Every PhD student has their health struggles. Be it a short-term illness, stress, anxiety, or just needing someone to remind you how to function normally (cue Birdie, the adorable PhD assistant) we’ve been there. There’s an immediate connection that forms when you join up with a group of PhD students and someone throws out ‘and my anxiety is just through.the.roof right now‘ which gives you a weird sense of belonging that your not sure is entirely healthy. Maybe you’re not so alone after all.
Something has happened this past year that has changed this sense of mutual discomfort I’ve tapped into with other PhD students. I suddenly have issues and challenges that I can’t vent about over coffee and be met with ‘I knooow, right? Same‘ and instantly feel at ease. If I bring up what I’m going through to anyone I get sympathy, and not a comfortable mutual sympathy like ‘I feel you‘ but genuine ‘that sucks‘ sympathy, and I don’t know how to deal with it.
I’ve been diagnosed with Endometriosis after years of not knowing what was sending me to the hospital on an almost bi-monthly basis. During the time before my diagnosis I didn’t know how to explain to anyone what was going on because I just hoped it would go away, maybe this was the last time and next month would be better. I needed it to be better, I had things to do. The more time I had to take to deal with my health the more emails I needed to write to my supervisors explaining why we needed to again alter my deadlines. The more call-ins I had to make to my part-time job. The more opportunities I had to turn down so I could try to get back on my feet and play catch-up over and over again.
The pain would be extreme for a few days, and take maybe a week to subside, and once it did I would show back up to meetings and work and look right as rain. Unlike the flu or even the common cold, I wasn’t outwardly sniffling or coughing or come out of it looking like I just battled the plague. I outwardly looked normal, despite feeling like my body had just been stabbed repeatedly for two days straight and I was coming down off the haze of heavy pain medications that made me dizzy and slow. There would be episodes that I tried to manage without pain medication because I couldn’t lose anymore time to whatever my body was trying to do to me, but that just made me push myself until the pain got so bad I needed medical help.
As PhD students we already expect a lot of ourselves, we are trying to get Doctorates after all. The pressure to basically be superhuman and publish, speak at conferences and events, organise events, write a thesis, defend that thesis, and succeed amongst everything life throws at you in a period of 3-6 years ideally is immense. Add in health complications and you probably feel like throwing your hands up and yelling to the sky, ‘Really??’ I know I did.
I can only speak to my experience with invisible illness but I know I am not alone. Recently on PhD Women Scotland’s blog there was a guest post about another PhD woman’s struggle with the disease- you can read it here. The community outpouring from this one post of other women rocking it and earning their degrees while managing this condition has been insane. 1 in 10 women have Endometriosis, and while I may have felt alone a lot of this past year, I’ve learned that in fact I’m far from it. Not to mention how many others are managing their other invisible illnesses along with the PhD and going through the same things I have.
Speaking out is hard to do- especially when it comes to your health. But if I’ve learned anything over this year, it’s that keeping my battle inside and to myself does no good for me or anyone else. It helped my supervisors to know what challenges I was working with throughout my PhD, and it helped my friends to know to check-in if I’ve fallen off the radar. Somehow through all of the pain, humiliation, and frustration, I’ve found my voice. If you have an invisible illness or know someone who does, create/build a community for yourself and let those in your life already, in.
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