What can you do with an English degree?

When I first had to grapple with this question years ago, I told people, “I can apply to law school!” I was, as a very young adult, skilled in the art of telling people what they wanted to hear in order to temporarily cover up my true designs. If I’d told them that I had no interest in law school, I would have been treated to many useless lectures that older adults tend to smother younger adults with. (I try not to do that myself, as much as I’d like to sometimes. They need to learn and grow on their own, and as much as I’d like to think I do…I don’t know everything.)

But if someone were to ask me today, What can you do with an English degree?, my answer would be this:

You can recover from trauma.

I was listening to a podcast in which someone said that her therapist told her that when you can talk about your trauma in a narrative form, you can begin to process it.

I thought back to when I first started therapy as a college freshman. For the first time, I was given a vocabulary. I was given concepts. The therapist told me very plainly what was happening, and defined it for me. I actually rejected the idea initially, and fairly forcefully. I’d lived a very scripted life, and her words went too far off-script.

It wasn’t until I learned how to both construct and deconstruct narratives that I began to see how the concepts the therapist taught me about manifested themselves in my life. And that wasn’t something I learned in therapy – it’s something I began to discover when I switched my major to English.

And eventually, when I got to the point where I was able to construct and deconstruct and analyze and dig into various types of narratives, I turned that skill set on myself. I began to develop my own narrative and truly understand my own patterns, themes, and tropes.

Then came the moment when I realized that there are parts of the story I can direct. Life does, to a certain extent, happen to us, but there’s still plenty within our control. Realizing that I am the author of my own character arc was a beautiful moment for me.

I began to process the trauma at the point that I was able to conceive of it as a narrative. Prior to that, all I had was a vague feeling that something wasn’t right.

Turns out that vague feeling was me beginning to realize that I wasn’t okay. That other young adults my age hadn’t had the same experiences I did. That the explanations my tormentors gave me didn’t really make sense.

Everything collapsed in on me during my first year of college. The process of accepting that you are traumatized is hard enough, but the trauma was continuing to happen during the time that I was recognizing what it was. It loud and messy and rather chaotic as all the structures and beliefs in my mind began to crumble.

In those years when I was struggling to wade through the debris field that I found myself in after the collapse of Life As I Thought It Existed, it was my English degree that kept me afloat. It was the professors who taught me to find evidence in text that helped me to examine my life up until that point and see what was there. It was the professors who taught us to look for patterns and themes, and think about how those connected to other books, to history, to philosophy, even to science and technology, that helped me to carefully analyze the major themes prevalent in my life.

By the time I got back into therapy, I had a narrative. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, which is why I sought out help. But I had it, and I knew it well.

That’s when I was able to clear the debris field and rebuild. It took over a decade. I had to start over and rewrite the whole damn thing because I had, essentially, memorized and been reciting someone else’s dialogue. That person, I later learned, was the villain in my story – and that villain’s goal was to make sure I never developed a plotline of my own.

It’s unfair to completely dismiss therapy’s benefits – therapists provided some really useful tools. But it was the professors I had who were unknowingly teaching me how to apply them.

Because I’ve found the stability I lacked earlier in life, I’m able to juxtapose me now to me then. Sometimes I’m not entirely sure how I survived. I think I make myself sound more analytical that I actually was – a lot of the time, I was blindly reacting to past trauma, acting on impulses, trying to manage a lot of really big, often really negative feelings, and plenty of times I failed at it. It wasn’t a smooth transition.

But it was my English degree that turned things around for me. That was how I began to focus my mind, how I learned to process, how I learned to organize my thoughts, how I began to understand the structure of narratives.

And here’s the thing about narratives that I really love – if you know how to see them, know how they’re structured and organized, know how to construct and deconstruct them, then you know quite a lot about how to cope with life.

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