The PhD and illness

I have been umming and aahing about writing this post because it may come across as a whinge of some kind but it really isn’t meant to be. I think it’s about an issue that needs to be talked about; one related to the kinds of physical stress that come with working for several years on a PhD. We talk a great deal about mental stress, and even the emotional toll that a PhD process can take on students, but I have not yet seen very much written about the physical toll except in a couple of main areas. Perhaps I am not reading widely enough, but most of what seems to be written about in this regard is by and about people working on their PhDs while managing a mental or chronic illness that already demands a lot of their physical, mental and emotional energy. I would imagine that this must be incredibly difficult. But I want to add to these conversations here  by reflecting on the more run-of-the-mill physical illnesses like flu, colds and similar that may become more common for you during your PhD and may not immediately be associated with the stress of undertaking PhD research.

I have been ill quite a bit more than usual for the past two years, and I am not a person who gets colds and flu much at all. I tend to use my sick days for my kids’ illnesses rather than my own. But in the last two years I have had to take sick leave and actually stay at home, on the couch, and not just go to work and solider on. I have felt physically run down – just generally tired and worn out, and I have to say it has taken me a long time to associate much of this with the stress attached to my PhD. I am not offering empirical proof here, but I think many PhD students could probably understand this. I have had several sinus infections. I have allergies, but I have hardly ever had these turn into actual sinus and chest infections that have really had me down and out. I have been thinking it’s just because I’m really bad at remembering to take my vitamins, or because I eat the wrong things, or because of changes in the weather. But since the beginning of this year, and last year finishing my thesis, I have felt really worn out most of the time, and today I went to the doctor for the 6th time since January. This is not normal, and definitely not for me. At the moment I have no voice at all, mild vertigo and sinusitis and I finished my corrections on my thesis the day before yesterday.

I’m starting to think there’s a real connection here. I have been very anxious waiting for my reports from my examiners. It has weighed on me, the waiting and wondering. After the high of getting my reports back I felt really down again, and found doing the corrections mentally tough (more on this next week). I had a couple of really bad sinus days trying to work on them. I handed in my thesis at the end of last year but really battled to unwind and relax for the three and half weeks I had between handing in and starting work again because I was wondering about the examination process and how it would go. It was handed in, but the thesis was not finished and so I could not just shake it off and forget about it. I worried and wondered and the stress stayed with me. And so, it seems, did the fatigue and the illness. I don’t think I am alone in finding myself more physically run down during and just after a PhD, but struggling to make obvious connections between the PhD process and my feelings of fatigue, and not really feeling completely well (and sometimes being quite sick too).

Apart from multivitamins and having people around who are instructed to force you to take mini-breaks, and even take you away when it all gets too much, I think it is important for PhD students to try and get enough rest and eat well, although this can be hard on the bad days when you want to mainline sugar and chocolate, and on the many nights when you lie awake between 3 and 5 am rewriting your theory chapter in your head, eventually getting up to write down your ideas because you know you won’t remember them in the morning. It’s especially hard if you are a student and working and a parent, and you cannot remember the last time you were at the top of your own list of priorities. As a mum, having an inability to put myself and my needs first feels like something that comes with the job.

But I think what I have learned, am still learning, is that you have to say NO to the things that really don’t matter so much, and say YES to focusing on what you need to do your best work in every area of your life, like what you need to get through your PhD in as healthy and sane a state as possible. I am not fully sure that this is possible, though. When I told my supervisor, coming off 6 months of suspended studies to finally work on my proposal, that I wanted to try and be a  mum and do well at work and write a great PhD and stay sane, her response was that I could certainly do that but that I might have to let go of the sanity. I think, if you also include great physical well-being, that she was probably spot-on. But as always, I (we) can solider on and get better all the time, hopefully, at focusing more on what matters to me (us), and not always so much on what matters to everyone else.

Losing heart (and head) and getting it back

I am working through my final revisions from my supervisor before submitting my thesis to my examiners. Which should be a ‘yay’ kind of experience judging by people’s reactions when they ask how it’s going and I tell them this. But I am having a rather strange experience doing this which can be summed up in a word: Meh. Meh is a word by friend Deb and I use to refer to a feeling of ‘I know I should try to care but I just can’t’ or something like that. I feel very Meh about my thesis right now.

