Since I was diagnosed with depersonalization in late 2014, I’ve had a start-stop relationship with doing further study. Some of this was due to feeling the time wasn’t right, and some signs coming along to point me away from that direction. Some of this came down to the fact that I felt overwhelmed about the thought to committing myself to Master’s level study when depersonalization and events around it knocked what little confidence I did have in myself and my abilities back to nearly zero.
Leading up to 2021, with counselling taking the turn towards feeling more and more emotions and less and less like a robot, I decided to dip my toe in the education pool again.
Again, the choices fell down to educational leadership or creative writing.
I did apply, and was accepted, for a Master’s in Educational Leadership back in 2011 I believe. But the earthquakes came along and that was the end of that idea.
In 2014, I took a bridging class so I could potentially start my Master’s in Creative Writing in 2015, but that also was kiboshed by depersonalization.
Even though I have nearly 25 years’ worth of experience in educational leadership, I have been worried that if for some reason The Place Where I Work gets new owners or I need to find another position that I will not have a piece of paper to say I’ve had some sort of formal training in it. And, of course, I want to study with the best I can so that my degree has some weight to it too.
I applied for a Master’s in Educational Leadership with both University of Auckland — New Zealand’s top ranked university for education, I believe — and the University of Canterbury. The applications were made more on a spur-of-the-moment decision to have that piece of paper than out of a love or desire to do it. But I’ve trucked through classes I haven’t been madly in love with before to get through to something I’ve wanted, and I wasn’t too afraid of having to do that again.
The application at the University of Canterbury was relatively straight forward but it sat in pending for weeks. No one person or department reached out to tell me that I needed to supply any further paperwork other than I mentioned in my application that I had depersonalization (“mental health issue” I think they called it on the form), and they sent me an additional form to fill out which didn’t really say was compulsory or a part of my application. More of a, “how can we help you” type of service.
For the University of Auckland, the application process was a little more complex. I don’t mind complex, because I usually can deal with that if I take it one step at a time. In this case, however, the online application said a letter outlining my experience was optional and transcripts of my previous study could be uploaded at a later date. So instead of worrying about delaying the application because of those two bits, I made sure all the data I had included was there and hit send.
I made the mistake of giving them both a personal email address and my work one as well. Some correspondence went to my personal email address, while other correspondence came to my work email address. It was quite difficult to keep up sometimes.
Those two bits of optional / to-be-added-later information? Both were needed. The email needing these pieces pointed me back to the Web site where I completed the application originally. The Web site stated I needed to send the information in. When I wrote in about this — do I need to send it via email or post or upload it? — there was also a lag in getting back to me, an email that gave me no help whatsoever, and then a further email when I threw my toys out of the cot about it all as their emails were all stating it was urgent I completed these tasks and I felt no sense of urgency from them in supplying me any sort of concrete answer.
In addition, when those bits were finally submitted in email, one pinged to “completed” on the Web site while the other one kept having the warning that it still needed to be submitted.
Back to the university itself, and yes, I was told, they had received it and it should be showing up as “completed” but they would take a look at it.
A few days later, it finally switched over to “completed”.
The wait began.
And doubt also began to set in.
Why was I doing this? Was it for me? Was it something I wanted to do? Or was I doing this for some reason that may or may not give me advancement in the future?
Months earlier, I raged on about feeling underappreciated in my job. Little creativity, nothing really stimulating, a big “wash-rinse-repeat” of everyone passing the buck and expecting me to take everything on and make decisions when they aren’t mine to make.
Was that really what I wanted?
Panic set in.
I’m getting older.
An illness has robbed me of precious years I could have been writing and creating and publishing work.
I don’t want to be driving around and around a cul-de-sac in my life.
Those thoughts brought me back to writing.
I want to be surrounded by creative people doing creative things that inspire me and motivate me to be the best I can be.
I need to use my talents to be creative, to create, to write, to publish, to share.
