On Salvation

Let me tell you about how I was saved by maps.

I used to be a chemist some years ago. I worked at a mom & pop pharmaceutical laboratory in my home town of Kalamazoo, Michigan. From the time I was ten or eleven, I had planned on this job. I blame Mr. Wizard — I loved watching all the seemingly magic things he could do with brightly-colored liquids in test tubes. Now that I had my childhood dream job, however, I was disillusioned. There was no magic, there was only routine humdrum. The work was hard, it was stressful, and it was frequently dull. I started the slide into depression. I came home every day feeling far too tired for the number of hours I was working. Time off seemed fleeting, and I spent the whole weekend worried about the fact that Monday was approaching, and wondering sometimes if I could face another week. I felt constantly pursued, and unable to relax even when given respite.

I decided to get out.

I had planned on going to graduate school right after college. I liked being in school and I succeeded there. It seemed natural to continue. But inertia kept me in the workforce for about three years before I finally managed to get enough forward momentum to return to school. My other love in school besides chemistry had been history. I can’t blame Mr. Wizard for this one, but I’ll blame my high school teacher, Mr. Cahow, instead. My bachelor’s degree at Kalamazoo College was in both subjects. At first I tried, and failed, to get in to graduate school to study classical history. The next year, though, I switched focus and applied to History of Science departments. Given my background, it seemed a pretty sensible fit, and the University of Wisconsin agreed. They let me in, and I was off to Madison in the summer of 2007.

Coming along with me was my girlfriend of three years, an amazing and brilliant woman whom I had met in college, and with whom I was very much in love. We got a small apartment together about a mile from campus, she found a job, and we settled in to an unfamiliar city. It was about here that my life started completely unravelling.

I did not fit in to my new graduate department at all. I was wholly out of my depth; my background was insufficient to match the demands of the program. I had gone to graduate school because I liked school, not because I was deeply passionate about the history of science in particular. It just seemed interesting. My peers, on the other hand, seemingly had been pursuing this track for far longer than I, and had put in enough extracurricular effort through their college years that by the time we all started at Madison they were talking over my head. I fell swiftly behind and lost heart. I realize now that while I might have had the relevant skills, I lacked the critical element of passion. I did not feel like spending all week trying to get through 400+ pages of reading, because the end goal was simply not enticing enough, nor was the journey greatly intriguing.

This had been my grand escape plan. My job had depressed me, and I was going to return to school, something I was good at, and I was going to enjoy getting an advanced degree and then spend the rest of my life in academia. My depression returned, much stronger, as this escape plan crumbled away.

My girlfriend, meanwhile, made a bunch of new friends in town, and started spending more and more time with them. Sometimes she wouldn’t come home, or even communicate with me, for days. Eventually, she told me that it was because she didn’t like being around me when I was depressed. She kept getting more distant, and moved into her own separate room. She would have parties at our apartment and introduce me as her “roommate,” and then close me off into one room so that I couldn’t hear what was going on, and so that no one could see me. Then she’d leave for a few days and I’d have to clean up the mess. I did not generally have the wherewithal to stand up for myself in the face of her steadily worsening treatment of me. Her behavior eventually reached the point where I started reading online to determine if I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. None of this helped my depression.

If you’ve never been depressed, I’ll just say that it’s much worse than it sounds, and I imagine everyone manifests it a bit differently. I would stay in bed for hours. I would avoid doing any of my school work. It took a significant effort to scrape together the energy needed to do any sort of housework or cooking. I was constantly bored, but could not muster myself to do anything to make me less bored, and I did not have the courage to face the growing pile of assignments that I was falling behind on. I felt trapped and powerless.

I made a lot of maps during that period; it was one of the only activities that gave me any sort of positive emotion. I had actually started a cartographic hobby a few months earlier, before I moved to Madison. As far back as I can recall, I liked reading maps. I used to be the navigator when my family would take trips. I like paging through atlases for fun. So it was natural enough that I eventually determined to learn a bit about how to make them. One of my first efforts was for Wikipedia, a map of the Kalamazoo River:
Kalamazoo_River_Map
I was terribly proud of that map. I still am, despite the many, many flaws I can see in it today.

I kept up my new mapmaking hobby when I moved to Madison. It gave me something creative to do, and I have since learned that, for me, being creative is critical to keeping a positive emotional state. Making maps was the light of my day, in a time when my days were very, very dark. I probably talked more to my colleagues in History of Science about the maps I made than anything actually having to do with my graduate work. I did not construct anything particularly interesting or attractive. Mostly I just put together choropleths of census data to answer idle curiosities. But I was making something, and it felt good. And it involved learning geography, which was fun and new. It was avoidance behavior, to be sure — there were important things I really needed to be doing, and spending eight hours on a map was just a way of procrastinating, but I needed the escape. I could not always face my life outside of my cartographic refuge.

I was still trapped in my ill-fitting graduate program. I was adrift, and didn’t know what to do. I did not thrive as a chemist; I did not thrive as a historian of science. What now? I had no other obvious options, and I considered dropping out of school. But one day a friend of mine in the History of Science department pointed out that, being as I liked maps so much, perhaps I could go to school to learn about them. And, it so happened that there was a first-rate cartography program at Wisconsin. I spent my second semester in graduate school taking a cartography and a GIS class while applying for a transfer to the cartography program. I found that I liked these new classes, and that it was no longer a massive chore to get up every day and try and get to campus and accomplish something. I had more energy. I felt like I had a future. Somehow, despite no background or training, despite a weak performance in History of Science, and despite an application letter that didn’t say much more than “I really like maps,” the University of Wisconsin–Madison Department of Geography accepted me, and I began a Master’s program in Cartography & GIS. They took a chance on me, and I cannot hope to repay them for that.

I threw away everything I had ever thought I wanted to do with my life and leapt blindly into the unknown. I abandoned the safe, clear path I had been plotting since I was a child. As simple as it sounds, that was probably the most courageous thing I’ve ever done in my life.

I thrived immediately in my new program. I found that I was part of something I had lacked before: a community. I was surrounded by supportive friends and colleagues from whom I learned much, and whose input can be seen in everything that I design. I had a place to belong, and a future that I was passionate about. I came out of my depression. I worked up the fortitude to bring about an end to my relationship with my girlfriend, who by now was living on her own yet was unwilling to formally let go. I began to move on from my old life, to the new one I have now. I am a cartographer, and a teacher (another chance that the Geography department took on me). I love what I do. I draw strength from it. It feels like I should have been doing this all along, like I was made for it.

I write this story because I want people to understand what maps mean to me. Cartography is not just a hobby, or a job. It has taken me through the darkest times of my life. It has helped me overcome depression. It has given me a renaissance and a calling. It has given me a community which has enriched me personally and professionally. It has saved me from a life I would prefer not to contemplate, one which I cannot believe would be as fulfilling.

I am very glad that I made that terrible map for Wikipedia, one winter in 2007.

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