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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, August 19, 2023

entry arrow7:47 PM | Birthday Returns

After the ravages of the pandemic, I’ve now found myself back to teaching. It was a very long hiatus from that part of my life which had always defined me. When I took the leave without pay, it was essentially to take care of my spiraling mental health, but it was also to find my footing in a world that suddenly felt alien. And now that I have come to the end of that long tunnel, here are some thoughts and some confessions.

There was a huge part of me that felt the leave was going to be permanent. When 2020 came around and we were on the precipice of the coming pandemic, about to jump into the abyss, I was already feeling burned out—although I must admit I was trying my best to ignore the symptoms.

In 2010, I had come back from the United States after a fruitful fellowship at the International Writing Program with so much vigor and many ideas, and then in 2012, I finally earned the MA I had been postponing for about a decade, and then I was appointed founding coordinator of the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Center, with the creative writing program now fully back on as an academic offering—after decades of it being a neglected part of departmental concerns. Everything was full of promise. The work was fulfilling.

It was a joy to teach creative writing. Even the fact that I was the only creative writing teacher on the roster—although with an esteemed and retired faculty filling in as adjunct professor for poetry—did not bother me at first. [I was told there was a freeze in hiring given the uncertainties of K12.] I did not mind for the most part, because I genuinely loved teaching. I loved having the opportunity to mold writers at the beginning of their creative prowess. I loved that the efforts of those years produced so many books by my students, with two of them winning the Palanca for plays workshopped in my classes. [For my teaching purposes, I considered the Palanca and similar platforms, like the Virgin Labfest, my equivalent of a board exam—which is just the kind of professional marker denied graduates of creative fields.]

But the toll of all that eventually got to me. Workshops are not easy classes to teach; they require blood and sweat from both student and teacher, and immense amounts of concentrated time—and part of that difficulty was my fault: I was a demanding teacher, meticulous to a fault, and I also allowed the work to swallow me, sometimes giving up my own free time just to be able to workshop all the stories and plays submitted for consideration, with all the attendant revisions that come with them. I was also ignoring the fact that in that immersion, I was letting go of my own practice of writing—and then, like a cancer metastasizing, I secretly began to begrudge all the time taken away from my own pursuit of crafting fiction. I would find myself feeling defeated when a work that had been previously workshopped did not bear any effort at revision, and I’d think: “We spent all those hours talking about this work so that it can be improved—and yet nothing? What a waste of time!” Still, I worked myself to the bones. I did not take any sabbatical in a decade, nor did it occur to me I should. I was constantly told to pursue my Ph.D., but every year I was also given heavier loads to teach—and with the creative writing program still in the process of being fully formed, I felt the need to stay. During one schoolyear, enrollees to the creative writing program actually topped all the other programs being offered by the department—and I felt a sense of pride in that. But unbeknownst to me I was also slowly cracking.

The pandemic, with all its Zoom classes, broke me. In 2020, I thought making lecture videos for all the classes given to me would be the best way to go. As usual, I went about it with unsustainable effort that sprang from my undiagnosed ADHD: I was crafting meticulous scripts for every lecture, designing meticulous graphics to go with them, and waking up at 2 AM every day to record my spiel without the distraction of outside traffic to mess with my sound design. I wanted my videos to be topnotch, information-wise and design-wise. And I was making at least three lecture videos a day. It was a heavy burden that I was somehow able to “sustain”—until I contracted COVID-19 and was so sick, I could barely continue.

When I recovered from COVID two weeks later, I found I could not regain my footing—my anxiety was a deep maw I could not overcome; my brain was forever distracted like glass shards in perpetual limbo; my physical capability was limited and I could not move properly; my hair was falling out in clumps, I thought I was going bald; and my every day was defined by waking nightmares I could not begin to comprehend. Which was when my boyfriend finally forced me to seek psychiatric help.

I was diagnosed with adult ADHD—and it made perfect sense. It gave me an idea why over the years I was often forgetful, why I was often feeling overwhelmed and panicky, why I needed specific boosters to carry me through even tasks I could usually finish in an hour, why I hated answering text messages and emails, why it took so much to muster motivation for things that were quite easy for me to accomplish—but also why I also had a thousand brilliant ideas, and why, when the condition is properly managed, people with ADHD also say their mental singularity is a superpower. It was all that, and then multiplied to a greater degree because of the pandemic. [My therapist told me she was beset with so many mental health cases when the pandemic happened. “It is unprecedented,” she said. It was often difficult to set up therapy appointments with her, given the high demand on her time.]

For a while the psychotropic drugs I was prescribed to take helped. I cannot even begin to describe the perfect feeling of being on Ritalin. The way it massaged my brain. The way it made me feel secure. The way it made everything so clear. This is the thing: every single day for a person with ADHD is like having a brain that’s constantly full of static—but most of us learn to live with that kind of chaotic brain chemistry it feels almost normal. Ritalin, on the other hand, was all about calm, steadiness, and focus. Taking it was like being a person with bad eyesight finally putting on a pair of prescription glasses and seeing the world perfectly for the first time: you notice the outline of the green leaves of the trees, you notice the subtleties in the shadows, you can read signs from far away. The sky is bluer, the sea greener. Ritalin gave my brain breathing space, and its gift was concentration. I could remember things now; I could follow through tasks; I was no longer nervous about messaging anyone. [In fact, my first act on Ritalin was to respond to and purge all the unanswered emails on my inbox.]

