A Difficult Semester

Terri E. Givens considers how she and other academics cope when personal challenges become overwhelming.


December 9, 2011

I have taken a bit of a hiatus from my column. Over the summer, it was due to the normal vacations, family time, etc. However, by the fall, life had turned into a series of crises, tragedies, and health issues in a seemingly endless stream. At one point, I asked some of my friends, how are you supposed to cope with all of this at once? I thought I had become a pro at managing these types of issues after losing my parents, but as wrenching as it may be at the time, losing a parent is something that happens with the normal passing of time, at least it was with my parents, who were in their 70s (seemingly young, but not for African-Americans with cardiovascular disease). The types of crises I was being bombarded with were the types of things that aren’t supposed to happen to normal people, and they were mixed in with the regular flow of trying to manage family life, a high-powered career, and all the athletic and volunteer activities I have taken on lately.

One of my initial struggles was how to manage in the classroom. One example was going into the classroom at 9 a.m. after being up half the night waiting to see if my nephew was going to survive surgery after getting six pints of blood due to internal bleeding. That time I chose to mention to my students that I might not be on top of my game because of a family crisis. However, the other issues I have been dealing with have been more long-term, ongoing crises. Resolving issues related to my mother's estate have taken much more time and energy than I had ever imagined could be possible for such a small set of assets. Even though I wasn't the executor, I feel drained after the small part I had to play, and there’s still more to be done.

To add insult to injury, I had the hard drive on my laptop fail (luckily I was able to get to all the data – plus I had backups), and then a month and a half later the hard drive on my home desktop was totally fried by a power outage.  I probably lost a few minor files on that one, but again, backups saved the day.  However, it still meant that I had to spend days buying new computers, downloading software, transferring files (two days to transfer all of my music!), and getting back up to speed.  In 25 years of using computers, these were the first hard drives I had ever lost. That's when I started wondering if I had stepped on the wrong bug, broken a mirror, walked under a ladder – something to calm the irrational fears that perhaps I was just going to be under a dark cloud for a while.

I finally just accepted the fact that I would have to do my best and muddle through. I've been teaching long enough that I know my material inside and out, and it has been a fascinating time to teach Western European politics –  I hope my students appreciated the time we spent covering the daily happenings in Europe related to the fiscal crisis (a whole region whose troubles are much worse than mine!). I hope that life won’t get more complicated, but I have gotten to the point where I feel that things are just going to be chaotic and I have to roll with the punches. Luckily my boys are old enough (8 and 11) that they understand when mommy is having a tough day, and can even help out some around the house. We have had to talk about what it means to lose a loved one (the child of a friend, an uncle), and I want them to know it's O.K. to cry.   

Research and writing (including this column) have become something that will have to happen during the winter break. I’m nowhere near where I wanted to be with my book project at this point in time, but I also know that I’m emotionally fragile enough that taking some time to take care of myself is important.  I have relied on counselors and friends to help make sense out of the horrible events that have touched the lives of people I love. I had many false starts trying to write a column for IHE, knowing that the writer’s block I felt meant that I would have to say something about my current situation.  I can only hope that sharing the turmoil I have been going through means that someone will see themselves and realize that they aren’t alone.  

As academics, we are used to working on our own for hours and days at a time.  At times I treasure this – I don’t have to explain to anyone what is going on.  However, it is also important that I reach out, call friends when they are needed, and remember that I can’t always carry the burdens by myself.  I treasure my family members and friends who check in with me on a regular basis. In the end, particularly with the holiday season upon us, these are the basic threads that help me hold things together.


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