I have to return to the best version of me I can be, and that best version is one where I am creating and I am happy.
My attention turned to researching creative writing courses again.
The idea of delving straight into a Master’s scared me. And the thought of repeating a Bachelor’s turned my stomach, especially since I nearly took every single creative writing class Massey University had when I was undertaking my New Zealand Bachelor’s degree so I had a New Zealand equivalent of my American degree. A third Bachelor’s degree seemed a bit of overkill, especially after having to take another 3 to 4 years of classes to complete that as well.
Shorter courses popped up at me, including certificates and diplomas all distance or online, but my illness had isolated me from everyone else, myself included, for so long, and I didn’t want to go through this journey alone or separated from others by a screen.
I have been, and continue to be, a lonely person here in New Zealand. I don’t have a lot of friends, and I have a difficult time making friends, or finding opportunities to go out to social events to make new friends. So making friends through classes, through a shared interest, would be great for me.
Back to writing: for years, I looked at the Hagley Writers’ Institute here in Christchurch. Hagley College is a campus that combines non-traditional high school students and also adult learners in a campus across from Hagley Park (a large park area in Christchurch) and incidentally close to my work.
They run an assortment of different courses in different areas, but their writers’ institute is for adults only. The people who have graduated from there have gone on to do some pretty amazing things.
Over time, I kept returning to their program, and then turning away because I felt there was absolutely no way I had the talent to be accepted into the institute, especially where they tended to accept 20 or less students per year.
But of course I would miss all the shots I didn’t take, right?
This workshop-based course would be perfect for me. Close to home. Face-to-face tuition. Small class size of up to 10 students per tutor, and I’d be assigned a mentor to help me with my work too. Classes on weekends and a course workload I could handle.
And people! I’d get to interact with other students and tutors and mentors all as into writing as I was. Their creative energy and my creative energy merging in a galaxy of creativity and productiveness. How very exciting.
Despite the absolute anxiety and stress it caused me, I applied. I put my best work forward, wrote and reviewed a one-page piece about me and my journey with writing (and depersonalization), and bundled it up with my application form. After dilly-dallying around with it, I did what I have done lately with everything I’m hesitant on (even when I don’t need to be); I pressed send. Gone into the ether of the Internet.
I received a nice email back to say my application was received, and I would hear back in November about an interview.
The nerves churned.
University of Auckland finally got back to me. I’d actually withdrew my application with University of Canterbury as it had sat at “pending” forever, and I’d lost interest in an organization where I heard absolutely nothing back from.
Auckland rejected my initial application. Said I didn’t have the grades to gain entry into the Master’s of Educational Leadership. Well, fuck me, being in the National Honor Society in high school, on the dean’s list pretty much every semester in both high school and university, getting a 27 on the ACT, being in the Honors program at Northern Illinois University, being inducted into both the English Honors and Theater Honors fraternities, and getting high grades weren’t enough? I didn’t realize I needed to be a wunderkind to get into University of Auckland. (It’s not like I was applying to Harvard or Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Yale or something.)
But I got a consolation prize! I could complete a six month certificate which had the same courses as the Master’s degree (but for those mere mortals who obviously had an A- or lower grade point average) and then, only if I was good and did a super-duper good job, I would be switched over the Master’s.
Nah, mate, I’m good. Fuck off.
Before you think I’m an absolute asshole for saying this, I have never, ever, ever, in all the years I have been studying and applying for courses or university degrees or whatever, been rejected due to my grades. Never.
If it had some element of creativity to it, like the writers’ institute or a Master’s in Creative Writing, and my work wasn’t good enough, fine; I can accept that. But based on grades only, they should have been beating each other up to get me in that door.
I won’t lie; I was very upset. I have worked hard, and I continue to work hard, in many aspects of my life. So to be told, “your grades aren’t good enough” was a real slap in the face.
