Saturday, January 3, 2015

Annulus


In the first days of a new year, I find myself thinking about old beginnings. When I started this blog, years ago, I had more reasons than I can remember. The reasons that ultimately evolved into my primary motivations for blogging turned out to be a desire to share what I had learned with others, to develop my skills at writing, and (not insignificantly) a way of servicing my ego. I never imagined when I started, not for one moment, that I would end up dropping out of school. My Chemical Journey was a casualty of upheavals in my life that ended with me dropping out in the middle of my undergraduate degree. Today I came back to this old blog and found, like an old cabin in the woods, everything exactly where I had left it. It's dusty and obsolete with signs of decay around the edges. Cleaning this up is going to be a lot of fun.

I look at a lot of what I wrote here and I feel mildly embarrassed by it. Some of it is strange, off-tone, and at times naive or foolish. Worse still are the parts that are wrong. I am not ashamed of any of it, and see it as an important record of a difficult period in my life. In a way, it's hard to read, because I still haven't really sifted through the wreckage of that period of my life to reach any kind of conclusion about it. I can't look, for example, at dropping out and really decide for myself how much of that failure belongs solely to me, and how much of it was due to factors beyond my control. I haven't run my sums or calculated any averages, it's a mystery to me in a lot of ways, and I'm okay with that. I've moved on.



What brings me back here is pain and hunger.

After I dropped out, I realized that I need to change things in my life. I got rid of the things I couldn't carry and moved across the country. I left Atlanta for a smaller town. I took a deep breath as I merged onto I-75 in downtown Atlanta and started to head north. I knew I was seeing the heart of the city for the last time, and by the time I finished exhaling I felt a new chapter open up in my life.

Like any good college dropout, my attentions turned to the immediate task of finding a job. Scrolling past the entry-level jobs requesting and requiring degrees was embittering and discouraging, but I eventually secured a decent full-time job with a living wage in America with no degree. It was mostly who I knew that helped me land the job. Truth is, invisible as they are in the narrative,  friends are all around me in this story. They pulled strings, propped me up, gave me shelter, and eventually literally saved my life.

I was an unhappy drudge in my new routine. I didn't actually hate the routine itself, though I grew skeptical of the anti-intellectual crowd who derided graduates as not understanding the stresses and rigors of "real jobs." It was never stressful to put my head down and put in a hard day's work. I didn't hate pulling long shifts consecutively, or busy days at the office. If management was up to something spurious and stupid, I would raise my hand and speak my mind, and when they failed to heed me, I didn't follow in the footsteps of my fellow employees and feel dissatisfied: It wasn't my money that was being wasted. I got paid the same whether my advice was taken or not.



Still I was deeply, darkly, unhappy. Daily and nightly I would tar and feather myself. I began to loathe every ounce of my existence. I developed a habit of destroying any small thing I achieved and magnifying any small thing I screwed up. When hating myself became routine and boring, I invented new ways of doing it. I contrived schematics and issued patents for the destruction of my soul. Of course, a lot of my best tricks were old hat. They were things I had learned to do long before going to college.

I didn't have a word for it at the time, but I didn't think it was anything unusual. Frying eggs made me nervous. I hated to sit with my back to a door. If people moved too quickly in front of me, I'd flinch embarrassingly. I never considered these signs to mean anything in isolation. I had an exhaustive list of everything in the world that was wrong with the person that I was, but I never picked up that which was really tormenting me. It would eventually prove impossible to ignore.



In the meantime I began to feel hungry, but not physically hungry. It was a sort of spiritual ravenousness, an insatiable craving. When I rode my bicycle to and from work, I would feel it. When I cooked purple cabbage, or peel an orange, I would feel it. If I was counting things up in the office I would feel it. I wish I could point to a moment of epiphany or some other dramatic moment when it started, but I started to have these other thoughts intrude on my darker moods. When I wasn't hating myself, or thinking about work or some other aspect of my life, I'd think about something like the wire loops melted into the asphalt under my bicycle. I'd think about vinegar changing the color of the cabbage, and the anthocyanins. I thought about non-euclidean geometry when I picked up an orange, and I thought about infinite sums when I did math at the office. Gradually, I began to fall into strange cycles of reprieve and torment.


When I wasn't hating myself, I was trying to learn something. I began tucking a book under my arm whenever I went to lunch at work. It would be something about number theory, or the history of science, or something else that I could rely on to fascinate me. I had acquired a reputation for knowing things at work. I had people ask what my degree was in, and got used to the surprised look when I told them I was a dropout. I was accused of being a genius, a claim that somehow made me feel like I was anything but. Somehow I had become overeducated and undergraduated.



My attitude began to spin out of control, and my grasp on reality had begun to unravel. I was no longer a flawed person trying to make it through life. In my own mind, I had transformed myself into an ogre. I was evil, stupid, and inept. I could do no right, and my existence on this planet was the bane of humanity. I began to contemplate the unthinkable. On one of my birthdays, it was only imagining the pain my of my friend discovering that I had committed to something irreversible that stopped me. I confided in that friend, and she very literally saved my life.



I was poked, prodded, cajoled, and coaxed into seeing a therapist. In retrospect, it was an obvious necessity. Over time, my odd sense of anxiety around frying eggs, my fear of not being able to see a door, my self-loathing, and my inability to focus on homework began to coalesce into four letters: PTSD. I couldn't help but smile in astonishment when I first saw those letters. It made so much sense and yet I never saw it coming. I was never a soldier, I had never been in natural disaster, or a major car accident. Still, I knew why I was vigilant, why certain things bred a strange and powerful anxiety in me. My childhood was never idyllic. It had shaped in me a series of survival instincts that I never realized I had. I had developed a perverse idea of normal predicated on the false premise that I was alright. But my cycles of self-loathing proved otherwise.

When I understood my enemy and myself, I began to get better.



Seasons and habits changed. I began, for the first time in my life, to realize who I was, and what I wanted out of life. So I applied to another university, not really expecting that my past failures would be forgiven. It was a better school than the one I flunked out of. I applied the way people rip off band-aids, waiting for the last second, doing it as quickly as possible, and expecting the absolute worst. I proferred an explanation and cast myself in the best possible light.

It wasn't until I had forgotten about it that I would discover I had been accepted. My first semester was a blur, to the point where getting my picture taken for my school ID seems to have happened right before finals. Of course, a great deal had happened along the way. All at once it seemed, things had changed dramatically. I found my way back into chemistry, I had fallen in love, and I could very confidently say who I was and what I wanted out of life.

My chemical journey has taken longer than expected. It has taken me further and over as many dark valleys as it has sun-soaked hills. I thought it had ended a while ago, but I've found a way back to it. I don't know where it will take me or where or whether it will end, but I'm finally home.

3 comments:

  1. Wow, long time no see, welcome back.
    That is quite a journey indeed, hope it all works out better this time.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you! Things have already been going better than they used to.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great article with excellent idea! I appreciate your post.
    Samadhan Agrotech &amp

    ReplyDelete

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