I left academia -an assistant professorship, at that- for greener pastures two years ago. While I am much happier, validated, better paid, and respected in my current job teaching at an independent high school in NYC, my academic past keeps haunting me. For example, when my school got a new director this year I started having panic attacks before the first day of school, concerned that this new boss might end up being like my old department chair. (Luckily he's been great and supportive.) I am already worried, even after getting unprecedented levels of praise for my performance this year, that my students next year will hate me. As much as I like my colleagues, I am always on the lookout for the one who will try to shiv me. I am often afraid to ask for anything at work, because I am sure I will be told no, and that my even asking for things will put me on the shit list of the powers that be.
These are not rational feelings in any objective sense, but are a kind of mental defense mechanism that victims of trauma erect in order not to be hurt again. During my time in academia, I was in a constant state of fear and degradation. As a "visiting" assistant professor I had no voice or power in my job, and had to go through the metaphorical servants' entrance all the time. Many of my colleagues would not even talk to or make eye contact with me, including the ones who had published less in their whole careers than I had in two years as a VAP. When I was an assistant professor I was bullied and mobbed by colleagues who had originally been friendly to me, and one of them even circulated an email among colleagues making a sexually derogatory joke meant to demean me. My chair barged his way into my office in a snorting rage not long after I complained about having to teach most of my classes outside of my field and on short notice at times. (I was once switched to a new class I had never taught in a field I wasn't trained in a mere two weeks before the semester!) I tried to get other jobs, but with each year I got fewer interviews, even after publishing a third article in a top journal and securing a book contract.
Even though others have not experienced the level of bullying and intimidation I faced, plenty of people who have survived academia know the feeling of worthlessness that comes with the profession. It is a world where nothing is ever good enough, and if you are a junior scholar, you have no power or say in anything. If you are bold enough not to STFU about your condition, you will be attacked or fired. It is a constant state of fear, with the knowledge that the reserve army of the unemployed who can replace you grows larger every year. Administrators use this fact as a cudgel to bash their faculty into submission. Educators in higher ed and in K-12 have been facing a wall of social hatred and scapegoating so fierce that many teachers and profs are losing heart. The emergence of MOOCs and the infiltration of academia by corporate interests has many wondering whether they will ultimately be turned into interchangeable parts to be plugged in and used for cut-rate wages before being tossed on the refuse pile. Worst of all, when you bash your head against the wall in frustration over all of your blood, sweat and tears adding up to nothing, the powers that be and their smug toadies tell you the system is a meritocracy, and you have no one to blame for your horrible situation but yourself.
I am glad not to be in the academic world anymore, but the mental and spiritual scars are not going away anytime soon. They are fading a little, at least. I can only hope that the panic attacks, nagging doubts, and bouts of self-loathing that make up my post academic stress disorder get rarer and rarer.