has to ask me for help to get the reports compiled and generated. But it is worse than that, because, although I could simply pound out the reports in pretty short order, now I have to train Husband on an inadequate system. He keeps talking about what we are going to build into the new version, but he is not actually a database programmer. But he argues with me as if he knows what he is talking about. Soooooo frustrating and time consuming.

Suffice to say my writing window shrank down to nothing as we argued back and forth about why there was missing data and what to do about it. Something I could have fixed in 10 minutes, that would not have happened in the first place under my watch, took an hour of argument, going around and around in pointless circles. But could not see the toxic circularity nor the escalating tempers. And my evening of writing went from 3 hours to 1 hour and barely that because I was so upset.

I wanted to write tonight, but I am too tired and upset. I just need to get some sleep and hope for a better day tomorrow.

recreating abusive conditions from childhood in adult relationships

July 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Growing up in my family of origin I was conditioned to accept negligent and abusive behaviour. I was forced to abide by family taboos and dysfunction as a price of belonging to the family. This conditioning was not limited to my attachment to family, it also showed up in my academic relationships as well.

Today, for the second time, I have written to my university making a case to end my PhD program without graduation. I don’t mind doing it. There was a time that I was upset at the prospect, I saw this outcome as a sign of failure on my part. Now I see it differently.

I started my PhD program in 2007 with a research assistantship to collect data for the study. I had already decided to write my dissertation from this study so I though I was in good shape. I told my then-supervisor (now ex-supervisor) that I did not have any outside financial support to embark on this degree, that I was going to be relying on the program to provide funding for me to carry out the work. My ex-supervisor said not to worry about it, that I would getting teaching appointments when the time came, to carry on the writing portion of my degree.

The day I started my PhD was the day I started collecting data. It was also the day that I continued to finish my MA thesis, and it was also the day I started my PhD courses. During that first term of the program I was collecting data, attending classes (with reading and writing assignments ongoing), and finishing my MA thesis. I managed to graduate with my Masters degree but I did not attend convocation because I was in class and collecting data.

Now I need to back up a bit. I started working with my ex-supervisor during my masters degree. My relationship with my Pro Tem advisor had soured before Christmas during my first term in the masters program. By ‘soured’ I mean that I had found out my Pro Tem advisor played favourites and I was not one of them. After one particularly humiliating public event, I realized I needed to find a new advisor. I sought out my ex-supervisor because I had taken a course with him and I liked his teaching style. I had heard bad things about his behaviour outside the classroom, but I discounted this as sour grapes or unfounded gossip.

From that point forward, whenever my ex-supervisor would behave in a hostile way toward other students or faculty, I would discount the events and maintain my loyalty to him. I stuck with him, despite numerous warning signs of inappropriate ┬ácontrol issues. It was only in September, 2013 that I reached my breaking point and disassociated myself from my ex-supervisor. This was after he threatened to ‘fail’ my dissertation if I continued to use the theoretical framework I had been developing since 2009, and which we had used in our co-authored book chapters and conference papers. That was when I wrote to my department expressing my desire to withdraw from the program.

I was assigned a new supervisor who has been extremely supportive, and also firm in his resolve that I will graduate. It has only been through the difficult process of reviewing 4 years of rejected conference papers, chapter drafts and paragraphs that I have come to realize my relationship with my ex-supervisor could be seen as academic abuse.

I am glad to be free of having to work with my ex-supervisor, and I am embarrassed for how long it took me to finally do what many others had done before me, that is, to leave him.

Since I started writing this blog post I have had a check in with my new supervisor, and, once again, he has convinced me to continue with my writing, that I can get this done.

But first I am going to clean the kitchen.

revealing the lie #dissertating #academicabuse #familysystems #alcoholism

June 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

The conditions of childhood neglect, abandonment, betrayal and oppression have far reaching consequences across a lifetime. In my case, I have managed to reproduce these conditions in every significant relationship, even after I had been in numerous recovery support groups and one to one therapeutic relationships. For example, my ex-thesis supervisor turned out to be an academic narcissist. Although he would not give me proper direction to get me to write what was in his mind, he would reject everything I wrote because it did not articulate what was in his mind. He had conceived the research proposal, and he seemed to expect that I was going to be able to write a dissertation in his words.

After 4 years of excruciating stonewalling and re-writing, I finally quit the program and my relationship with this ex-supervisor. The university stepped in at this moment (last September) and appointed me a new supervisor and a(nother) extension to finish. I am getting near the end of the process, although I still have many hours of writing to complete.

What I am noticing is that, as I get closer to actually finishing this monstrosity, I am feeling a commensurate pressure to process my history with my family and process these relationships into a new framework. It is as if the narrative my family spun about me that turned me into the family emotional pressure relief valve, “Irrational Persistance is broken.” “Irrational Persistance is weak and frail.” “Don’t expect too much of Irrational Persistance, she is not as smart|strong|talented|good looking as the rest of the family.” As I get closer to finishing the dissertation, despite a profound lack of support or engagement in my work by my family, I also draw closer to revealing the lie that has been perpetrated against my character and my capacities for achievement. It is almost as if I also need to shrug these systems of belief and attitude from within, to allow myself to get this darn thing finished.

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Self portrait 2014 06 22

making the best of tough situations

June 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

I hear the dishwasher running in the background. It is a beautiful summer afternoon here with a light summer breeze whispering through the poplar leaves outside my window. I am committed to writing on my dissertation this afternoon, the very same dissertation that has taken my life hostage for the last 3 years. I started my PhD studies in September, 2007, collecting data from day one. I had not written the research proposal, the research grant was awarded to my then-supervisor for a proposal he had written and submitted twice before it was funded. Data collection continued through to June, 2010. Since then I have written over 600,000 words in the forms of chapter outlines, annotated outlines, chapter drafts and numerous literature reviews. I have 36 versions of chapter 1. Nothing was good enough to get a pass from my now ex-supervisor. I checked the university website for graduate studies to learn the criteria for adequate supervision. According to my assessment, my ex-supervisor was deficient in 8 out of 14 criteria. Not a passing grade. At this point, with a new supervisor and a university keen to get me graduated, the dissertation is a millstone around my neck. I don’t hate the topic, and I don’t hate what I have learned from the research. I do hate that I was left with a sadistic ex-supervisor who had no qualms about continuing to hold me back even though the work I was producing was certainly adequate for the purpose. As I go through all my old files to patch together a complete project I am struck by the quality of my work. It is a shame to have to leave a lot of it out, but there is no dissertation on earth that can contain the volume of work that I have done on this thing. My task this afternoon is to cadge together my methodology chapter. I have written this chapter 3 times through, each version with a different focus as was the predilection of my ex-supervisor. When I look at my emotional condition at this stage of my life, how much I wish I had family support, real understanding of the academic torture that I have endured, it doesn’t surprise me that I am easily triggered by seemingly innocuous encounters. It really isn’t the fault of anyone in particular, just the crazy juxtaposition of history, people, situations, and work. Writing does feel good, even when it doesn’t necessarily make sense. Everyday the dishwasher gets loaded, turned on, and emptied. The need to do dishes will not change. Everyday I will face down this dissertation, pulling together fragments of past enthusiasms until it is finally finished. The need to do the dissertation will change. One day it will be over. And on that day I will sit on my front porch enjoying a summer breeze without this dissertation weighing down every waking moment. It will be done.


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