Episode 4: Nervous Breakdowns, Hide-and-Go-Seek, and Sexual Assault

Listen to Anita describe hauling manure in an old wheelbarrow, and the isolation and depression of single motherhood. Plus: read a story about playing High and Go Seek and sexual assault.

Note about this episode: this was recorded earlier than the more recent episodes already posted on this site. Because of this, we interrupt each other a bit too much, as my interview skills are still being perfected. It is still very much worth the listen. My mother describes the difficulties of living isolated once we settle down into a small town after she left my father, trying to live off the land as much as possible, and negotiating single parenthood and depression.

As this podcast evolves, there will be different authors of the short fiction, as well as different contributors for the interviews. Stay tuned; those are in the works.

Email me at hsdpodcast@gmail.com with questions or commentary.

Table of Contents for Episode 4

Part One: Interview with Anita. She describes the physical labour involved in gardening the land we rented, as well as her nervous breakdowns. Audio only, photos below.

Part Two: Short story written by Cimminnee, about playing Hide and Go Seek and sexual assault. Text only.

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Part One: Gardening and Nervous Breakdowns, early 1980s.

Interview with Anita, audio only.

Listen:

 

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The Old House on the Hill, a run-down farmhouse we rented, with my mother’s garden in the foreground, circa 1980.
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My mother’s garden, me and my older brother, circa 1980.
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Anita sitting on the shed, her garden in the background.

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Part Two: Hide and Go Seek/Sexaul Assault

Written by Cimminnee Holt

Small Town Nowhere, Age 10

Étienne is the weird kid. His skin is dark—maybe part native?—although I have never heard him mention it. His mother, at least, is French; when she leans out of the kitchen window to call him back inside her accent is that of a native francophone. We can all tell. We can always tell.

She insisted on a French name. He gets teased. “Hey Steve,” the boys taunt, emphasizing the Anglicized version of his name, “How do you say ‘Cocksucker’ in French?” And they laugh. Étienne rarely reacts. Speech seems to hesitate in his throat, and instead he gestures and nods to convey his assent or disagreement. When he does utter words it is rarely more than two syllables at a time. His voice is deep, like a grown man’s, though he is our age, and its mature resonance often catches me off guard.

When we play Hide and Go Seek on long summer evenings Étienne is never “it” because he does not volunteer to go first and no one ever forces him to. He does not get caught. While everyone is absorbed in the thrill of Hide and Go Seek in the dark, he sits, patiently, in his spot, waiting. Sometimes a round ends and a new one begins without him; we’ve forgotten to look for him. He will not be the one heard shrieking in fierce delight as they run from an outstretched hand. He will not be the one struggling in the grass with a girl. I am fairly certain that he is, also, not a cheat, as he will not be the one who trespasses our hiding-zone boundaries, which spans about a square mile. You must remain within the backyards of one block (a country village block, where someone’s back yard could have a corn field or small barn). It is forbidden to cross the street, or hide inside a house or shed.

Tonight he offers a rare response to their taunt. “You say, ‘Tiens, Cocksucker!’”[1] as he flips the boys his middle finger, pronouncing the words with a parody of a French accent.

How to describe this feeling?

I’ve been running through the cornfield. A giggle barely held down as I hear swift footsteps behind me. Emerging from the perimeter and diving into some bushes, I crouch against the short trunks, so that my shadow merges with the bush. Breathe, in through my nose and out through the mouth, so as to make as little sound as possible. The sound of quick-rustling corn stalks zips by me. Relief. I am safe for the moment.

I’m jolted from my hiding position by Colton, our group’s most popular kid, who creeps towards me through the branches. I had not heard him approach. He grins. His white teeth reflecting what little light there is. My heart pounds. I am caught in the bushes hiding with the cute older boy (he is eleven going-on-twelve; I am ten). All of the girls have a crush on him. Colton, smiling, slips his hand underneath my shirt in one fast motion, and squeezes my budding breast.

OH.

I am stunned. His hand is warm. It feels odd against me. I’ve never been touched by a boy before. I have only kissed one, and that was last summer during a game of Truth or Dare. He gives my breast a honk—I don’t like it, it hurts—and before I can object he shoves his other hand up the bottom of my shorts, along my inner thigh, to roughly grasp me between the legs.

I am mute, stunned into silence. Panic gathers in my throat, choking me. I hear only the reverb of my distressed heartbeat as it pounds in my eardrums. Thump-thump, thump-thump.

This is the feeling that lasts forever. Shock (what is he doing?) and fear (he is hurting me) and confusion (because I have a crush on him) and betrayal (I do not want this, not like this). What is it called, all these emotions at once?