Thinking about the major problems I had when applying, combined with the roadblock thrown up in my way all those weeks later, and the desire wilting within me to study educational leadership, I pulled the plug on the application. Part of me wanted them to chase me up and say, “Why did you withdraw your application?” The other part of me knew they wouldn’t give a shit based off their bad customer service, and sadly that part of me was right.
I received an email from the Hagley Writers’ Institute. They were doing a group interview / information session on Saturday, 5 December 2020 at the institute itself instead of individual interviews. Being a shy person in actuality — although I appear quite confident and able to handle myself in many social situations — I withered again. The email stated we would need to introduce ourselves and speak a bit about our writing, our goals, and our aspirations in the course.
Thinking back to a speech class I took at NIU, I remembered my teacher stating that a good speaker doesn’t go in with everything written down but bullet-points to discuss. Over the years, I’d been able to switch this up to mental bullet-points for most short speeches, which helped me appear less distracted and more engaged with people when speaking. And this case would be no exception.
Hesitation really set in then. That critic in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough. And I honestly considered pulling my application from consideration.
Then, the son of a colleague of mine was killed in a workplace accident. His funeral was full of a mix of emotions. A man, in his early 30s, had been excited about his new apartment and, as a creative person, looking at getting back into his creative stride, only to be taken away so soon. “Life is short,” was the recurring theme, and, having heard that theme before even earlier in my depersonalization journey, I felt all too familiar with how it made me feel time was marching on without my creative work getting out into the open.
Another colleague’s mother died suddenly. The funeral was two days after the first funeral. She was in her 80s and had a life well-lived. Everyone who spoke about her talked about how talented she was, how she used her creativity and talents to benefit her church and the community at large through the local symphony orchestra, and the church was packed with people from all different parts of her life.
At one point, as my colleague was talking, the repeating slide show with images from her mother’s life kept striking a photo that matched what my colleague was saying. It was eerie.
Later in the service, the minister stated it was difficult to not see her at the organ — to the right of the stage area in the church — or at the piano. When he spoke about the piano, he looked right at where I was sitting, because that’s where she used to play piano. He explained about her talents when looking at me. Another sign.
I decided the universe was pretty much smacking me over the head with hints. I would continue on with my application for the Hagley Writers’ Institute.
It was a beautiful day, but I was anxious that I was running late. Apple Maps had said it would take 21 minutes exactly to get from our house to Hagley College but I had allowed 40 minutes just in case. Incidentally, it took me about 20 minutes to get there and park my car.
Since I’d never been on the campus itself, before, I was worried that it would be hard to find the building, but I bumped into one of the tutors, Faith, as she was heading back into the main building to get some refreshments ready for our meeting in the Writers’ Block, a more modern building, a box nestled in the area between the perpendicular wings of the older main building. She pointed out where we were meeting, but she looked a little flustered so I asked if she needed any help setting up, especially since I was so early. She smiled and tilted her head and told me that was a kind offer but they had it under control. So I made my way to the main meeting room, holding the door open for two women arriving for the interview session too.
Despite being very nervous, I tried to make as much small talk as I could with people who were sitting around me. I’m not great at small talk, so it probably sounded lame, but I was trying nonetheless. When I’m nervous, I try to only talk a little bit about me when asked a question so it doesn’t seem like I’m making it all about me, but more often than not, I have trouble with follow-on questions. Something to work on.
As what happens way too often in New Zealand, someone came in who knew someone else, and a third person knew a fourth person. New Zealanders always tend to have this two-degrees-of-separation thing going on. The Institute’s director, a wonderfully outgoing and warm woman name Morrin, and I started chatting about it. In Chicago, I explained, it would be moderately rare that you would bump into someone who knew someone you knew, and it was such a contrast in New Zealand that I did and still do struggle with it. What’s even odder, I told her, was when I bump into fellow Americans in New Zealand. Every so many years I bumped into another American from Chicago who grew up generally in the same suburban area that I did.
