I was awarded a sabbatical from my institution for the Spring 2023 semester. In late December, I requested and was granted a a medical leave for that same semester. As a result, I turned down the sabbatical. This was obviously not my original plan. As this news has spread, lots of folks have reached out because they care about me and were genuinely concerned. The first student who found out asked me with wide eyes if I was dying.
The good news is I don’t have a condition that is life threatening – other than being human – and I’m not planning to die this semester, which I hope is okay with all of you. Since I’m not planning to die soon, I thought I’d write a bit about this choice I made. I once took a workshop with Selena Carrera, who said, “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will, and you don’t know how they will edit it.” So, here is the story, according to me, in general enough terms I am willing to publish them online.
Cleave is a word with two homographs, each with a distinct origin. Cleave means to adhere firmly and loyally and to divide or split. My medical leave is actually me cleaving, in both of these ways.
Cleave: to divide or split
In July of 2022, I left a graduate class I was teaching to take the only available appointment time my doctor had that day. I was in so much pain and wasn’t sleeping. I have some chronic issue with my stomach that had last flared up in 2019. This time, it was more severe, and the flare up lasted months. I taught the fall semester like nothing was wrong, and I could do that because I didn’t look sick. The doctors (I now had a team!) ordered many tests and procedures, but I have small kids, was working full time, hosting the state art education conference, and teaching an extra class. Getting to the doctor, the pharmacy, and the specialist was really hard. I turned down the appointments they offered because it was Evelyn’s birthday, because it was the first day of the state conference, and because there is no great short term plan to have someone cover your classes when you’re the only art education professor at the university where you work.
If I wanted to attend to this issue and stop testing my resolve to love baked potatoes for another day, I had to divide or split from some of the responsibilities that were keeping me from doing so.
Cleave: to adhere firmly and loyally
The intensity of the fall semester and my health issues was magnified by what I now understand to be layers of grief.
Layer – I had COVID in February of 2021 and two years later, my sense of smell and taste still isn’t 100%. (Please don’t send me advice or studies about this – my own research supplemented by my children’s mounting “expertise” from YouTube influencers has been plenty sufficient in making me feel worse about this and not better).
Layer – In addition to not being able to taste/smell everything, my stomach issues meant there were many foods I couldn’t eat. I have a few friends who saw me eat an unreasonable amount of caesar salads because it was the only safe bet on the menu for months. Not only was I sad about the sudden influx of dietary limitations, I started to avoid some social interactions because looking at a menu and choosing the caesar salad again resulted in me tearing up more than once. The restricted diet or inevitable pain was a loss over and over, often in situations where I was supposed to be happy and enjoying myself.
Layer – There was meaningful work I loved that I lost the opportunity to do this year. On top of mourning the biggest professional loss I have experienced, I found out that folks were being dishonest about me and that work. The devastation, grief, and eroded trust has been profound and sticks around like a thick fog.
I don’t know at what point the layering of these things became too much, but it became too much. There were days I would drive my car to work and sit in the parking lot and cry. There were many self-imposed time outs in restaurant bathrooms to breathe, or to cry, or to pray. Every time I had more blood drawn, I wondered if they could detect the decreasing levels of joy in each subsequent vial. Would the hematologist call to tell me I might be depressed? Wouldn’t that be something? I mean, it was that obvious.
I began to realize that I had to adhere firmly and loyally…to myself…in ways that I had not, ever. I had to find health in more ways that one, and the medical leave became as important for healing my (metaphorical) heart as it was for my stomach.
So, I’m cleaving. I’m breaking up with work for an extended time in order to be more present with myself so I can heal. Those of you who know me and my work know this was not an easy decision and we all know this break will be as hard as it is good for me. I apologize ahead of time for what you will likely see in the coming months on my social media: sheer indulgence in the form of concerts, museums, gardens, hiking, time with friends, making art, and the like. I’ll try to keep it under control, but as I’ve already experienced, when you re-discover delight, it’s hard to keep that quiet.