Stop Colton!” I finally say in a harsh whisper, trying to pull his hands away. He is too strong, though, and just pushes both hands harder against me.

In childhood I was active, athletic, and often told that I am “strong for a girl.” I have always been the tallest in my class, including the boys, and even a half-head taller than a few female teachers. I run the fastest, climb the highest. But this summer there’s been a shift. The boys I’ve grown up with are catching up. Their pre-pubescent growth spurts mean they exceed my speed and strength. I have never not been able to physically defend myself against the boys. Until now.

“STOP!” I order again, and try to scratch his arm. He gets angry, the grin turning to a snarl, and his fingers forcefully push away the fabric of my underwear. I try to kick my legs but he has kneeled on one of them, his weight keeping me pinned. We struggle. Colton just presses his hands and fingers harder and rougher against me, not quite succeeding in moving my panties aside, but not relinquishing his efforts either.

And then, Étienne’s shadow is there. Quietly in the darkness he has crawled into our hiding spot. “What’s up, guys?” he asks softly.

Colton jerks his hand out of my shorts, grins at Étienne, and hops to his feet to run off. I sit in the bushes with Étienne, saying nothing. He does not move. I don’t either. “Come on,” I finally say, “Let’s get to base.” He follows me back up through the cornfield. When the base—a predetermined porch—comes into view, we see that most of the other kids have already made it safe. Glancing around, there is no sign of “it” from the edge of the cornfield. We make a furious dash across open territory for the stairs, both reaching out to declare immunity from being “it” by touching base. My fingers touch Étienne’s for a brief moment before I yell, “Safe!” Étienne puts his hands on his knees, as if to catch his breath.

Later on, when the game is finished, the gang parts ways. Étienne and I leave in one direction, as we live just a few blocks apart; Colton and the rest amble off in another. As we walk away I look back at the shadowed figures of my friends retreating under a streetlight. Colton is the only one whose gaze returns my stare. He lifts up his hand, and gives me the middle finger.

_________

[1] “Tiens,” in this context, is translated as the phrase “take this” (while giving the middle finger).

____________

Étienne

Winter, Small Town Nowhere, Age 10

In the winter, on a Saturday, Étienne is at my door. I peer down at him, standing in his cross-country skis and boots, balancing on his spiked poles. The glare of white snow blankets surround his dark outline. “Get your skis,” he says, in his smooth deep rumble, his tone somewhere between a gentle order and a question.

My mother had bought used cross country skis and boots at the church basement bizarre. She was excited to get boots with my size; someone’s outgrown footwear is my new sports gear.

I have never spoken of that night to Étienne. It was five months ago. In small towns information is passed along with every exhale of breath, usually through a mouth spurting blue/grey smoke, as one hand holds a cigarette, and the other a cup of tea. There are social repercussions to truth and facts, far more than to rumour and lies.

“Ok,” I agree. I shut the door and get on my snowsuit, grab the ski boots, and get the key for the shed. Outside, Étienne watches as I unlock the wooden slat door, and swing it wide. I lean in to yank my skis from the hook while the door swings to bang me in the buttocks. I look back sharply at Étienne. His face is impassive.

Finally, my boots are locked into my skis as we stand on the edge of the driveway. The snow remover has freshly overturned the gravel underneath, leaving brown streaks of dirt and stone on the fresh white snow. It often takes a few days after a blizzard to clear the whole town.

“Where to?” I ask.

“Beach,” he responds.

My town is built on soft slopes that rise from the Baies des Chaleurs, the rounded off tips of ancient Appalachians looming behind us, the desolate winter waterfront below. We head off down the hill, through the field.

Just after crossing the train tracks we see rabbit footprints. I pause to stare at them. Not a blemish appears on the billows of fresh snowfall except a pattern of grouped four paw prints in a straight line. A rabbit running, my mother’s told me. She has spent a lot of time in the woods. I wonder vaguely about the difference between the prints of a rabbit running and the prints of a rabbit walking.

It is easy to forget that Étienne is with me. He rarely speaks, and even moves quietly. We push through the trees that guard the beach, the ocean sparkles through the thinning bush. Round a bend, and we emerge to a dazzling display of sunlight water. Broken chunks of frozen water shine as the huge pieces lop, floating from side to side. It is still. No one comes here this time of year. Lap, lap, gentle waves push. Creak, creak, icicles rub together with soft friction.

Our skis creak along the edge, careful to stay on firm ground. The cold season has changed the familiar summer beach. Smooth sand and hot rocks have disappeared under jagged formations. Looking up and down the coast, angular white shining diamonds and spikes stand guard against the water, as if in formation for battle to protect the town. Or maybe it is the ocean protecting itself from us, I wonder. Étienne says nothing, but I catch him watching my face.

