For the last few months I have been unable to write. My squiggling thoughts have bounced around inside my head, but I have pushed them away. I have been in survival mode leaving me with a body-numbing torpor. I have detached myself from any emotion – my usually high empathy button has been switched off. Life has thrown some truly awful stuff at me over my lifetime, but my mental health has never been as bad as it has recently. A series of difficult work experiences and feeling scapegoated and unfairly maligned by those with power at a time when my health had rendered me weak, pushed me over the precipice, and for once in my life I felt absolutely and thoroughly beaten. Those who know me well will recognise that with me a smile and laughter are never far away. However my smile disappeared and tears replaced the easy laughter. I felt vulnerable and as if I could trust no-one but my nearest and dearest. I came off of social media. I stayed at home when I could. I pasted on a smile when teaching and ensured my students did not suffer because of my unhappiness. It took every ounce of strength to talk in front of people. As I neared my work place the nausea would start, the wringing of my hands the indication that the anxiety was pushing my brain to fight or flight mode.
However, slowly the medication started to work, my strategies for self-preservation showed results. The ‘ok’ days became more frequent and the smile more genuine. What replaced the empty detached feeling was anger. I am frustrated that the job I had loved has been robbed, and much of the joy I felt daily in my work has disappeared to be replaced by the desire to just get through each minute I am there. I truly loved my work when I started as a university lecturer. I felt honoured to hold such a post, so much so that I took a pay cut from my previous job. I love teaching a subject I am passionate about and helping people to make connections to the too-often inaccessible language and concepts of academia. I wanted students to leave my sessions enthused and inspired. I worked well beyond my contracted hours because of that love – gratis, done in the name of good will, the joy of a job-well done my only payment. A toxic environment has largely stolen away that joy, dragging with it the goodwill that I have always held onto as part of my work ethic. It’s sad that those with power don’t recognise how their staff are their most valuable asset, and that loyalty and goodwill turn the wheels to drive up the tables and rankings of student satisfaction that they hold so dear. It is sad that some students, now viewed as consumers of a product, cannot see that stressed over-worked lecturers many on temporary or part-time contracts do not deliver their best in such a toxic environment.
This week I am on strike. Eight days is a long time to go without pay when you are the breadwinner, and to lose pension contributions when you get closer to retirement. It is hard work standing at a picket line in the rain when you know that your only payment will be at least a couple of days of pain and discomfort. However my anger drove me to strike. I held my home-made poster today (pictured) which shows the outrageous pay gap in universities for women, disabled and BAME staff and felt proud of the people whom I stood next to on that picket line. I am not a born activist having had too many years of being silent and silenced. I am not aggressively militant – instead I waved and smiled encouraging people in cars to ‘honk’ their support, handed out leaflets with a smile to try to engage them in discussion. I strived for positive, respectful, relational encounters as part of who I am and what I believe in.
Whilst many from their outside view may see it as a strike by well-paid lecturers who don’t know what real work is, those inside understand it for what it is. It wasn’t just lecturers who stood next to me. It isn’t just about the pay, it’s about a fight for equality, a fight for fairness, a wish for every student to get the quality they deserve from lecturers who are not exhausted, demoralised and over-stretched. I stood today for people who look like me – people of colour who are paid 12-13% less than white colleagues with the same experience. I stood because of the negative way that I and many other colleagues have been treated over the last few years, in an environment that I do not recognise anymore as a force for good.
When I stood on the picket line in the rain on the first day of the strike, I looked at those next to me, smiling despite the cold and wet. In the half light of the early morning seeing colleagues standing together in solidarity gave me a warm glow. I knew in that moment that I was down, but not beaten. Whilst there are injustices to fight I’m still standing because the day we all turn away saying “it is not my battle. I cannot support this because…” all is lost for people like me. And to those that choose not to raise their voice, not to stand beside those that fight I would remind them of the memorial of Martin Niemoeller:
I choose to stand with others to fight for change, together we are stronger; I refuse to be beaten.