Friday, April 17, 2009


This afternoon was a lot more intense than I expected. The woman who taught us about Ayurvedic medicine -- she's also a Western-trained physician -- was terrific, very down to earth and realistic when telling the students what to expect during their residencies, which will begin July 1. She told them, for instance, that there's pretty much no way to avoid being sleep-deprived. She split the students into five small groups to discuss different scenarios that might come up in residency: the one in the group I sat in on involved an exhausted resident ordering a drug to which the patient was allergic, and being caught in the error by a nurse.

I'd told myself I was just going to sit, listen and knit, but I wound up making comments in the small group, and then, later, in the large group. One of the scenarios involved a pregnant resident fearing for her baby's safety during a swarm of hectic admissions, and that led into a discussion of maternity leave (or lack thereof) in residency. I spoke up, mentioned that my father had just died, and said, "How do residencies handle bereavement leave?"

People blinked at me. "They don't," one of the faculty said. "I've never heard of it."

I was already feeling a little shaky from having talked about Dad -- I'd prefaced my comments with, "I know I'm the outsider here, but I'm wondering . . . " -- and after the discussion, I went to talk to the instructor to tell her how much I was enjoying her presentation. I asked her if I'd been talking too much, and she said no, and Jillian came up and said sternly, "Susan, you have to stop this! You aren't an outsider!"

The instructor told me that the entire elective is indebted to everyone who works in medical humanities, and furthermore that the philosophy of HEART is to welcome everyone. "If you aren't welcome here, none of us is welcome," she told me.

We'd been sitting outside for the small-group exercise. Back inside, everyone settled into a circle. My chair was behind the circle, where I could watch, listen and knit comfortably. The instructor looked at me and said, "Susan, please join the circle!" Then she said, "As a matter of fact, there's something I want to do. We're going to do an exercise with you. Come here, in the middle. We're going to do an exercise called a HEART attack."

Slightly nervous, I stood in the middle of the circle. Everyone else got up and stood around me. The instructor said, "Okay, everybody, HEART attack!" and they all rushed forward and hugged me.

All of this left me feeling acutely self-conscious and as if I was about three years old; at the same time, though, it brought up powerful and painful memories of all the other places where I haven't been welcomed unconditionally, or where I've thought that I was, only to fall into the same old pattern of being told to shut up, be quiet, stop talking so much. This has been especially true of my church relationships over the last five years or so, and all of that got retriggered (although in a minor way) by something that happened last week.

I realized that in most of the environments where I operate, I'm suffering from some form of "impostor syndrome:" I'm not smart or critical or productive enough as an English academic, I'm not really a chaplain, I've foresworn ordination in a church setting where Total Ministry's becoming a thing of the past, I can't possibly claim to be a real member of a medical faculty because I'm only adjunct and teach a subject perceived as "soft," even though I fervently believe otherwise, and so forth and so on.

Intellectually, I know that none of this is true, that I'm fine the way I am (although I have plenty of room to grow!), that I do a lot of good work in a lot of places, and that my lack of "official" credentials in various settings, especially the hospital, often makes me more effective in my work, not less. Intellectually, I know that the "shut up" messages I get are usually because I've touched on some truth that other people don't want to think about. But for all my intellectual understanding of these dynamics, I'm carrying around a lot of emotional baggage -- who isn't? -- and that got triggered today.

I'm trying to think of any other setting where I've been told, "If you aren't welcome here, none of us is welcome." I can't think of one. Church comes cloest, at least in theory, but too much of it is still hierarchical and credential-based. Various therapy groups I've been in have come close, but there are always power dynamics operating there, too.

Of course, I've been at HEART less than a day, and I'm sure it would look less utopian over time. But still, there's just something about that formulation -- "If you aren't welcome here, none of us is welcome" -- that haunts me, especially in a setting based on a shared professional background I don't share.

I'm sure I'll be processing this more over the next few days. Time to go eat dinner now, and then go to bed early, I hope. We're all staying in cabins perched among the trees. The cabins are accessible via narrow dirt paths, and we need flashlights at night. The cabins are tiny, but luckily my roommate's very nice. I hope I can get my CPAP to work, so my snoring won't bother her!

I didn't get to the waterfall today. Maybe tomorrow.


  1. "I realized that in most of the environments where I operate, I'm suffering from some form of "impostor syndrome:"

    I think we all feel like frauds a lot of the time. I know I do. Am I a "real" programmer? A "real" Muslim? A "real" poet? A "real" martial artist? A "real" colored person?

    Or am I just Pinocchio wanting to be real?

    All you are is everything you have to offer.

  2. Yes, I know that pain. Got 2 degrees in Home Economics when the field was disintegrating; worked at Planned Parenthood in the '90s when shootings were common; went into composition studies only to find many outside faculty think of us as a skill, not an academic field (and inside faculty in the form of lit. profs.). Yeah.

    But in my Quaker meeting, always felt unconditionally welcomed.

    But back to Susan....I can tell you that no matter how you've felt when faced with real or imaginary gatekeepers, YOU are awesome as an inclusive force, and I can say that as one of your students.

  3. Sending you another "heart attack" from Chicago, 'mkay? You are a very special person, Susan.


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