We trudge in our skis all afternoon, on a mute adventure of water, ice, and snow.

 

 

 

Episode 3: Living in a Tent & My Father

Anita describes living in a tent on an isolated beach with her first baby, in British Columbia, and what she did if we needed medical attention.

Listen:

 

Table of Contents for Episode 3

Part One: Living in a Tent, 13 Mile Beach, British Columbia, circa 1974. Cim interviews Anita, audio only, photos below.

Part Two: Things I Knew About My Father.
Short Story written by Cimminnee Holt, text only, photo below.

*****

Part One: Living in a Tent, 13 Mile Beach, British Columbia, circa 1974

Listen: Cim interview’s her mother Anita.

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Notes:

  1. The campsite was somewhere near Sombrio, called 13 Mile Beach, which was inaccessible at the time.
  2. Anita reference’s a First Nations’ village of Wuikinuxv people (formerly known as the “Northern Kwakiutl”) near River’s Inlet.
  3. Yarrow has many healing properties.

*****

Part Two: Things I Knew About My Father

Written by Cimminnee Holt

Scans

He is a musician.

There is a scratchy sounding cassette tape that I play occasionally. Adult voices are heard talking casually at a party; kids play in the background (am I one of them?); a dish clanks against another; a guitar gets being tuned; someone bangs a drum (but with a hand, not a drumstick). When the music starts it’s just a few chords strummed, then quickly gains momentum until everyone joins in. The jam lasts the whole side A, continuous music, the tempo and intensity rise and fall, but my curiosity only increases with each listen.
This is what I know about my father, that he is one of these male voices.

He is very tall.

We have traveled to Chicago to meet him at his parents’ house. I am eight years old. My father approaches me. He is a giraffe, casting his shadow over my face. This is not my father, who is supposed to have long wild and unruly hair, not this clean cut and shaven man, dressed in casual jeans and a sports jacket. My father wears dashikis, doesn’t he? He’s a musician. Who is this person?

This month, this person is a restaurant manager. Before that, he did some construction. And last year, he worked for a lumber company climbing up the tall trees with a harness and a chainsaw to chop the tip off, a ‘topper’ they call it. This job is usually reserved for young men with no families, he tells me, as the top of the tree may catch your safety belt as it falls, bringing you down with it.

This person speaks funny.

I’ve never met anyone who pronounces the words insurance and Italian like “eensurance” and “eyetalian.” And he doesn’t speak French either. “A southern man,” he calls himself, “A Renaissance Man” at others. Oh, I think, he knows some French after all. He thinks he is rejuvenated.

He was born in a small town in Tennessee, fifty miles out of Memphis. He dropped out of school early, to run the streets and have sex with his girlfriend. No, he doesn’t have any other children besides us, that he’s aware of.

In the early days he divided his time between Chicago and Tennessee, and between civilian freedom and juvenile detention. Eventually, as a young adult, after getting in trouble yet again, the authorities offered him a choice; would you rather go back to jail, an adult jail this time, or enlist in the army?

Stationed in Korea, my father tells me that he could buy a woman for two dollars. He ate rice everyday, and does not know or care much about the politics that sent him there. After a couple of years, he is sent on leave back in the states. He steals a car—a pink cadillac—and comes to Canada.

He met my mother at a party. They move in together the next week. “He had good pot,” she shrugs, remembering.

He has scars on his fingers.

“The army removed my tattoos so I couldn’t be easily identified from the wrist down,” he tells me, “My knuckles used to read ‘Good’ and ‘Evil.’” He laughs, shaking his head, “All the boys did that, with a needle and a pen.”

I think the knurly skin looks funny. It’s as if his hands were sculpted from clay, but just before they dried properly, someone came along and smudged his knuckles. They have a smooth surface with rumpled ridges, where the skin gathered, then healed.

My grandmother is also here, but I am not permitted to call her that. My father calls her “Chicken Butt” because of the shape of her nose. “It was broken in too many bar fights,” my father teases, nodding in my grandmother’s direction.

“Oh don’t tell her those things,” she chastises in her raspy voice, blue cigarette smoke wafting out of mouth and nostrils as she speaks.

She had my father at fifteen, and my uncle a year or so later. “It wasn’t so unusual back in those days,” she informs. Then states, “Hillbillies don’t care.” I have never seen her without a cigarette.

Years later, when I am in my twenties, a rare visit from my father reveals that his mother was an alcoholic for most of her life. Then she got cancer, and part of her throat removed. She doesn’t like the electronic voice, so she speaks with hoarse croaks. “She still smokes, though,” he says, resigned. “She holds the cigarette up to the hole in her throat to inhale,” he mimes the action. 

