Crash the lab

Photo by Dillon Kydd on Unsplash

I now work at an animal hospital again. Only part-time, because autism, and at the front desk, because after multiple surgeries my dog-slinging days are officially behind me, but a place to be around pets and animal lovers and use my veterinary/animal sciences knowledge.

There is a white board in the back that lists pets that are on the way and have just arrived, with the pet’s name and the reason for the visit. Like, “Fluffy ingrown claw” or “Chloe V+ D+” (vomiting and diarrhea). The other day, it had “Crash HL lameness” and my anti-central-cohering autistic brain did not immediately register “Crash” as the name of the pet.

Crash Thomassen (not his real last name) was a black lab (not his real breed) who had apparently, appropriately enough, torqued his knee at the dog park for reasons not unrelated to his moniker. Once I met the gregarious pooch and it clicked that Crash was the name and not the injury, I thought that Crash was probably the perfect name for him.

Pet owners tend to be rather uncreative when it comes to names. At any given time, we have multiple Peppers, Lolas, Sadies, Luckys, and Buddys in and out of the facility. (Oh, side note here, please do not name your pet Lucky for any reason.) The only exception is pug and bulldog owners, who lean towards hipster names that are much cuter on dogs than on people’s kids, such as Martha, Gertrude, Chauncey, or Walter. So when someone comes up with an excellent dog name, it gets noticed. Crash was a hospital fave.

And a personal fave. The name Crash speaks to me. Because that’s me, right now. I have crashed, and burned.

Three semesters of grad school via Zoom have wrecked me. Class discussions and impromptu tangents are the fun part of grad school. They balance out the herculean and thankless labor one must otherwise expend reading gross amounts of peer-reviewed literature and pulling together a research project that will culminate in a thesis or dissertation, otherwise known as the longest and most harrowing paper you will ever write in your entire life. Zoom took the fun part away and made the herculean gross part exponentially more thankless. Grad school work requires a level of sustained intellectual concentration that I simply cannot muster right now. And I am not just tired of schoolwork. I am tired of thinking. I have completely lost the motivation to apply mental effort to, well, anything.

I got an email today through my professional website from someone who listened to an interview I had given in April of 2020, before Zoom wrung every last drop of passion out of me for the work I had been doing. The email referenced my desire to create a new language around autism, to amend the ADA to more specifically address accommodations for those with neurological and other invisible disabilities, and even the problematic use of the word “disability” to describe autism, a condition many, including myself, regard more as a gift than a burden (or at least, equal parts therein). The email writer’s interest and excitement were palpable even in the brief note, perhaps all the more so in the context of my thorough lack thereof.

I used to think someone needed to do this work, and that I was as well-equipped as any to do it. It used to be my excitement that was infectious, my dedication that was so enviable. But it’s just gone. Now the only intellectual work I do is counseling first-time pet owners that most of the time, a vomiting puppy is not an emergency and that sometimes, cats stop eating for inscrutable reasons and will start again when they are hungry enough. (Er, this is not intended as medical advice. If your puppy is throwing up or your cat has stopped eating, please call the vet.)

I used to have a five year plan on the wall in my home office space, with a timeline specifying numbers of articles in the lay press and in peer-reviewed journals, conference attendances and presentations, what I expected my career to look like as I leaned in to advocacy following completion of my master’s which was, at the time, a given. I tossed it when I packed up and moved into a new house last month, perhaps assuming I’d print out a new one and hang that up instead. But I didn’t, and I haven’t.

I know Zoom courses were hard on everyone, instructors and students alike. But I relied on my peers for more than stimulating conversation and alternative insights. They reflected and amplified my passion for the work, commiserated with me on the challenges, and made me feel like what I was doing, as crazy and unlikely as it seemed for someone like me, was worth doing, and even more, that I was the right person to be doing it.

Even as we joked about the difference between reading an article and “going over” it, bickered good-naturedly over whether you could include something for which you only read the abstract as a reference, and self-consciously modeled academic wherewithal for undergraduate students in courses where we were TAs, we were reifying ourselves and our reasons for being there. As difficult as it was for me to sit in a room for three hours and stay “on” and mentally engaged, it was exponentially more so when my peers were tiny, disembodied faces on a computer screen, if I could see their faces at all, as a plurality of us would turn off our cameras at various points during the online lecture to shop or put laundry in the dryer or cook dinner or whatever other mundanities we could now engage in whilst attending class at home.