When I handed it over to my supervisor just over a month ago I was consumed by my thesis and had been for some time – organising data, analysing it, re-analysing it, writing about it, getting feedback, revising the chapters – it was all I could think about. But I ran out of steam at the end, and I was tired so it was a relief to hand it over for feedback and have a bit of a break from it. I got my weekends and evenings back for a few weeks, and I started feeling a bit normal again. I wasn’t working on it at all while my supervisor was reading it, because I needed to wait for her comments to start reworking the chapters, and I have to say I did not really miss it.

So when the chapters started coming back mid-October, I just benched them. I read all the comments, and there were not all that many that meant huge changes – most of it was minor stuff, thankfully – so I told myself the next round of revisions could wait. I didn’t want to go back to feeling consumed and tired and anxious and weekend-less and evening-less. I just wanted to be finished.

But the thing about getting to the point of being finished is that I am not the Shoemaker and there are no magic elves who are going to come into my study while I am sleeping and make my corrections and revisions and additions for me. I have to get myself and my thesis to that end(ish) point where I can hand the beast over and feel confident enough that I have done a good job of it. And to get myself and my thesis there I have to not lose heart now. I have to submit myself again to this process and get a bit consumed again, and lose my head or mind  a little, and care enough to get this done right.

It’s hard, because the Meh is strong, and I am flagging. This has been a long year. I am still excited about my research, but I am starting to get more excited about where I go after this rather than where I am now, which means that staying and being present here is a bit frustrating. But I also take this as a good sign. There is life after a PhD after all and I am finally seeing the chinks of light breaking though. PhDgirl, fighting the Meh and moving towards that finish line.

PhD fatigue

So, I have written and submitted the first draft. It is a huge achievement because I can see that this really will get done now; I will finish this year. But reaching this milestone has meant working every day, seven days a week (for at least part of each day) for the last month or so at least. Which means I have not really had weekends or evenings to just chill out, and even when I have been chilling I have been unable to get my mind to stop running over  arguments and data and possible conclusions and changes I need to make and clever turns of phrase to add here or there and on and on. And even though the draft is in, it is far from done – the conclusion is not finished because I literally ran out of steam, my brain unable to continue to create coherent sentences or thoughts any more, and there is still a lot of ‘panelbeating’ to do on the thesis before I will feel okay enough about it to sign it away to my examiners. And that makes me feel tired too; the anticipation of more work and more thinking to come.

And I am tired. More tired than I feel I have ever been, particularly in mental terms. I have kids, so I know fatigue well. But that kind of physical and emotional fatigue feels different to this. My brain feels like it has been replaced with woolly stuffing, and I feel kind of fuzzy around the edges, not sharp, not clear. I forget words and I can’t type straight. I think words that come out differently when I type them or write them down, and there are so many typos in everything I am trying to write this week that I need a lot more spellchecker help than usual. My brain feels untrustworthy right now because it forgets even the simplest things, like calling the plumber or why I wrote ‘notes’ on my TO DO list (what notes?) or why I went into the kitchen. This is an odd feeling for me. I’ve always been a writer and a reader and someone who thinks a lot about things (probably too much, some would say) so my brain and I have always been close; I have always trusted it far more than any other part of me, like my heart or my gut. But now, at this point in this PhD journey I find it has gone all fluffy and marshmallowy and I cannot really count on it to remember things or to get things right. It doesn’t feel good.

I am sure this will not be a permanent condition – once the final draft is handed in and I have had a long holiday over Christmas and New Year doing little more stressful than laundry or baking or reading in the hammock, I am sure my brain and body will rest and recover and I will start 2014 with a sharper, clearer brain. But now, in the middle of this, I feel like I will never really completely get rid of this tiredness, this feeling of fuzziness. I was totally unprepared for this. I thought I would feel tired and strung out at the very end, not now when I still need to keep going and thinking and writing. I worry that I don’t have enough in me to finish the revisions really well, and that I will make silly changes and not be able to see these errors before it’s too late and the thing is out of my hands. I hope I will find it in me – I must – but boy, this is one part of the PhD process people are awfully quiet about. Maybe, like pregnancy and childbirth, people can tell you how it was for them, and it could be like that for you or it could be very different. I am putting this out there anyway, because it may be like this for you, or it may be different. Either way, it would have been nice to be a little more prepared. Onwards I go, but maybe a nap first -_- .