November 12, 2014
I am never busy. My to-do list is long and it grows every day I spend in bed with a migraine. But I never feel harried; I don’t even allow myself to rush. A departure from calm leads to migraine attack, a return to calm leads to migraine attack. Busyness leads to migraines directly, through stress, and indirectly, through disruptions to migraine-preventing routines.
I do not grab a quick breakfast or skip my exercise routine or stay up a few extra hours so I can finish those figures before my meeting. If I oversleep, I reschedule my appointment rather than rush out the door. I try to prioritize, but sometimes things don’t get done on time. I still don’t get busy.
I sometimes wonder how this affects my colleagues’ perceptions of me. The performance of stress and busyness is the way that we signal our dedication and hard work. People who are ill are often stereotyped as weak and lazy. I worry that by not participating in this performance, I’ll be seen as a sloucher or incompetent.
But I kind of think I’ve got a good thing going, too. Other academics who know nothing of my illness sometimes think I’m further along on the tenure track than I really am due to my chilled-out nature (and crazy math smarts). People who are more familiar with my situation are amazed that I’m not freaked out all the time – they are, and they can work every single day. When I explain the rather strong behavioural feedback I get, some people jokingly express envy.* Assuming most people aren’t complete assholes, that suggests overwork, competition, and expectations of overwork are apparent to many. But it also shows how overwhelmed and powerless they feel: People wish they had a painful chronic illness as an excuse to exercise and cook a proper dinner.
I was talking to a friend of mine about how I’m pretty sure I’m going to leave academic science. I have brilliant ideas. I’m an awesome person to have around because I am amazing at helping other people crystallize their own ideas and work through hard problems. I really, really love what I do and I seem to be pretty good at several important aspects of it. But I don’t think I can work enough to make it as a PI. There are lots of people just as clever and excited about science as I am. If I go to apply for tenure track jobs, I will have fewer papers per year. I won’t be able to apply for as many grants. I won’t be able to teach as many classes. I won’t be as much bang for the buck.
But fuck. What a horrible thing to say. What a horrible way to run our universities/basically everything under capitalism.
My friend told me academia needed people like me. And I think she might be right.
I’m going to run into this problem wherever I go: Since I am sick, I don’t make as many widgets/papers, so I’m not as valuable. But I think that is fundamentally not true. I mean, I can’t write as many papers, but that doesn’t make me less. I think everyone is fed up with being valued like that – thus joking about wishing they were chronically ill as a way to try to escape the system. Maybe having people like me around encourages a better work culture for everyone by changing norms and expectations in the workplace.**
I know academics love what they do, but it seems to be making an awful lot of us miserable. We keep talking about improving mental health services, but maybe we should be focusing on fixing academia,too. What if you got to spend 6 weeks at home with your new baby and didn’t have to worry about a paycheck? What if being in academia didn’t mean living close to (or below) the poverty line into your 30s? What if you got to sleep enough and call your gramma every week and have hobbies? What if you didn’t have to leave your entire community every 2-4 years until you’re 35?
* Don’t do this.
* * At the same time, it’s a lot of work to be chronically ill – have to fight for accommodations every step of the way usually. This is exhausting and demoralizing.