Reasons to do a PhD that seem perfectly normal (but many probably aren’t):
1. to ease a move to another country
2. in lieu of universal basic income
3. to be diagnosed with ADHD (otherwise costly process–question of whether I would seek the diagnosis or medication if not doing a PhD… debatable)
4. health insurance and free mental health care (always present but made more urgent by the PhD)
5. to exhaust unworkable fantasies of what material benefits degrees bestow
6. to have unstructured time within structured time
7. to confront dragons and burn in their breath but not die
8. to explore power/lessness
9. to gain confidence completing a long project (so far this has been an exercise in failure)
10. the usual: to read, write, be with ideas, find interlocutors, publish, teach, have a job (but these now seem the most difficult things to do)
It doesn’t feel right to put this in the list, but I have come to Ireland to do a PhD in part to escape a terror I couldn’t name. It was before 45 was elected. Before I had even returned to the US from the Lake District in 2014, but more pronounced once I fell in love with a woman who doesn’t look like social expectations of a woman. Who was less safe, she alone, or the two of us together? I know from one perspective it will seem that I was cowardly, to leave as things were heating up. But this would presume that I had ever felt I belonged or could thrive in that place before the vice began to tighten. It’s not just the guns that gave my terror a form, although the guns–the everywhereness of them, the way gun violence and general and mass shooting in spectacular particular seemed the only possible homegrown patriotism possible for a country that had lumbered militarily in so many directions outside its arbitrary borders–the guns were important. Learning about proprioception (the sense of the body in space that responds before/without conscious awareness) and interoception (the sense of the space inside the body) has been key to understanding my anxiety about guns. As there was a part of me, when I lived in Los Angeles, that knew, always, that there was not enough water and that all it took was a big enough earthquake to disturb the delivery system (but that anyway, we were running out), there is a part of me that knows, when I am in the US, that there are more guns than people in the US, and that, statistically, someone slipping beyond the social contract, for whatever reason, was more likely than not to be armed. My body in that space did not need the shooting to be close to home, did not need to make the excuse that I am afraid of guns, did not need even to be aware of 393 million (registered) firearms. Maybe it was just the thing I chose to feel afraid of. It was one thing. There were more subtle things, lies I had learned my whole life about the founding of the country, where the wealth had come from, something about freedom and democrazy and a dream, all the dangerous half-truths about docile Indigenous people and enslaved Africans and 400 years that came after, and where my body fit or didn’t fit into that puzzle. Another thing was about labor and worth and leisure and waste, about bootstraps and rising above. About bad credit and immorality and redemption through debt. Prove that you can pay a debt. Prove that you can work to pay and be redeemed. Another thing was about health (and) care, pressures of staying fit and eating clean in this unnamed religion, and going over ten years without a dentist appointment and being afraid to go to the emergency room even after the Affordable Care Act, having to be convinced by my wife that I would not have to pay with money I didn’t have, that I didn’t have to grin through the pain, risk further infection to an abscess on my ass. I did not want to die from an ass abscess. Those things are harder to define, and if you’ve grown up never knowing care, it’s hard to point and say “I need this.” But I had lived in other places, and when there was a lump to investigate while I was in the UK, I broke down in front of the doctor, not just because the news was good, but because I was months away from being back in a place where this period of waiting to learn if the threat was existential would also be accompanied by bills I wouldn’t be able to pay without a crowdfunding drive.
But if I had to choose something concrete, I chose to do a PhD in order to move to Ireland because I was afraid someone would hurt my very visibly not-what-you-expect-in-a-woman wife. I am thinking maybe if I write about this, maybe if I fully grieve this phantasmagoric justification, I will be unblocked. I will be able to take all of this more and less seriously–that sweet spot where anxiety subsides long enough that writing happens.