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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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