He shows me a picture of a shack. “This is where we lived in Tennessee.” It had no plumbing, so you had to pump water from the well everyday, and haul it to the house. Him and his brother washed up outside, one pumping water while the other scrubbed under the stream, in a makeshift shower. The outhouse stood a good distance from the pump, to avoid contamination. 

The shack looks exactly like places I’d live in when I was young.  

 

Episode 2: Daniel’s Cabin and Rocky’s Hill

Introduction

Welcome to the second episode of High School Dropout, a podcast about family mythologies. These are stories, embellished, moderated, even fabricated tales. We wield family stories as weapons during fights, reexamine them to understand our compulsions, continually rewriting them in memory, in a perpetual negotiating with the past.

My name is Cimminnee Holt, and this is my podcast. It is a narrative ethnographic work on my family. No attempt at verifying or debunking claims has been made; facts are irrelevant. These are fictional stories because memory is a poor historian. When we record events in the sinews of our brains they are warped by our own insecurities and ecstasy.

All storytelling is biased revisionism of the truth.

________________

As this podcast evolves, I’ve switched the format a little bit. The audio will be an interview with a family member, usually with my mother Anita, as we chronicle events and compare memories. The written texts are short narrative stories, sometimes inspired by real events but mostly creative retellings of fictional characters. Members of my family will also contribute their own short stories in the future.

The photos and written fiction are available on the website.

Table of Contents for Episode 2:

  1. Part One: Interview with Anita (Cim’s mother), audio only, see photos below.
  2. Part Two: Rocky’s Hill, written by Cimminnee Holt, text only.

_________________

Episode 2: Daniel’s Cabin and Rocky’s Hill

Part One: Anita Living in Daniel’s Cabin

Anita recounts living with two young children in an isolated cabin with no running water or electricity.

Listen to Part One:

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_______________________

Part Two: Rocky’s Hill

Small Town Nowhere, Age 9

I wake up that winter morning and tuck my feet further into the weighty, second-hand army surplus blanket. Protected by the feathered down, I am reluctant to wait until mum makes a fire in the wood stove, warming up the old house.

Impatient, I poke my head out, uncover my nose, and look towards the window. It is brighter than usual. That could mean…oh I could not even think of what I wanted, that could jinx it. Unable to see the ground from my bed—my room is on the second floor—I cannot wait to look.

It is cold outside my cocoon of warmth! Still, pancakes are waiting. Maybe mum splurged and got real maple syrup. As extra incentive to get ambulatory, if I get to the television before my Older Brother it ensures first choice of programming for an hour.
I flung back the covers, swung my legs to the side of the bed, and stood up.

Oh! Many aged layers of cold paint on top of old wood floors freeze the bottom of my feet. I rush to the window. Snow! Several feet of soft rolling lumps of fresh snow. The early morning sun casts long shadows through the birch trees, they creep across the pristine yard like bony fingers. The lit strips of bright snow hurt my eyes. Pulling on wool socks from my dresser drawer, I then grab my cozy blanket and run downstairs.

Pancakes, cartoons, and sledding: the promise of fun wells up in my chest.

***

Georgina quietly stands up from the breakfast table. She carefully scrapes the few frosted flakes left in the bowl into the garbage bin underneath the sink. Turning on the tap water just a little, so it would not jet, she rinses the milk out of the bowl, opens the dishwasher door, and brings it down slowly so as does not bounce, and places the bowl in the first row on the top rack. She closes the door while holding the lock open so it won’t click when it shuts. Gently pushing the door closed, she slowly releases the handle.

In the bathroom, Georgina removes her pants, undergarments, and socks and steps into the tub, squatting to pee. Best not to risk flushing the toilet. Taking the cup on the counter, she fills it with water from the toilet, and gently pours it into the bathtub, watching the water and urine circle and go down the drain. She dry rubs her teeth with a face cloth, and silently surveys the room, verifying nothing is out of place.

At the front door she gets dressed for winter fun: pink snowsuit, pink boots, purple hat, and gloves with pink and purple stripes. She creeps to the basement to get her sled. It is hanging on a hook she cannot reach. She jumps, once, to try and unhook it. It comes loose and clangs on the floor.

Georgina hears her step-mother thump out of bed and stomp to the stair landing above her. “Git out of the house before I throw ya out! We can’t get any sleep with you making all sorts of hullabaloo! Giiit out! And don’t come back before lunch!”

