September 26, 2006

What is Success?

Work or school, some of us with schizophrenia can do one, and some the other. Some, of course, can't manage either, though a lucky few can succeed at both. Plus, these may apply differently to any one of us at different times in our lives. I don’t know why. I tend to think that people do the best they can, and that they don’t generally “fail” out of neglect or laziness. I know I ran to medical school for safety, because it was a refuge: I was pretty sure I could do school, or at least get through it. I knew in my gut and soul that I could not "do" work, could not get through, could not manage it and was desperate to conceal that for as long as possible.

I had always managed school, and done so more, and less, successfully. I got my share of A’s but also had collected worse grades than A too, though no one around me seems to want to believe that. Frankly I don’t know how I managed to graduate at all, much less magna cum laude and phi beta kappa as I don’t think my grades were anywhere near good enough over all (mostly though they were credit /no credit plus comments). I only took 3.5 courses a semester and graduated with a grand total of 27 courses under my belt when the absolute minimum was 28. But there you have it. Perhaps enough of the professors who said I was “brilliant” overrode those in whose courses I merely plodded? I never was any good in, say, physics or math for example and it showed.

Work was another story altogether. Only once in my life did I have a technically full-time job, and even then it was truncated to 6 hours a day by my working hard and fast: as a chambermaid in a hotel, your task was to clean 14 rooms a day, and if you did it in 6 hours instead of 8 you could go home early. Needless to say, I tried to make that my goal every day. Since it was a union shop, there was much solidarity between the other workers, and I didn’t make many friends among those who didn’t want me to set too good an example and make them have to work just as hard. I can see their point. They were there for life, I was simply there until I went to college. They wanted the chance to work leisurely; I just wanted to get out of there early each day. I was a teenager with a teen's energy; they were middle-aged; and so forth.

Other jobs were much less successful: pushing stretchers and wheelchairs at a hospital, after 5 months inpatient during my first hospitalization. That was part-time and agonizingly painful, both because of the people I worked with — I was desperately shy and unable to connect — and because I was starving myself and hungry and exhausted all the time. I weighed 82 pounds, my heart rate was 50 and bp was 80/50. The doctor in charge of employees almost wouldn’t let me work, but instead simply noted this and said Okay. I frankly dunno how I survived it, but some days I’d even ride my bike 6 miles there and back as well. After college I worked for a while hand-binding books and making paper and cardboard craft items for Bookcraft in Hamden Ct. Great skills but I didn’t last very long after the summer because my stamina didn’t permit me to be with people longer than 2-3 hours a day, and eventually it was 2-3 hours a week. But I learned so much from the woman who owned the place. She really took to me and taught me more than she taught anyone there. I have renewed my friendship with her daughter, who came up to me after our very first speaking engagement and who has taken the business and wants to start it up again. Some day, it would be fun to relearn my skills and help her build up some stock.

I did once “teach school” -- hired as a teaching fellow on a pittance, but dropped into the teacher’s slot because the original teacher got sick the second week of the year. Did a terrible job the first semester. Who knew what a lesson plan was? Never did learn...But by the second semester I was teaching things I knew I knew, so it went better: high school biology, field botany, recorder lessons. Still, this was only 6 hours a week, and I dreaded every minute of it. Never went to faculty meetings or lunch...too paranoid and afraid of other people. Hid away in music room to eat lunch or read when not teaching my class...Never knew anything about the school or school policies other than my classes. Made some big mistakes because of it.

My final job came after the hospitalization that ended med school. Once I was discharged, I was told I could return in a year, and I thought I would do so, but needed a job to support myself in the interim. Looking in the paper, I found a shipping and handling job 4 hours a day in a bookstore, thought I could do that at least. But then the employer wanted me to work the cash register and be a clerk out in the store, which I had not signed up for. I was terrified. Too paranoid even to begin to learn how to work the register, I begged her to let me go on doing S&H as I’d been hired to do, but she got angry and started insulting me in front of customers -- with a Brown degree you can't use a cash register?!-- and finally fired me then and there. I left in tears and never worked again.

That’s when I finally decided, after applying for city welfare, and being told I had to go the disability route, that the least I could do was dedicate myself to the one skill I did have, and the one thing I had always loved: writing. I was 27 or so then. I figured it would take me ten years to really learn my craft, and perhaps I could get things published along the way. But I’d have to devote every waking minute to writing, writing, writing. So that’s what I set out to do: to make myself into the best writer I could. I did do other things as I realized I needed some experiences to write about; I practiced classical guiter, took walks to identify wildflowers, read when I could, which wasn’t often, and did my best to get out a little. Still, my main focus was on writing, and I wrote every day, something, even if it was just a long letter to someone I’d never met but had become friendly with by mail (this was long before computers had entered people’s lives).

It paid off. By 1984, I'd been awakened to poetry, and had a new interest to learn and teach myself to write, one that suited "where I was" because of my short attention span and lack of ability to concentrate on longer pieces of writing. Over the years I took, desultorily, a few writing "courses" but few truly helped me, because they largely consisted of assignments to simply write something, and then accept critique from the class of students, who were just learning to write themselves. I never found this to be all that useful in a general way, though it might have helped me craft a better specific poem.

Even school, taking courses, began to become more and more difficult as the years passed, until in the 1990's I took a graduate level poetry course at Trinity College during a med change and while only auditing, I "lost" most of it, could do almost none of the reading, could barely write the required assignments. When I took a Spanish course at the Community College, "remedial" in the sense that I used to be fluent both in speaking and writing, I had to withdraw before the course was finished. So now I don't even take classes any longer, but only study things on my own, or discuss what I can with others one to one. And I keep writing. I keep writing though it all.

So I do not work, in the sense that I don't earn a living, and never have. And I cannot go to school; I can't handle that pressure any more. But that doesn't make me a failure. I have taught myself to write and I write every day, come flame or flood. I think the trick to success is not gauging yourself against the yardstick of how much you earn or learn, not in terms of dollars or degrees, but by how satisfied you are, how fulfilled in life you feel, how much of a contribution you can make to your family, or friends, or society or the world at large. In short, success is measured by an overall sense of well-being; if you don't feel like a failure, you cannot be a failure!

Posted by pamwagg at September 26, 2006 02:07 PM


How beautiful you write, Pam, about not using an external tapemeasure to judge one's self!

This entry was one of your best-written! I, for one, am glad you chose writing over knitting. Your words are comforting.

Years ago, I used to think I was a failure because I couldn't succeed in the business world. After dropping out, I realized it was the career that failed me.

I, too, am a writer, and your blog inspires me every time I read it.

Your compassion and sensitivity are golden.

Bless you,

Posted by: Christina B. at September 30, 2006 07:40 PM

Bravo Pam!

How many of us have felt like failures because we didn't do what our families or society expected us to do. I suspect many. I like how you clear the air with your truths of common sense.


Posted by: Yaya at September 26, 2006 10:36 PM

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