I’m in grad school for creative writing. It’s hard. Right now, I’m taking three classes, which means that I’m reading 500-plus pages a week, in addition to commenting on my classmates’ writing and producing a poem every week. Plus, I’m teaching a basic composition course for struggling writers, and a literature course (for the first time ever), so I’m writing lesson plans and grading essays for nearly 60 students. AND I work ten hours a week to supplement my stipend enough to buy things like toiletries, books and the occasional beer on a Friday night. Also, I need to clean my apartment and do laundry and run errands sometimes. And in addition to all of THAT, I’m expected to participate in meetings, go to outside lectures, and attend all the readings by my classmates and visiting writers. And I WANT to, because oh my god I love school. School is the best thing ever. I work my ass off and I LOVE IT. This is not really about grad school.
Except it kind of is. I have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which causes, among other things, crushing migraines and extreme fatigue. And there’s no cure for it, because ovaries, ew. Mostly, I manage. But there are days when I can barely drag myself around, and did I mention all the stuff I’m supposed to be doing? Sometimes I can’t do it all. Sometimes my whole body feels like a bag of wet sand that I’m not strong enough to lift. Sometimes I have to lie down and rest before I die. So I miss the reading, or the lecture, or the lunch meeting.
I apologized to a friend for missing her reading, and she ranted about how much it sucks that people don’t go to stuff. And the professors who went to everything and did everything and walked uphill in the snow both ways while carrying their dissertation on their backs give us VERY SERIOUS TALKS on why we must do everything. They mean well, but it hurts me. There’s a kind of gleeful masochism in grad school where being overworked and sleep-deprived is a point of pride. Long story short, I feel guilty, but also mad.
I don’t go around telling people about my health, because it’s personal. But I’ve built up a reputation as someone who’s dedicated and hardworking, and I’d hate to think people assume that I just can’t be bothered to show up to things. Do I woman up and tell people about my defective gonads? Tell them to fuck off? How do I balance my health needs with my need to be a good grad student?
My Candle Burns at Both its Ends
Dear Lovely Light-Giver,
Sweet Machine, fellow MFA-survivor and chronic migraineur, reporting for duty. I have so much to say to you that I am not sure I know how to say it, but let me start by declaring, in the sincerest way, I KNOW THAT FEEL BRO
It sounds like you have your medical situation taken care of, in terms of having doctors and knowing your stuff, so I am going to ask one question and then shush: do you see a neurologist for your migraines? Even if you’re managing your PCOS through a ladybits doctor, a headache specialist might help. It took a while, but I have gone from basically having 3-4 migraine days a week to having maybe 1 (and some milder headache days), with the help of Big Pharma and my neurologist. Now that I’ve got that tidbit out of the way, I’m going to ask the Awkward Army to kindly refrain from making “have you tried this” suggestions in comments. There are two reasons: 1) That’s not what this letter is about, and 2) People with chronic illnesses or medical conditions usually have tried everything you can suggest. (See also: saying to fat people “Have you tried diet and exercise?” WHY YES. YES I HAVE. THANK YOU, DR OZ.)
So here is the thing about grad school, which I have completed (oh god) eight years of. Grad school is a black hole of selfhood. Grad school is a monster that wants to take every shred of your time and your identity and your well-being and store those shreds in a place you can’t access. Grad school will, if you let it, become your whole life and then demand more like it’s young scary/sexy Rutger Hauer. Grad school does not want you to be a person; it wants you to be a body in a seat in a lecture/reading/office/library chair, and it never wants to let you go.
I personify grad school because it’s really not that any one person wants you to sacrifice your self and sanity for this experience. Your profs are concerned with making events worthwhile for visiting speakers and such; your friend is upset that she’s expected to go to all these readings but not everyone showed up for hers; your students think you live in your office and sleep at your desk and love, beyond all reckoning, to grade their shitty essays. Individually, it’s all a bit much but based on the right things: passion, community, fairness. In toto, it’s a godawful nightmare of stress, which, oh hey, is a huge migraine trigger. And this all goes double for an arts degree, because it is Your Art and Your Passion and You Are So Lucky To Get To Do This and You Should Be Grateful.
Now, most grad students would really, really, really benefit from some kind of artificially enforced boundary that says “you get to stop working now [at 8:00 every night/on Saturdays/when it's time to watch more Buffy].” But you have an actually enforced boundary: your body’s needs. You have a chronic medical condition that, while manageable, means you need rest. This is a fact. Your body and your brain both need down time in order to function, and if you don’t take that time they will fucking well let you know about it. This is not you being lazy or weak or fragile; this is you having a trick knee and needing to take the elevator sometimes when you’d rather take the stairs. The secret is that everyone needs to take the elevator sometimes, but for people without a chronic illness, it’s usually a more visible situation: I broke my leg skiing and I need the elevator till the cast is off. For chronic and invisible illnesses, you need the elevator sometimes and no one but you knows why.
You say you’ve developed a reputation for being dedicated and hardworking, but you don’t sound like you believe it. I’d suggest that you start by trying to believe it! Start with that assumption and work forward. Think about yourself with the same kindness which you bestow on your friends and colleagues. If someone doesn’t come to a reading, is your first thought “What a dick,” or is your first thought, “Oh, I hope he doesn’t have the flu that’s going around”? Assume everyone is working on assumption #2. Now let’s think about specifics: your school probably has a disability services office of some kind. You may not think of your condition as a disability, which is fine, but the people who work there may be able to talk you through university policy about absences/substitute teachers/disclosure of information and the like. As for individual professors you work with, there are a few options. You are under no obligation to discuss your gonads, as you put it. But if you have a sympathetic advisor, you might tell them that you have a medical condition that means you get frequent migraines and need to rest regularly as part of your health management. You may find that people are more sympathetic than you expect. (My own version of this has kind of an epic back story involving ER trips and brain scans, but the short version is I didn’t know my constant headaches were migraines until a couple of years ago; I just thought I was a fucking wuss. When I got a proper diagnosis and realized that my “oh, it’s Wednesday” headache was most people’s “I might be having a stroke” headache, I felt way way better about saying “Hey, I have to rest today” and taking care of myself.) Of course, the simpler option is simply to say “I’m sick” when you need to skip something; it happens, everyone gets sick, and much as the black hole monster of grad school wants to deny it, you actually do get to stay home and rest when you’re sick.
I am rambling because I feel so passionately about this — the “gleeful masochism” of academia is in fact a profoundly ableist cultural norm. You can do grad school and practice your art and your craft and teach struggling students how to write without sacrificing yourself on the altar of Unstoppable Grad Student Who Can Do It All. You get to have a private life. You get to have a fallible body. You get to be an adult human being who can tell another adult human being, “I am sorry that I cannot attend this lecture, as I’m sick today.” You get to do all that and you still get to be a poet.
Sweet Machine, MFA, PhD, D. Migraine Lore, M. Div. IBS recipes