Sunday, January 11, 2009

Living with fear of what might be

It’s been said so often it almost becomes meaningless but these are scary times. The economy is bad all over and it’s bad in academia. In the state of New York, which has lost a huge amount in revenues from Wall Street, there are big cuts being demanded from the SUNY schools, including the community colleges. Next week, when I officially go back to work (unofficially I’m already back at work, those of you in academia know how that is), we’ll be hearing exactly what this means for our college. It’s a little less scary than it could be because we have already been reassured in a letter from the president of the college that as of now they don’t foresee layoffs. We are lucky that layoffs are not a possibility. We are only lucky that way because we have more students than ever who are enrolling, and who we must serve. Since we get funding by the state per FTE, the increased student enrollment cancels out some of the cuts. Some. There was a conference I wanted to go to (in Florida, but that wasn’t why I wanted to go…really) and I doubt there will be any travel money for it. Compared to how it could be, though, that seems like a minor complaint.

My brother, who just started a tenure track faculty position, is also at a place struggling with major funding cuts and anticipating layoffs. A scary place to be when you’ve given up a fairly secure job in a city you love and moved halfway across the country just for the job you are now threatened with losing. It’s not clear what will happen with his position but it is clear that there are probably other cuts they’d make before they get to his position, so he is hoping for the best and trying to live with the worry caused by a possibility of the worst.

I feel lucky I am not dealing with that at my job right now, but I still know the feeling. I know it every time I have a cancer check-up. I try not to think about the worst case, and I am actually pretty good at defenses like repression and denial in terms of thinking about the possibility of cancer coming back on most days. But usually by the night before a check up, my defenses crumble and I can’t help but think about it. I often can’t sleep or can’t sleep well because I am thinking about how I’ll feel if the doctor tells me there’s a lump or something scary in the blood test or something they want to biopsy. And this has happened. I have had a couple of false alarms, one of which required a biopsy to disconfirm, since my treatment was over. So I know that what I will do is tell myself it could be a false alarm and live in fear until I get the results. “And then” the worst-case –scenario-builder in my mind whispers “what if it IS cancer?” And I walk down that path a little ways. I first tell myself it would depend on whether it was cancer I could beat again or cancer that had progressed so far I would never beat it and would only have the option of playing for a little more time. “And what if it’s the kind you can’t beat” says the fearful part of me. The answer is, I don’t know. I don’t know how I’d react. But I do know that thanks to cancer support groups and cancer support boards on the web, I have seen people who have gotten that news deal with it. They deal with it. That’s the amazing thing about the human psyche is how we end up dealing with things that, ahead of time, we might have thought were intolerable.

The year after all the cancer treatments I got myself a book called “Dancing in Limbo” by Glenna Halverson-Boyd and Lisa K. Hunter. Glenna is a tongue cancer survivor, like me. It’s a wonderful title, isn’t it? This book addresses dealing with fear and the unknown that many cancer survivors confront after treatment and I can’t recommend it enough to any of you who are going through the cancer battle, or caring for loved ones who are going through it. In a chapter on dealing with fears of recurrence, they recommend the following ; identify triggering events, accept help from others, learn what calms our fears and “seeing the other side of fear”.

In thinking about the situation my brother and so many other people are in right now, in terms of fearing a job loss, I wonder how much these recommendations can generalize to that (very different) situation. Triggering events for the fear might be real things that shouldn’t be ignored such as hearing at a faculty meeting that some layoffs would occur, as my brother heard recently. But there are other triggers. I think also a lot of people are fearful not because of anything that is a specific threat to their job but just because of what we hear about the economy and the unemployment rate on the news. Sometimes just understanding what is triggering our fear, and seeing how fear is a normal reaction to events in the world can help us decide how we want to act on the fear, or not act. My brother told me about how a recent University-wide faculty meeting, in which the possibility of layoffs was openly discussed, actually made him feel better because before then people in his department had dismissed his concerns and he didn’t know if he was being paranoid or being realistic to be afraid. He now at least knows he is being realistic.

Accepting help from others seems pretty straightforward. Maybe someone can offer help in terms of finding another job, but there's also a lot of help that comes from just feeling like someone else hears, understands and doesn't dismiss your fear. Feeling you can’t discuss your fears with anyone just increases fear in my experience. I hope the recent conversation I had with my brother helped him a little and I hope he talks to other people too. And then there’s learning what calms your fears. This is sometimes trial and error. When I am worried the night before a cancer follow-up doctor’s appointment, I actually find watching TV can help me eventually forget about my fears until I get so sleepy I have to go to bed. I also find myself saying the serenity prayer to myself. I first learned that prayer in a very different stage of my life when I was dealing with an alcoholic ex-husband, but the philosophy in it works for any situation where you do not have all the control. Which would be most situations in my experience. I know it's pretty well known but I include it here anyway:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Finally, sometimes it seems to me there’s nothing to do but just be with the fear instead of doing anything to try to push it away. And that brings us to what Halverson-Boyd and Hunter discuss as “the other side of fear” which is just reminding ourselves that there are a lot of things we have no control over. What we will die of is one, though we can avoid doing things we know increase the likelihood of dying of a certain disease. A bad economy is another, though we can do things to try to find steady and secure employment. We have much more control over how we live our present life and respond to the challenges we are faced with. The other side of the fear of death is that it can sharpen our enjoyment of life. We may have to live in limbo, but we can dance while we're there. Perhaps the other side of fearing a job loss is that it can sharpen our enjoyment of the job we have as well as helping us appreciate all the other aspects of life we enjoy that can’t be taken away just because a job is lost. My wish today is that anyone reading this who is living with that fear can also find the “other side” of it. And, of course, that this bad economy turns around soon.

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