Georgina leaves, her face hot and flushed with anger and embarrassment, dragging the sled behind her. “AND DON’T GO DRAGGING YER FEET! THEM’S NEW BOOTS!” Georgina jerks her chin up and marches, knees high and deliberate, to the sledding hill on that first good snowfall day. She waits an hour before other kids arrive.

***

My older brother is almost a teenager and almost six feet tall.
He hangs out at the dump with his friends. They poke burning sticks into piles of garbage and shoot the escaping rats with BB guns. On his next birthday he wants a gun of his own.

My mother adamantly refuses.

Instead, he asks for an electric guitar. As a compromise, my mother bargains that if he begins to play her acoustic one, then she’ll buy him the electric instrument. Within two weeks my brother has learned all of my mother’s songs, and then surpasses her skill quickly thereafter. She begins to save the money for his birthday.

My older brother has begun to be very annoyed with me. He rams my head into the wall when he passes me in the hallway. He doesn’t allow me to play with him after school. He never reads me stories anymore.

This Saturday morning, I join him on the couch watching cartoons only to have him immediately stand up to switch the channel to the French news.

I huff. Then plead with him to return to my exalted animation.
He shushes me, “I’m trying to hear the news!”

I cross my arms. I fume at him. I stare at the television. “C’mon! I’m missing my shows!” I finally yell, impatient.

“Shut up!” he shouts and throws a pillow at my face. It catches me eyes open. My eyeball rubs against the rough upholstery. Tears poor down my incensed, red face.

“Fine! I’ll go make pancakes and you won’t get any!” I threaten, shrieking with indignation.

He laughs. As I leave the living room he gets up to change the channel back to the cartoons. I run to the couch and plop down, happy to have a return to sensible viewing choices.

Silently, he gets up again to switch the channel back to the news.

AAAHHHHH!!!!” I emit a high-pitched frustrated howl, futilely swinging my arms, fingers flexed like talons, ready to claw my way to programming sovereignty. He easily catches my forearms, blocking my assault.

We are then startled by the distinctive thump coming from the living room ceiling. Footsteps stomp to the top of the stairs.

My mother yells at me from the landing, “Stop screaming! What is going on down there?!” 

My older brother smirks. The grimace of pre-teen gloating is a face worthy of being skinned, then dipped in vinegar and salt. My return sneer is much less effective as mine is tainted with guilt. He knows my shame; I have disturbed my mother on her sacred Saturday morning. Before noon.

“Sorry,” I say loud enough for her to hear upstairs. Her footsteps retreat back to the temporary shelter of her bedroom.

Depleted from the conflict and chastisement, I retreat to the kitchen and set about making pancakes.

***

Rocky’s Hill was on Lee Rocher’s property, a gorge between two slopes; one side lined with trees and the other a smooth incline. A small creek flowed between them. In order to access the hill, the kids of the neighborhood must walk around the corner, because Rocky’s dog loudly and valiantly guards the short cut through the yard.

This year, the boys are impressed because I am the only girl unafraid to slide down the steepest part of the hill. We’ve built a pile of show at the base of the hill, and if you hit it just right, the momentum will send you and your sled into the trees across the creek: the Ball Breaker, it’s called. The boys and I are busy proving our machismo on the precipitous banks while the other girls are sometimes sledding, mostly building snow kitchens and playing house.

I deliberate. Joining the girls would mean I forfeit this newfound status of recognition from the boys. Instead, I tell the boys to build the bump higher, I can make it across, I can make it further than anyone. They pile on more snow and pat it in down, hardening the surface so as the sled glides over, not through the obstacle.

On the sled, feet perched to each side, I kick my legs for one last shove as I lift my limbs and quickly tuck them inside the toboggan. Hurtling down the hill, the sled hits the jump, and swooshes over and up, right into the trees. Landing causes a fast expelling of the air in my lungs. I can’t breathe! There is pressure in my temples and as I try and fail at inhaling. I’m doubled over, red-faced. I’m going to die, I think.

“Ssstttthhhhhh…” is the garbled sound between my lips as finally my body allows for a sharp intake of breath. After a quick moment for composure recovery, I stand and survey my success. I have gone farther than any other kid. We leave markers to prove it, and I ram a stick into the ground to mark my new record.

The boys shout congratulations; my grin hides the silent pain in my back and one leg. I wave to them from across the small frozen creek.

Episode 1: Army Barracks & Ivory Towers

Listen to the full podcast:

 

Introduction

Welcome to the first episode of High School Dropout, a podcast about family mythologies. These are stories, embellished, moderated, even fabricated tales. We wield family stories as weapons during fights, reexamine them to understand our compulsions, continually rewriting them in memory, in a perpetual negotiating with the past.

