Four Steps Back 9/6/19

Reflection Piece by Richard Bleil

Seems like for every step forward, there are four steps back. That’s where I’m at today.

My regular readers already know my background, but a recap is probably in order. After college, I started in industry working as an environmental analytical chemist. After a couple of years, I went to graduate school, then with my doctorate did a couple of post-doctoral research positions before my first teaching “gig”. I was a chemistry professor at one institution for four years, and at the next for eleven before moving on. After that, I tried my own business (which failed), worked as the director of a forensic lab, and a dean.

It has been quite an interesting rise to the top. It seemed like things were going well, and couldn’t be stopped. I had a great job and things were looking up. Then it all fell apart.

Today I am back at the beginning. I’m living in a new city where I know few people, as has happened many times in the past (Boston, New York City, Madison SD, Fayette IA…), but more than that, my career has taken a decided return to the beginning. I’m an adjunct professor teaching chemistry, and trying to start a new job.

It’s been an interesting experience getting back into a classroom, specifically teaching chemistry. This is the exact course that I started my career with when I started teaching in 1995. It was at a medical college affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventist church. Today I’m teaching at a medical women’s college associated with the Catholic church. Although I’m an adjunct professor now (part-time temporary), it is still a situation that is heavy with deja vu.

If I were to tell you that I wasn’t really frightened right now, I would be a liar. I don’t know how I did this so long ago. I have no idea how to go about building new relationships, finding a new place to live instead of this long-term motel I’m living in, how to recover from this financial hole I dug for myself believing that I would have a steady and long term income that could handle it.

While I’m back at the beginning of my life and it seems as though things are at least starting to move forward again, I simultaneously feel as though my life is crumbling, and I have no idea how I am going to fix it.

It’s humbling returning to less than your beginning (at least when I was teaching these courses before it was a full time job with benefits), and it’s terrifying knowing where things in my life are heading. It’s humiliating losing a lifetime of accomplishments, but comforting to be back in front of students teaching a subject with which I am infinitely comfortable. I’ve been through so many ups and downs I’m beginning to feel like a teabag, and I feel as though I am running out of the will to fight.

I find myself asking how I am going to do this again, how I will find the strength, and trying desperately to remember how I’ve done it in the past in the hopes that there are hints as to how to proceed this time. In some ways I’m better off, but not in others. My age is working against me this time. My clock is winding down, and I’m feeling it in a very profound way. I have great friends, and yet I feel more alone than I ever have before.

And I don’t know how I can do this alone.

I’ve been called intelligent, yet I find myself in this situation. I’ve been called brave, but I’m not. I’m just doing what needs to be done. I’m really showing no more courage than it takes to eat to survive. People tell me that they are impressed with me, but I don’t see it. There is nothing here that is impressive, just a shell where a man once lived, surviving like the skin of a snake that has been shed and abandoned by the life that once occupied it.

I can tell you that I am going in with far less now than I had back when I started. I’ve been stripped of my pride, and lost my ambition. And my future is far shorter than it was back then. Like a fuse approaching its end, there’s not many years left for me. I’m too old to father children or start a family. And I have far too many miles under my proverbial tires to be restarting a career.

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