At some point, I was always going to have to learn to look inside myself for the necessary passion and work ethic. But I feel as though the collegial part of the process was truncated unnecessarily in the most abrupt and painful way possible, like being in a relationship wherein the other party has suddenly become incapacitated. When we switched to online coursework after Spring Break in 2020, it was like a fun, weird, interesting new thing that I engaged in with people I had forged relationships with in the preceding eight weeks. By the Fall, though, I and a collection of mostly strangers slogged through the material as individuals on separate islands, only communicating through online, inaptly named discussion boards that only facilitated discussion in the presence of a real world counterpart and were woefully inadequate to the alternative.

I could no longer spontaneously bounce ideas off a classmate or professor walking to or from my car. The friendly arguments about reading material that I cultivated–I loved engaging with people who disagreed with me because I got so much out of being forced to justify or change my point of view–were completely gone. Even the online Zoom discussions were nothing of the sort. One person would talk and stop. Another would talk and stop. And another. Half of the students wouldn’t bother talking at all. There was no back-and-forth. And we were all so starved for casual interaction that when the professor would shunt us off in smaller Zoom rooms of two or three, we wound up talking about just about anything other than whatever it was we were supposed to be discussing because in that dark fall and winter of 2020, those little groups made up the lion’s share of our social interaction.

I think part of the reason I’m recalcitrant is because I’m pissed. I feel like I was cheated out of something I was owed. I harbor no small amount of resentment at being forced to pay full price (through loans, of course, so it’s not even like it was my money) for a lousy facsimile of a graduate school experience, as useless as paper doll clothes on a Bratz, and about as fungible. I barely even remember what my Zoom courses were about. Instead, my strongest memories are of being lost and frustrated, of finding so much of the material opaque, and of feeling like I was completely out of my depth. I would rather re-take an in-person class I hated three times over than have to take courses I would have thrived in in an in-person setting online again.

So, like any self-respecting adult, I’ve decided to invest in my inner two-year-old and turn away from the whole business and answer phones at an animal emergency room. To say this is a waste of my experience and talents would be an understatement, but I don’t care. It’s my way of thumbing my nose at the whole sad dumpster fire that this pandemic made of my plans. Fuck that, I keep thinking. What’s the point. I threw all that time and energy into it and now I’d rather watch football and pick out curtains for the window in the downstairs bathroom than pad up and dive back into the indignant moral superiority I felt when advocating for neurodivergents, a fire that kept me going even when it seemed like nothing I did would ever have that much of an impact.

Maybe this post is the first step in finding my way back to that passion and energy, in rediscovering what it was inside of me that made me think I had any business doing it in the first place. It didn’t used to be hard. It was easy. Graduate school was so easy for me compared to some of my fellow students. I bloom under the right kind of pressure, especially with a little friendly competition, with really smart people around me that force me to stay sharp and keep up with them. Nothing hones my writing skills like a deadline. Now that I’m out of the coursework and into the thesis portion, though, with an ultimate deadline still a year and a half away and no other striving, quick-witted grad students around me, it’s just easier to slip into obscurity, especially wearing the same scrubs as everyone else and a mask to hide my face. If no-one reminds me that I’m special, then I don’t have to be special. Fuck that. What’s the point.

I don’t know what it will take to reignite my pilot light. I keep hoping it will be something outside of me. Like the email I got today, although all that has done is brought my current dilemma into sharp relief, illuminating just how far off the path I have wandered since the pandemic forced my graduate education into a state of suspended animation. I had assumed I was just burned out and needed a break, and that’s probably true. But am I supposed to wait for my body to tell me I can go back, or will I need to pull myself up at least part of the way out of this hole by sheer will power even though I’d rather stay here in this nice, dark, quiet little space uncluttered by my or anyone else’s expectations?

I don’t know. But at least I’ve started writing again.

About C. M. Condo

I am a late-diagnosed, high-functioning autistic living with chronic pain. I started this blog in March of 2014 as a way to try to process what was happening to me. It is my hope that by sharing it with you, we can both gain something, or at least learn something, from my experience.
This entry was posted in Book Two - Mind, Setting 4 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Crash the lab

  1. Suzanne says:

    Wow! I haven’t been given much though to how the pandemic has affected the graduate school existence. I did my MS and PhD in the early-mid 1990s — and both were incredibly rewarding experiences that just could not have been delivered via Zoom. The department I was in for my PhD was very collegial and I genuinely enjoyed spending long hours in my office on campus. Many of us, including faculty, kept late hours and spent a lot of time together.

    I can well understand how you would have run out of steam — and I hope you find the energy to finish your thesis. I know what it’s like to be tired of thinking — and reading! After grad school, I don’t think I picked up a book for around fifteen years. I used to joke that grad school had killed my love of reading. I’m happy to say that I eventually started to read for pleasure again.

    Good luck with everything!

    Liked by 1 person

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