My name is Cimminnee Holt, and this is my podcast. It is a narrative ethnographic work on my family. No attempt at verifying or debunking claims has been made; facts are irrelevant. These are fictional stories because memory is a poor historian. When we record events in the sinews of our brains they are warped by our own insecurities and ecstasy.

All storytelling is biased revisionism of the truth.

___________________

All episodes follow a similar format:

Part One: interview with audio only, and an accompanying old photo.

Part Two: a read script, with audio and accompanying text.

 

_____________________
Part One: Army Barracks, Nova Scotia

HSD.Army Barracks, Nova Scotia
Army barracks, Nova Scotia, late 1970s.
Audio only: Cim (narrator) and Anita

Notes on audio:

  1. I use the phrase “chansonniers québécois,” which refers to a style of québec folk/pop.
  2. I will refer to my Older Brother as Obie in episodes (O.B.) to protect the not-so-innocent.

_____________________

Part Two: My Ivory Tower is Cheap Enamel

To begin, a question: how many steps are you away from homelessness? What catastrophe(s) would have to happen, how many systems would have to fail, before you had no place to go? Think about it. We’ll come back to this.

Here are two anecdotes:

First, a flashback: I am nearing the end of my undergraduate degree. I had just finished work for the day, and was standing at a bus stop, headed to campus. It is September, the first week of class. Two young women emerge from the bank kiosk nearby and stand to wait for the bus alongside me.

“Yeah, it was really nice, spending all summer at the cabin,” one says, fingering the bills in her hand, “Money feels so funny, now. It’s almost as if isn’t real!”She laughs.

I hate her.

I had been working all summer, like every summer since I was about twelve years old. My first job was as a nanny, then as a deli clerk, and now as a secretary. I dropped out of school at fourteen, and have not had a summer off since. Nice weather means less clothing on your commute to work, taking the bicycle, and maybe swimming on the weekends. But otherwise you are stuck, nine to five, as the seasons pass you by.

Lost income is simply not an option. That year I had had bronchitis and missed a week of work. Less wages creates a cascade of problems when you live so close to the edge of eviction.

So I hated her a little bit. Resented her obliviousness. Money is only unreal when you have lots of it. Someone paid the mortgage for that cabin, and the food she ate everyday, and the rent or mortgage of her place in the city while she languished in relaxing country bliss.

I was also jealous. Ignorance is a luxury.

I get off the bus, amble around campus, and make my way to class, thinking about the unforgiving realness of poverty. When I enter the room, Oblivious Girl is sitting there, her foot, clad in expensive leather shoes, up on a chair, her equally expensive bag hanging over the back of it, as she holds an overpriced coffee. In that moment, her name-brand sunglasses, her salon-done hair, the professional manicure, and her straight white teeth, irked me. It wasn’t only that, at the time, I could not afford any of those things, but also the entitled way she lounged on school property.

Then the class began with a lecture on inclusivity and accessibility in higher learning, declaring that great advances had been made to address these things, not only within methodological and theoretical approaches, but also within the student body itself. And I wanted to kick that coffee all over the room.

Those moments of fury are fleeting. Just as ignorance is a luxury so is resentment. Remain steadfast, you tell yourself. Emotions are impediments to survival.

Anecdote two:

It is 2016, a full decade later, and I am a doctoral candidate that has won all the awards, published book chapters and journal articles, presented at professional conferences, gave guest lectures on my expertise, and generally built a solid academic profile.

And then I got sick: it began with a series of infections, then debilitating migraines, followed by excessive weight gain, intermittent heart palpitations, indigestion, joint pain, and extreme fatigue. I do not mean tired; I am talking about the kind of fatigue that hurts, where every waking moment was like wading upstream through a river, my eyelids dense, burning with a desire to close. No amount of sleep was enough.

Then the cognitive problems began: memory loss, faltering for words, inability to concentrate, and a profound, dangerous depression. I began to fantasize about being dead. Not killing myself, necessarily, but the death of my aching body. I imagined lying down and sinking beneath the floorboards, resting between the stories of buildings, slowly decomposing. Or being on the grass and disintegrating into the earth, worms eating my flesh, my body becoming liquid that seeps deep into underground caves of total darkness.

It was comforting. It is also horrifying.

I waited far too long to admit the depression, but when I did it was to close friends. “I don’t mean to alarm you guys,” I once said quietly from the backseat of a car, “But I am deteriorating.”

They had noticed. I began to make bitter jokes about suicide and mortality. Looking back, gallows humour was a flimsy tether to reality. With an increasingly foggy brain I latched unto my most basic survival skill: bitchy, biting sarcasm.

