Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A task unfinished: the tyranny of the recurring dream

In 1980, when I did what was then the HSC, the last year of schooling in Victoria, I got good marks. Not top marks, but enough to get into one of the most prestigious uni courses of the time – Arts Law at Melbourne University.

Even after all this time, the two words 'arts' and 'law' when used together summon up for me a magic that is indivisible. They evoke an arcane world of fun and study, of unknown but friendly young men and kind, dedicated tutors, a kind of playground of the mind. I did not see a clear future beyond the course and had no strong image of myself as a fully fledged lawyer. Rather, I believed I was entering an intellectual fun parlour, that everything from now on would be exciting in a way that would require little effort.

Not a small part of this was the prestige of Melbourne Uni and the fact that it was in an almost unknown part of town beguilingly far away, just beyond the city centre.

Unbelievably from this vantage point, university study was virtually free at the time in Australia, apart from a hefty student union fee that subsidised a hell of a lot of drinking and sport (I’m not against student unionism, but that’s another story).

If I was commencing a law course in 2009 and had earned a government-subsidised place (formally called HECS, now changed to Commonwealth Supported Place or CSP) the law course alone would cost me $8677 per year. If my marks were decent but not high enough for the CSP course, I would expect to pay more than $20,000 a year to complete a fee-paying law degree, although the Australian Government is phasing out full fee-paying courses for domestic students. (These figures are for the law course alone; my bill would have been slightly lower as an Arts Law student because I was studying fewer law subjects per year, as well as arts subjects.)

Anyways. The sheen took a while to wear off – Melbourne Uni and the bohemian and gelati mecca of nearby Lygon Street were like fairyland for a while – but in about six weeks disillusionment and social anxiety had well and truly set in.

I don’t want to rehearse my complete inability to cope with the lack of structure of uni life – in those days, there was a great deal of informal orientation from student clubs but nothing structured, no mentoring or buddy programs. All I need to say is that my planning skills were zilch; I was only ever motivated to study when the teachers and the subject matter grabbed me (which had miraculously happened in HSC but didn’t happen at uni in either Japanese or law, and even English was disappointing); I had severe undiagnosed social phobia resulting in emotional retardation and lack of social skills; I had an undiagnosed, garden-variety eating disorder; the fact that there were no fees made me incredibly blasé about the whole thing; and my parents had told me I could live at home but would be responsible for all my expenses. Any fool (except me) could see that the prognosis was not good.

To cut a long story short, I eventually dropped out of law, after barely scraping a pass in first year and failing both subjects in second. And, although I eventually managed a limp Arts degree, I crashed at Jap. In both Jap and law, I was defeated by the severe amount of study and the fact that the work in these areas was difficult and required thought and application – at school I’d mostly gotten away with doing well in subjects that came fairly easy to me.

But – and this is the crux of the issue – I had less nous than a baby ant when it came to actually doing anything about the pile-up of unstudied articles and case law, unlearned vocab and grammar. Once an amount of control had been lost, I did not even try to deal with it. I simply let go, and the balloon of university success bobbed away and became invisible. I did not, in any conscious way, stress about this. Actually dropping out of a subject before failure would have been an active acknowledgement of my dilemma that I was at the time incapable of.

I finally returned to study a decade or so later when I completed a Masters prelim part time at La Trobe University, and then a Masters degree in English at Melbourne Uni, supported by a scholarship. After that I did a diploma in publishing and editing at RMIT. Because I’d written a lot of poetry and attended poetry workshops over the years, I received quite a few credits in the RMIT course, so got the diploma without having completed the required number of subjects.

This is all necessary background for the topic of this entry – recurring dreams.

I’ve had different recurring dreams. When I finally found the twelve-step program that helped with my eating disorder, in my early thirties, I went through a period where I was constantly having birth trauma dreams. In these dreams I was in a confined, tube-like structure, horribly claustrophobic, struggling to move through it to the entrance. Sometimes this structure was a concrete pipe, sometimes a narrow tunnel in the earth. These dreams may have been the symptoms of a primal fear of being stuck in the birth canal. They eventually ceased, so perhaps I worked through this fear.

But in the last five years I’ve started having another kind of dream. In this dream, I have a huge amount of work to do, but have been incredibly forgetful and somehow missed at least a semester and sometimes nearly a year of work. In the dream I realise I have only weeks to cover an entire years’ work. There’s no getting out of the work: I must do it.

The funny thing is that, in the way these types of dreams relate to my life, the chronology of my study history has been reversed. The dreams were originally about the later RMIT course, and my guilt about having received credits for its completion (this guilt was misplaced, because as well as all the poetry experience, in 1985, not long after getting my original Arts degree, I’d done a few subjects in one of the first TAFE writing courses in Melbourne, and never bothered trying to get credits for these subjects).

In the RMIT-related recurring dream I would find myself in some kind of classroom situation (the settings often mixed up with old workplaces). I was hopelessly behind because I’d somehow forgotten that I was doing the course, and was finally turning up to class. A teacher who was a favourite in real life would be presiding over the dream class, adding to my guilt. I’d calculate with dismay just how much work I would need to do in the next few weeks, and then wake up with a delicious relief.

Eventually this version of the dream ceased. By the time this occurred the RMIT diploma had been hanging on my office wall for at least two years and I think it had finally entered my unconscious mind that the course was well and truly finished, credits or no credits.

But I’m now having a variant on this kind of dream. In this variant I’m a post-grad law student, and have been inexplicably absent from the course. In this dream I find myself with mountains of work to do and only weeks to do it in (it’s always assignments, not exam preparation, perhaps suggesting the editing work I do now).

The meanings of this variation of the original recurring dream seems obvious to me.

When I was dipping out on the law subjects more 25 years ago, I was blind to the practical implications, thought little about what my future would be, and didn’t lose sleep. In fact, I’ve always known I wasn’t suited to law. Even if I’d completed the degree, I probably would never have practised. For most of the years after that failure, my lack of suitability to a law career appeared to justify my dropping out.

But while I was slacking off, smugly thinking that the law students who studied were ‘sucks’, underneath the neurosis and my disillusionment with uni life I was probably feeling a perfectly healthy guilt at my laziness, a guilt that the other, stronger feelings were crowding out. Somewhere in an unknown part of myself I knew there was work to be done, and perhaps now these guilt feelings have gradually burrowed out of their hidey-hole and are coming to light.

But as we grow older we view our personal histories with ever more sophistication and understanding, and these dreams also have a cognitive element. Over the years I’ve met enough rich lawyers and law degree holders to come to understand that a law degree, even if never used to practice law, would have done me absolutely no harm and improved my wages in a variety of fields. My older self now understands that I was throwing away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The fact is, when I dropped out of law I had no burning desire to do anything else (except, interestingly, journalism – and a law degree would have got me a much better entry position). After three years of low-paid regional and suburban journalism, I ended up doing low-paid work in the community sector, where I watched well-paid social policy officers with law degrees write policy papers.

In fact, I’ve come to believe that the whole RMIT recurring dream was just a rehearsal for the main event – a dawning sense of the unfinished law course. Part of me knows there’s a course I haven’t tackled, a job waiting to be done. I wonder now whether I’ll ever stop having this dream, because I’ll never stop being affected by the lack of a law degree.

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