Dissertation Dilemma

You haven’t heard a lot from me over the past year. I won’t bore you with excuses, except to let you know that I experienced a prolonged illness, was involved in two minor accidents, continued working two to three jobs, provided extra support for my family, and finally finished my most recent book, Whole Happy and Healthy. Now that this difficult year has passed, I must turn my attention to the topic that I have been avoiding for more than six years: my dissertation topic.

My problem has never been that I don’t have any ideas; in fact, I have too many. Committing to one topic in which I will immerse myself for the next few years is a bit scary. But I am at the point where the ‘rubber meets the road,’ as they say, and my goal is to complete a concept paper if not a full proposal by the end of this summer. I want my topic to be something exciting to me but also relevant and helpful to others in the field. I have narrowed it down to the following broad ideas; let me know if you have any suggestions!

  1. How professional and personal identity is constructed within the context of experience with progressive social change organizations
  2. How social justice leaders experience and perceive social myths and how they intentionally contest and change prevailing narratives
  3. The interaction of social justice leaders’ interpretation of their life stories as related to class, gender, race, ability, and other identities and their lived experience and how those interpretations and identities fluidly evolve over time
  4. How social justice organizations unintentionally reproduce the social conditions they were designed to ameliorate (i.e. income inequality)
  5. How women experience inequity and exclusion as workers and volunteers in social justice organizations

I Was Happier When I Was Depressed


I sometimes think that I was happier when I was depressed. I recently found a journal from 2006 and 2008, with an almost two-year gap in-between. The pages contained subtle and not so subtle expressions of sadness, rage, loss, obsession, and shame. While I read my desperate words with compassion for the promising young woman who couldn’t see past her, my, immediate challenges, I also felt a sense of loss for the person I once was. Who knew that I would someday long for those dreary days with a sense of sentimental pride.

At the time, I knew exactly who I was — or so it appears on the page. My mental health diagnosis was enmeshed with my identity. It was who I was; it explained why I felt what I felt and did what I did. I defined myself through my diagnosis with religious rigor. Resistance to recovery is often rooted in attachment to our sense of self at a particular time in our lives — a self that we have, necessarily so, learned to understand, manage, and control.

But I really only knew one part of myself, and now I have opened up to so many other possibilities for my life. I am happy, or I should say happier, but not consistently so. And that is unquestionably good. But at the same time, I feel that my writing, a reflection of how I feel about life at the moment, has become, at times, fake, sterile, and dull despite moments of restless rumination. I fear that if I do not suffer, then my art will on my behalf.

I didn’t originally have the opportunity to self-identify as a person who experiences mental illness, pervasive emotional distress. From a young age, I was told you’re this. You’re that. I was medicated. I received harmful treatment that fractured my already fragile self-esteem and identity. Without realizing it, I conformed to those various labels that were attached to me and implicitly complied with the related assumptions about my feelings and behavior. In my heart of hearts, I never fully accepted other people’s interpretations of me, particularly those that were based on a simplistic diagnosis — because I am a unique, complex, dynamic human being— as we all are.

No, I really don’t want to go back to those more difficult days, but I wouldn’t change them either. I am grateful for what they, both at the time and in retrospect, have revealed and taught me about myself and about life. They have made me a stronger, more empathetic, and more resilient person.