When I eventually confessed to my physician that I would likely need anti-depressants, she referred me to a psychiatrist, but also ordered blood tests. When the results came back I had a surprising diagnosis: my thyroid had been failing, likely for years. It was an autoimmune disorder where your body registers you thyroid gland as a virus and attacks it. The gland regulates digestion, heart, and your entire metabolic system (among other things). So when it fails, your whole body is affected. If the brain does not get its required hormones, it creates a chemical chain reaction leading to micro-inflammation. I was also vitamin deficient, due to digestive malabsorption (common for hypothyroidism). I was put on synthetic thyroid hormones and a regimen of vitamins.

The psychiatrist assessed me: “No evidence of a mood disorder,” read the report. By the time I had the appointment I had already begun to improve on the thyroid medication, so the doctor recommended simply monitoring. “But, if there is a next time, don’t wait so long before consulting,” she admonished. I recognize that stigma against mental illness is one of the reasons I delayed seeking medical help. Had I come in sooner, could I have prevented the loss of productivity for over a year?

In the year I went from superstar to slacker, I lied about my condition and ignored deadlines. And that was when I still cared enough to deflect, as I tried to keep my head above water, until I simply gave up. In the months right before diagnosis I spent all my time in bed, letting funding run out on my grant, remotely glad that I did not possess enough energy to kill myself; “gladness” itself being an indistinct emotion to my then-zombie self. I’ve sent a lot of humbling apology emails since I’ve recovered.

Sadness or melancholia was not part of my depressive symptoms, but apathy, a debilitating, dangerous indifference. Everything I had worked for for over a decade—all the hours, multiple jobs, pushing myself through illness and fatigue, sacrificing comforts and a social life—no longer mattered. My all-important reputation with my department was dismissed, their concerns did not rank. Just before I sought medical help, I envisioned a scenario where I withdrew from school and checked myself into a mental hospital. I could clearly no longer function as a human being, much less an academic.

(This is not normal for you.) I did recognize, on some level, that what I was experiencing was far outside my normal range of emotions. But hypothyroidism progresses slowly. Had I woken up suddenly with all those symptoms, I would have possessed enough wherewithal to immediately seek medical attention. Instead I began to feel subdued in mood two years ago, gained weight, and had a series of infections, but had dismissed them all as typical for overworked grad students.

It was a relief, to have a diagnosis. The moment my physician told me is etched in memory, as I did not visibly react to the news.

“It’s not drastically out of range, but I still think we should treat it,” she advised, perhaps misreading my non-reaction to the news.

At the time, as I sat in that chair under fluorescent lights, I was imagining melting into the steel frame of the sleek, tall building, my spine morphing into a support for the very office in which I sat. I heard her voice through a muffled haze of unconcern.

“Yes, ok,” I nod, monotone. Then confessed, “All I know is that I feel like shit everyday.”

“Take these,” she ordered, as she wrote on her prescription pad, “and we can get you feeling less like shit.”

It took a few months to stabilize, but eventually I did. As the brain fog receded, the secondary and tertiary effects of a failing thyroid slowly improved, monitored by a half-dozen medical specialists. Autoimmune thyroiditis, the official diagnosis, is treatable, and most patients have full recoveries, with reasonably manageable lifelong symptoms. I have every expectation to fully return to my previous mental and physical capacities.

But here’s the scariest part: as the illness is being treated, for which I am grateful, it also highlighted in the harshest possible way just how close I am to homelessness.

The past year is fuzzy. I remember it the way you remember the funeral of someone close to you. You are physically present, and your brain may register things spoken and things seen, but it is from a cognitive distance. Your mental self hangs askew, like a street panel with one side unhinged, its post firmly in the ground but the sign face dangling, subject to weather and whims.

As I regained full awareness, I also realized my dire position. It is as if I woke up from a quasi-coma to my life in shambles: the good will in my department is lost; their confidence in me strained; my funding has run out; I am behind on my dissertation work; I have no income and living off my paltry savings; I have alienated all but a select group of friends.

A few weeks after the initial diagnosis, I had a thyroid ultrasound: I have three nodules on the gland. Fine needle biopsies are required to determine whether or not they are cancerous.

In the month or so I was waiting for the result, I planned out contingencies: if I had cancer my mother would give up her studio apartment to move into my living room, both of us surviving off of her pension while I underwent treatment. She cannot afford her rent and mine. Her pension ranks her well below the poverty line: less than welfare, less than minimum wage. That’s all she gets because she was on welfare herself as she raised three children alone, without a cent of parental support. The amount is pitiful, even after she went back to school, got a BA, got a job, and worked until 65, because the decades of work she’s done as a mother is not considered valuable. My estranged father died last year, penniless, living in a homeless shelter last I heard from him, and he had never been a source of financial support. Even in times where he had disposable income, he refused my mother’s requests for aid. As I, as a PhD student, am not entitled to insurance from the university for medical leaves; I am not an employee.