The informational meeting / group interview was interesting and informative. Some applicants were better at telling their stories and goals than others. Some applicants had more writing experience than I did. Others didn’t. There was always a good mix of experienced and inexperienced-but-showing-promise writers in the workshops, they explained. In addition, there were well over 20 applicants for the 20 spaces, but they did not need to take 20 even, as some years they took even less.
As it approached my turn to speak —- I was about halfway through the group all lined up in an oval shape —- I could feel my hands getting colder, even though it was quite warm inside the room. Nerves. Really bad nerves. But when it came to my turn to talk, I exhaled deeply. I spoke as slowly and calmly as I could, making eye contact, running through the points I had in my head about my life and my writing. As soon as I started, it seemed to be over. And I felt a little depersonalized through it, as I do when I face stressful situations.
Once I was finished, I felt flushed. Did I do a good enough job? Did I speak too quickly? Did I tell my story in a coherent fashion? There were so many things rushing through my head but also a wave of relief fell over me.
The Director Morrin told us that we would know if we were accepted or not around the week starting Monday, 14 December 2020. Two weeks. I could handle waiting two weeks. They still had other people to interview, and possibly call some or all of us back for further interviews. They had to make sure they selected the best and brightest for the course, which made sense.
The lady sitting next to me during the group interview / meeting — a woman about 10 years younger than me, named Hannah, studying her doctorate in sociology through University of Otago and in an all girl band — turned to me after we finished and said: “Did you say you’re from Chicago?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Mount Prospect. It’s a northwest suburb.”
“Wow. I’m from Libertyville.” (Libertyville is about 23 miles north of Mount Prospect.)
You couldn’t make this stuff up.
I went away feeling very happy and quite excited. Yes, I’d made the right choice. Yes, I enjoyed the people and the place and the prospect of it all very much. Yes, yes, yes.
The critic in my head kept pulling back, keeping me tempered in my response, just in case I didn’t get accepted. But another part of me was okay with the fact that I might not be accepted. I would ask (nicely) to find out why I wasn’t accepted and dig a little deeper for any feedback I could get to work harder towards the next application.
Another part of me was quietly confident. In all the people in the circle discussing where they were coming from and where they were going, I felt I was one of the only people in the group who had written creatively extensively before and who writes a lot for work (and sometimes this blog). My academic history had a proven track record of a slew of writing courses which have helped hone my craft.
At home, I told Noel about the experience and then retreated into my office to play a game. Original plan had been to put up the second Christmas tree in the main living room but I was too exhausted to think about that. All that nervous energy burned up everything I had except the afterglow of the meeting. With depersonalization, I have found not to overextend emotionally because it comes back to bite you in the end.
At work on the morning of Monday, 7 December 2020, on yet another beautiful early summer’s day, I was telling my colleague Paula about the experience. Actually, we were at the point where we were talking about one of the people in the interview group who had severe dyslexia, and the two of us were reviewing previous and current cases of students we had with dyslexia and how we helped them, when my Apple watch started to vibrate: incoming telephone call. This was about 10:45 in the morning.
Something told me to pick up my cell even though I didn’t recognize the number.
It was the director of the Hagley Writers’ Institute, Morrin.
Wow, she is calling really soon after the group interview. I thought they were letting us know the week of Monday, 14 December? Or maybe they need to interview me again?
She told me that I had been accepted into the institute for 2021.
They were only calling people they were absolutely positively sure about, and there was only a few people that fell into that category.
She explained they felt I had the experience and ability to help others while focusing on my own work. I definitely can do that.
It humbled me, and I started to cry a little bit.
I told her that the meeting had really brightened my day, and I went away feeling so very happy and so very excited. I didn’t go on to say I hadn’t felt that way in a very long time, because I felt that that would be a step too far.
She told me hopefully I would have a happy day now I got the good news, and I responded to her that I would be very happy all day.
And I was. Oh boy, I was.
Here’s to the return to my creative writing.