I am never busy

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.


  1. Tasha says:

    Just came across this post on Twitter and I love it so much. I’m not even exaggerating when I say that my friend and I had this conversation last night, albeit not in relation to chronic illness, but rather a general frustration with the current academic model of professionalism. I think its becoming rather outdated and clearly unsustainable. It relies on a very narrow concept of the body as robotic, infallible…and what gets me is that it seems to have been unquestionably adopted across all disciplines which, coming from Women’s Studies is rather problematic for me. I don’t have a TT job and don’t have high hopes of ever getting one, but I’m kind of okay with that (at least more and more). I too feel that the model could be more accommodating – why is there only one way of “being” an academic? Why can’t there be multiple ways? Does this mean that those who produce outside the TT system are less productive and/or valued? For the most part, yes, that’s how it seems to work right now and yet, more and more of this invisible, devalued labour (i.e., all the sessionals, adjuncts who keep publishing in the hopes of getting “the job”) is propping up a system which really only benefits an increasingly small segment of the uni. It seems to be a broken system and there is so much resistance to effecting any systemic change. It’s kind of funny to me that so many faculty have bought into this neoliberal rhetoric of “productivity” but as you say, many probably do feel powerless and/or not sure where to start in terms of change. Again, great post! Glad to know there are others out there who are feeling and thinking the same…

  2. Emmy Katz says:

    Thank you. I don’t feel secure enough to post under my real name (borrowing a name from someone who doesn’t mind). This is my “academic with migraines” story, too. First, I lost a baby; insurance made me take a fertility test called “the Clomid challenge.” My two or three times a month hormone migraine became permanent, every day, after that. My phlebotomist had the same thing happen to her; it’s not been studied yet. Daily migraines for the next eleven years. Insurance fought us every inch on treating the pain. We lost thousands trying to get me well.

    In spite of the pain and side effects, I kept up for years with the teaching, writing, applying for TT jobs, thinking everything would get easier once I had an office to sit in and no worry about the next semester–or whether what I said in class that day would cause me to lose my job, due to an irate “customer” disliking how history played out. I lost my last good adjunct job for dumb reasons that had little to do with me. I thought I’d rest a month or two and go out on the market again.

    What I didn’t know was that playing with pain and taking meds and teaching a tightrope walk of a course (Gender Studies & American Cultures Studies, i.e., inculcating cross-cultural understanding and tolerance to freshmen) for eight years–with no job protections–had wiped me out. I’ve been unable to get out of the house this year. Pain got worse off and on.

    No one but my spouse ever knew that I was able to do more in three hours a day than other academics could do in fourteen, so I could pass for normal.
    I just found out the hard way that no _body_ can keep up that level of performance, or should, for that long.

    I loved my students; I loved research, writing, and presenting at national conferences; I loved coming up with solutions for other researchers. I was good at all of it, too. Won awards and grants. Tied for first or came in second place on a number of good TT positions.

    Regardless, there seems to be no niche in the current economy for people who are good at what they do, even serve as an enthusiastic and solid good team member, who cannot _also_ show up for 10-hour days, 5+ days a week (in non-academic jobs), sacrifice personal life, be “present” and energetic at all times, and bring in the numbers. There are so few resources to go around, that the people who administer them can keep demanding such inhumane levels of performance.

    Have been at a loss how to fix the hole in the family income, if/when I get better. Having to think off the grid of normal employment options. I think people will look back at this era the same way people who were adults in the 1930s looked back at the Great Depression…Thanks again for describing the situation well.

    • Sarcozona says:

      I am so sorry for everything you’ve been through. I wish migraines were better treated and understood and I wish our society worked better for those who are ill. I hope you find a way to make things work financially and are able to continue doing something you love.

  3. Kate says:

    That’s all I can say at the moment because I’m too “migrainey” (foggy, wiped out, unable to think clearly, medium constant pain level, etc…) to describe all that I love (and live) in this post of yours.
    It’s my first time running across your site. I’m thrilled. I look forward to reading more, and I have so much to say – on a better day.
    I also read an excerpt on The Daily Headache of your post re: “the chronic pain workshop totally unprepared for people with chronic pain”. – Excellent. I can’t wait to read the rest of it.
    It may seem nuts to try to comment before reading more, and when I can’t say all that I want to say. But I was just so excited to read your insights that I had to say “WOW”.
    THANK YOU for what you are writing!

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