I discuss all these plans with a friend one morning, sitting in my kitchen drinking coffee. I ask her a favour I ask no one else: if I do have cancer, and if I die, could she sell my academic books on EBay, and give the money to my mother? This friend would know their (minor) monetary worth. All my (cheap) vintage glassware, scarves, and tchotchkes are fair game, free to anyone who appreciates them. I do not own valuable jewelry, but the vintage junk jewelry is also up for grabs. I tell her that I imagine a wake in my apartment, where all my friends rifle through junk I’ve been collecting for years, displaying them as keepsakes in their homes, at once helping my mother to get rid of stuff, and continuing my love of thrift store finds. Second-hand junk is not an unsatisfactory legacy. I’ve done marvels with discarded goods by using elbow grease and creativity.

My friend agrees. “In all these plans,” she gently observes, “You have not accounted for any physical pain of surgery or chemotherapy.”

I am struck by this revelation. It is true. Emergencies prompt a keenly developed automatic pilot response, honed by a lifetime of uncertainty: anticipate all possible outcomes, make dependable but flexible plans, address all concerns.

On this realization I have my very first panic attack, tears and mild hyperventilation. It is only by virtue of still being tempered by my ever-recovering medical condition that it did not develop into a full-blown asthmatic attack. I am still somewhat dulled, as my body adjusts to the gradually increasing doses of synthetic thyroid medication. But I am also far more emotional than I have ever been. If I once considered ignorance and resentment a luxury, so is pain. It is rare that I lose emotional control; I am steadfast, resolute. But in this raw state, this recuperating state, my ability to quell emotional distractions is diminished.

Good news: the nodules are benign. The bad news is that this experience has emphasized the precariousness of my social position. When you no longer have your own body on which to rely to physically work to survive, you are left with few choices. Safety nets become the only thing between you and being destitute.

Recall my first question. How many steps to literal homelessness? Now consider what academia claims about inclusivity and accessibility. They are ideals written in mandates and teaching philosophies, repeated on promotional materials and embedded in academic discourse. Most academics spouting these ideals view poverty and disadvantage in opaque, abstract terms. There is little accurate grasp on how to effectively address these issues.

Here is one thing that poor people and rich people have in common—we both recognize that no one gives you anything. That tired old “bootstraps” phrase, touted by politicians and pundits, is strictly accurate: if you want something in life you have to work for it. There is not a poor person alive that is not viscerally, painfully aware of this reality. The difference is that the advantaged person rarely has an accurate understanding of all the things that are already accessible to them: contact to professional networks; funding for education; resources for all-important relaxation; better clothes, good teeth, and nice hair, all aesthetic things that influence employers, but that come with a price inaccessible to others; and basic things like a place to live if you get cancer.

Up until this past year, anytime I even felt remotely sorry for myself I put that reaction firmly in check. This is the raw truth of your situation. Get the fuck up and go to work. You do not have the luxury of choice.

But illness removed even that. I am more vulnerable than I realized. My body cannot work at the same pace. Its reliability limited. Now, six months after diagnosis and treatment, I am finally (finally!) resuming full days of work without fighting the urge to take a three-hour nap. 

Yet…academia has not helped. You work for years, at low pay, for long hours, hoping your investment pays off in the long run, trying to keep the despair at bay, as you face declining job prospects, decreased funding, and a general anti-intellectual social sentiment. The dread bubbles up: have I done all this for nothing? Is academia really only for the financially comfortable? Is higher education an indulgence (like ignorance, like resentment), available only to those who can afford to pursue intellectual fancies?

It is not that advantaged persons do not experience hardships. Since I have been in academia, I have witnessed substance abuse, suicide attempts, destabilizing divorces, and chronic illness, all from various social classes. They are not immune to the difficulties of the human condition. This is not an attack on individual persons, wealthy or not. But it is a critique of ideals. It is a critique of the luxury of ignorance, as pundits claim that poverty is the result of stupidity, all while perpetuating obliviousness to their own advantages. It is a critique of higher education’s claim of accessibility, while offering few resources for those without means. If academia is an Ivory Tower, my version of it is cheap enamel.

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I hope you enjoyed this inaugural episode of High School Dropout Podcast. Make sure to subscribe on iTunes, and check out scripts and photos on the website: highschooldropoutpodcast.com.

My name Cimminnee, or just Cim for short, and you can contact me via the website, or email me at hsdpodcast@gmail.com.