On becoming unreliable

I read something recently about being unreliable:

The reason why you are unreliable is that you don’t comprehend the sanctity of a promise and keeping your word. Your lack of prioritization is another factor that affects your ability to be reliable and dependable.

That sentence was a slap in the face and then I checked on the author and found they are in their mid-20s. That explains a lot.

I am retiring from the university and moving back where I grew up for many reasons, the top two being 1) my mother has nobody else to help her out and 2) I have become unreliable.

I like neither of these reasons, but the second is exceptionally hard for me. I don’t like it. To be honest, I was never particularly reliable in the first place: I was slapped into reliably by parents who didn’t understand that my unreliability was related to my cognition. Society demands women do everything for everybody, and nobody wants their doormat/maid to be unreliable. Capitalism requires a girl with no family support to fit a mold in order to make a living and support herself. I was just reading in an English novel the phrase “she has her living to earn.” Indeed.

I did all right, I guess, keeping it together over the years. I mostly relied on substances and other bad coping mechanisms to shove my functioning into an acceptable shape. And then I hit 50, and absolutely none of it worked anymore. All of my cognitive differences came thundering back, refusing to be covered up and put away. Things I had spent years and years standing up to and making work were no longer manageable. My dyslexia came back with a dreadful vengeance so that now, writing an email takes me a very long time, and has to be proofread by husband or a sympathetic student, or I sound like a lunatic.

I’m not sure what went haywire, but something did, and I just can’t do very much any more that involves making ideas into words.

Many days I am unable to read at all. Reading has been the greatest solace of my life, and to have it out of reach pains me more than I can communicate.

I very much do not enjoy being at a disadvantage with words.

My autism, too, has decided that it doesn’t like being denied, either. Brightness and noise that I was once able to withstand now paralyze me. Los Angeles is a beloved place. It is also bright and noisy. I can not manage being outside when the sun is up most of the time now, even with sunglasses. Walking from my house to the car is agony. Waiting for the bus feels like torture. Being jostled on public transit feels like a hard punch. Having young people whiz by me on a bike on campus—a delightful thing, by any account—causes my vision to blur and my head to ache.

I have my mother in my head telling me to stop being so dramatic, stop being so self-important, stop whining. That used to work for me; I could take the sensory beatings of the world and keep going. Now I can’t. I ran out of coping. Maybe my autism got worse? Hard to tell.

All of these things, along with aging and an illness, have made me very tired. I didn’t know such fatigue existed—I always thought that people who told me they needed to rest were a) more sensible than me and just taking care of themselves and/or b) not part of the hustle. I didn’t judge them particularly as lazy, but I didn’t understand that fatigue just lays you out and takes all you have so that standing up and taking a shower feels like running 10 miles.

Together, all these things have made me unreliable. I am trying to hold on long enough so that my PhD students I have can finish their studies and launch their careers. But it is hard to hold on, and I feel a great deal of shame about not being always to keep the appointments that I make, or taking longer than I said I would doing something. I used never to return reviews in late. Now I always late with everything. Saying yes to anything feels like self-abuse and lying to whoever made the request.

A few years ago, I began refusing speaking invitations because I knew that there was a big chance I would need to cancel and leave people hanging with an empty panel chair. I thought that would be enough to cover my decline. It wasn’t.

I do not like being unreliable. I judge it harshly. So does the world. People do not understand why I need to stop and slow down even more than I am because right now I seem to them to be barely moving. I wish I could help people understand that I did the best I could, and I am still doing the best I can. I realize, more than they do, that the best I can is not particularly good according to the standards I used to have.

Letting go of my profession has been agony, but it is what it is, as they say. My colleagues are mostly wonderful, and I shall miss them. Surprisingly, the person I thought was my closest friend and mentor withdrew from me entirely and now barely speaks to me—only when a student needs something. I am, no doubt, a terrible disappointment to him. He did a lot to help me understand the university and get my research done. I miss him and grieve for the relationship, but watching me decline must be hard, too, just as experiencing it is. He has younger colleagues he’s generally always preferred to me anyway, and, despite my sadness, I understand and wish them all the best. Doors close.

The very good news, I think, is that as I step away from professional life, I am seeing so many wonderful new young people step in. The 21st century does not need an old white lady teaching justice classes in it—there are too many bright people from all over and with all different backgrounds who want the role and will move the needle more than I ever could or will. It is wonderful to watch them become who they are as scholars and planners even as I let go. The future amazes me still.

And my dear husband, tirelessly cheerful, compliments the bad art I make because I have to express myself somehow, and I can’t trust words anymore. He talks about the things we shall do when I’m done with work: going out on a boat; puttering in the garden; making more bad art. I have been listening to a series of lectures and interviews by artists. Most of them became artists young. Now and then, one will come along who took their first art class at 50. They give me a great deal of hope that my ideas won’t all wilt on the tangled vines of a mind I no longer seem able to control. We’ll see how it goes.