And so the drugs helped, until they didn’t—because, truth to tell, I was feeling their efficacy waning out with every passing month, even as I slowly became physically dependent on the drugs. There were times, when my prescription was running low at the end of each month where I’d panic because I was running out of medicine to take—because the withdrawal was often severe. And the medicine was also very expensive.

Eventually, because of this and other circumstances, I made the decision to manage my condition without medicine. It felt unsustainable. When I made that decision, it was the month I was due to receive an award from the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which was recognizing me for my work as a writer and as a cultural worker. I remember giving a speech in a televised ceremony at the Luce Auditorium—but feeling like my brain was flying elsewhere, especially in the panicky clouds that was secretly smothering me. But there I was on stage, acting as if I was perfectly fine; inside me though there was a dervish threatening to spin out of control.

Around this time, I made peace with myself about no longer teaching, because going back gripped me with so much despair. There were also circumstances that made my heart harden, like my department hiring the worst possible person in the world to be my replacement—and also finding out that in my gravest hours when I could not function, they could actually hire more people to teach and share the creative writing load. It was a dark time, and I admit my mental condition made many of my actions irresponsible—but never once did I feel my former colleagues reach out to me. [Some did, privately—but not the ones who mattered.] I had no plans of going back. A dear friend, Karl Villarmea, advised me however not to entertain thoughts of retirement or resignation: “Take a leave of absence instead, and then find out later if this is something you truly want to do.” I was at that time completely incapable of making definite decisions, and I am grateful that he went beyond himself to facilitate things for me as a representative of my teacher’s union. [In moments like this, you find out who your truest friends are.]

That was also the time I decided to focus on finding myself, and on pursuing writing without baggage. That was also the time I made the choice to step away from things that felt superfluous. I remember Renz reminding me: “You have done so much already, Ian. You don’t have to prove yourself anymore. You can just be yourself.” So I exiled myself to the proverbial desert for three years, turned my back on almost everything I used to hold dear, and leaned only on my creative endeavors for sustenance. It wasn’t utopia. Like I said, there were often psychotropic meds involved. And there were a lot of failures and disappointments, as well as unexpected successes.

I learned discernment.

I now know how to map the ebbs and flows of my mental challenges, and to recognize the whole thing as being not a flaw of character but as a health condition that can be managed. [Still working on this.]

I now know how recognize the honest promptings of my heart, and to obey it. [In other words, to trust your instincts. Because they’re often right.]

I know now how to calibrate expectations. [To under-promise, but over-deliver. Still working on this.]

I now know to disregard the entrenched worship of the institutional.

I also now know who friends truly are.

I have learned that I’m at my happiest when I write and create. [The exile was an extraordinarily productive time, creative-wise.]

I have also learned gratefulness, forgiveness, and the delicate balance of the adventurous yes and the self-preserving no. [Always saying yes burns you out; always saying no makes you lazy and uncreative.]

I do still need to work on replying to people in a timely manner [I get overwhelmed so easily by the volume I get, compounded by debilitating ADHD], but I’ve set up a structure that will help manage the flow.

Above all, I hope I don’t have to go back to the desert again. It wasn’t bad, but life I’ve found is more than just a metaphorical abundance of sand.

In the first faculty meeting I attended after being away for three years, my fellow teacher Rina Hill led a short reflection before we tackled the formal business of getting ready for a new schoolyear. She gave us a piece of paper with a question on it, which she asked us to ponder on. The question read: “What motivates me to work and work ‘with all [my] might’?”

It felt like the perfect question for my first day back as a teacher. What motivates me indeed? I found out that I’ve never lost my passion to teach—all the lectures and seminars and cultural tours I’ve given while in the “desert” prove that—but I just needed rest, and a new way of looking at things. My resolution now is to teach the best that I can without losing sight of myself, and my time, and my health.

Around June this year, while I was counting down the days before my official leave of absence was set to expire and I needed to decide once and for all what I wanted to do by the time August came, two friends approached me, each on their own, which motivated me to teach again.

The theatre artist Dessa Quesada-Palm, who teaches theatre directing, came to me and said: “Ian, my students need you as their playwriting teacher”—and explained why I needed to come back. Alana Narciso, a fellow literature teacher who was sitting in as chair of the department, also made an effort to meet with me, and told me over coffee: “Ian, you have so much to give our students as a creative writing teacher. Please come back.” She explained why I needed to come back. I thought of their implorations, and my heart began to melt. Sometimes the reassurances of friends are enough to make you reconsider things.

So here I am, back again. Scarred, but think wiser. The desert taught me well.

I celebrated my 48th birthday soon after the current schoolyear started. Birthdays are usually fraught with the blues for me. My dark days usually start right around the end of July and only lets up at the end of August, a monthlong commiseration about disappointments and growing older.

This year, I decided to let go, to let others in, to swim with the flow, and to reconsider once again my life’s work—and for all that, this turned out to be the happiest birthday I’ve celebrated since forever. Understated, but so full of meaning. May we all have this kind of birthday revelations.

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