Sunday, October 21, 2012

Chronic Disease & Disability in Grad School

Even though I'm less busy now that I've passed my exams, my comorbid chronic diseases have decided to flare up, after fortunately offering me a respite during the last few weeks of my exam period. Commenter hleighh asked me to write about how I manage depression and chronic disease in grad school, and I think now is a perfect time to do so.

The short version is that it's difficult. I feel so ecstatic that I survived my comprehensive exams, because I was never sure if I would survive, not just pass, but survive. I've never been more depressed than I was during the past year, with what felt like all the pressure in the world riding on my ability to remember and analyze my reading despite many months of fibro fog, severe pain, anxiety, and depression.

To be frank, Xanax and beta blockers helped me a lot. I got a prescription for Xanax the semester before I started studying for my exams, and I don't take it regularly, but when I need it, I REALLY need it. This summer, there were periods of time when I could not study without having a full-blown panic attack.

What helped? Asking for help when I needed it. Giving myself permission to be less than the best when it came to my teaching in order to focus my energy on caring for myself and getting my studying done. I regularly studied with Cee, who has about a month left until her exam (good luck, Cee!), and that helped a lot, to feel like I wasn't alone. Also? RuPaul.

It sounds silly, maybe, but a clip from RuPaul's Drag Race always made me feel better. I've tried to find it on Youtube, but I haven't been able to. Basically, RuPaul tells the drag queens that they can't ever let someone else determine their self-worth, that they have to build up their self-esteem and never forget they're fabulous, but that no one can tell them that, they have to believe it themselves, they have to walk through the fire and "earn it." Every single time I listened to the audio clip, I felt better. Impostor syndrome was strong with me, and it was difficult to fight it. Something about studying all day every day makes you go a little loopy. I couldn't concentrate. My attention span waned and all of my insecurities were ramped up. And you know, I didn't expect this, but having passed my exams, having "walked through the fire," I do feel a great deal more confident. Having done this, I feel like I can do anything.

I have to admit that part of that confidence comes from the fact that a week before my exam, my poetry collection (which will be my dissertation) was accepted for publication. For a creative writer, having a book is absolutely the best thing that can happen, and it's what I've wished for my entire life. Having that accomplishment gave me the extra boost I needed to ge through the exam. In fact, after my orals, I experience a strange dissonance; I was furious that it hadn't been more difficult. Everyone tells me this is because I was prepared, and they're probably right. I just felt so frustrated that I spent a year working so hard, and then felt that the questions asked weren't challenging. (I didn't feel that way about the written exam, btw.)

Most of all, self-care was important. Now self-care has recently come under fire, but Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha  wrote a brilliant piece recently about the important role self-care plays for disabled and diseased folks. For me, self-care meant going to bed at 10 and getting up by 8. It meant adopting a dog last September, because I needed some other mammal to be my companion, someone to make me get up in the morning. It meant drinking A LOT of herbal tea (in a stress-relief blend). It meant asking for a lot of help from friends, who overwhelmed me with their care and love, their support through food. During my 72-hour written exam, I craved pancakes, and a friend brought me not only a stack of fresh pancakes, but also two kinds of homemade soup and jam.

It is not easy for me to ask for help. I was raised by folks who believe heartily in the bootstrap myth, because that worked for them, and it's been a huge challenge for me to recognize that my physical abilities require me to get help from others, which requires asking, because I live alone (with my pets).

Being disabled and diseased has meant I need to not pursue certain opportunities. I've had to turn down fellowships for writing residencies that, it turned out, weren't accessible to me. I haven't been very social at all, and that's been very lonely, but I have a lot of days when I need to spend the day in bed on painkillers. Sometimes I've missed a lot more classes than allowed, and not all professors are sympathetic. It's difficult. I'm glad that my field is one that is relatively conducive to illness, in that I can sometimes feel awful and still get a lot of reading done, rather than having to go into a lab and do work, but so often I have a migraine as part of my pain, and I can't do anything but feel pain.

I guess the truth is, I don't have many answers for how to do this, other than recounting how I've managed it.

And it's also the reason why there haven't been any posts here in about a month. I have been getting dressed to go to class, but not in anything special. I'm having difficulty getting through the day again. I think a lot of it is that all the stress I couldn't deal with during the month of my exam caught up to me, and I'm so fatigued. I've been sleeping literally all day, getting dressed to go teach, then coming back home, getting back into pajamas and going back to bed. Fortunately I did a thorough job planning my class, so there's not much prep work to be done. I also have some senioritis. I'm graduating in the spring, and I'm using my already-written manuscript as my dissertation (upon the advice of my committee chair), so while I do have to plan my class for the spring, as well as revising my dissertation manuscript, I fortunately don't have that much to do (other than job applications, which are stressful).

In fact, even writing this has used up a lot of spoons, so I'm going to end it here, but I'd love to have a discussion about coping mechanisms with disease and disability in grad school.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Sweetest Acronym

Y'all. I passed my exams. I'm ABD!

I'm sorry for my long absence. I just found out yesterday, and I totally forgot to take outfit photos the last few times I left the house, but you haven't missed anything (except that I got these colored jeans from Lane Bryant and they're amazing).

I feel so relieved that I passed and now strangely, wonderfully empowered with my new almost-doctor status.

I drank a bottle of champagne and Skyped with my NOLOSE roommate last night to celebrate, and then promptly requested letters of recommendation and started working on my job letters and CV for the market.

Really, the pressure never ends, it just changes.

But I'm feeling very good because I'm ABD, my first book is getting published (I found that out just a little bit ago), and there's something about putting together a CV that makes me feel really proud of how far I've come and grateful that I've survived despite disability, systemic oppression, chronic disease and depression.

Next week is fall break, and then expect more regular posts to resume.