A Lesson in Perspective and Acceptance

Is the glass half full or half empty? In one’s mind, it may be either, depending on whether they bend towards a more optimistic or pessimistic view of the world. But in reality, it is both. Admitting this realist perspective offers an opportunity to cultivate acceptance, which can then lead to happiness!

69_The In-Joke

There was a perfect storm of unpleasant events about a week ago. Allergy season brought on a sneeze-fest, which triggered intense spasms in my back, that then wound up my muscles up in a knot most sailors would be envious of. The back tension spread to the neck and head, eventually bringing on a bout of recurrent migraines, complete with the ice pick stabs, aura, and symptoms of trigeminal neuralgia. After waking up in the middle of one of the worst attacks of the series, I painted a dream image titled “No End in Sight.”

I will not lie, I intended it to be every bit as depressing as the title sounds. At the time, the pain felt relentless. By this time, I had been in a flare more days these past few months than I have been “normal.” I tried to encapsulate complicated feelings of hope and hopelessness, pain and exhaustion, the desire to keep trudging and the desire to just stop, all at once, in the painting below.

Abstract_11_No End in Sight
No End in Sight (a journey through time)

And yet, a friend, one far better versed in chronic pain than myself, planted an idea in my head that helped me see this image differently. She pointed out how his burden gets lighter with time! And that sprouted a thought in my mind: perhaps he is not giving up after all! Perhaps his perspective has just shifted, and he is simply accepting that he is stuck in the desert for the moment, that there is no use fighting it, so he might as well accept his current situation. As he tries to find peace within himself (note the hermit look by the end), even under the less-than-stellar circumstances, his “burden” is made lighter.

Though this might seem like a silly optimist’s game of what-do-you-see-in-the-picture, ultimately, perspective is all that matters. I felt it acutely on the 4th day of my recurrent migraines, when I felt momentarily delighted to wake up with my regular all-over fibro pains! This meant that my headache intensity had now lowered enough for me to feel pain elsewhere on the body! Of course, that delight was short-lived once the spasms started reasserting themselves, and another migraine attack followed shortly thereafter. But in that bizarre moment when I was happy about fibro pain, I learned an important lesson in how much our perspective on a situation determines our response to it, much more so than the situation itself.

I do not believe that one needs to be an optimist to find happiness in tough situations; one only needs to be a realist. If you are wondering if the glass is half empty or half full, I would argue that it is both! No situation is all good or all bad (despite chronic illnesses tending towards the latter). As an example, I recognized that because of the rest that my unwelcome migraine forced on me, I am in less pain overall (for most of the day) than I have been in months! Being able to see both the good and the bad of fibromyalgia and its associated maladies have helped me accept things for what they are. And with acceptance comes some measure of inner peace, which then translates to happiness.

I have written in the past about what acceptance means to me on a practical level, but not much about what acceptance, as a concept, might mean (or what it might not!). And though I have implied the role of “acceptance” in finding happiness with a chronic illness, it doesn’t much help those still in search of either. So I have decided to do a series of posts after this one, talking a little about what acceptance means from my perspective; how it can lead to happiness (or at least, less frustration); and finally, some of the ways by which I think I was able to achieve that state of mental stability. I hope that my insights can reach somebody still in search of these ideas, and that they may spark thoughts in their minds that lead to their own personal definition of acceptance and happiness!



Reflections on Graduate School, Academia, and the Way Forward

This week, I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation, and added my name to a long list of Ph.D.s in biology – and a shorter list of those with a chronic illness.

title_ _Brain-body problem_ - originally published 10_1_2010 - Jorge ___
How a fibromyalgiac gets a Ph.D.!

As I have researched the case for disabled and/or chronically ill scientists, I realized that there may actually be more of us out there, all hiding our own plights (if invisible), so as not to be viewed “differently” at best, or ostracized at worst, by our colleagues. Many have quit science altogether because of its notoriously performance-driven culture, which allows little room to show “weakness.” Yet there may be many more of us who are still striving for our own goals in science, wishing to contribute our curiosity and intellect to better the world, and wanting to make a mark independent of our diagnoses. My thoughts are for all of us today.

Featured image: Distorted Reflections (8X10, oil on canvas)

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia halfway through graduate school. I have been tackling random aches and pains, migraines, etc. since my teen years, but sometimes I wonder if the grad school lifestyle is what triggered any latent tendencies for central sensitization, leading to fibromyalgia.

I have no regrets, however. I always thought that if mathematics and physics are what helps us understand the universe and everything in it, biology is what helps us understand why we can even think about it! So to be able to reach a terminal degree in biology, understand ourselves from a molecular standpoint, showed me that I am capable of not just partaking in this world, but also contributing to it. Here, finally, I could apply my logical and analytical thinking towards human health, instead of just using it to aggravate my parents who had no time to argue.

What NOT to say to a chronically ill person

I will admit that at times I thought of quitting, and I am glad that I did not. I was lucky enough to have projects that allowed me to be very prolific through the first couple of years, so I was well on my way towards a successful Ph.D. before FM even hit me. It would have been sad to see that work not reach fruition. I was also able to wrack up enough “karma points” by then, through my diligence and good reputation, that I could afford to slow down but still keep trudging. Luckily, graduate school in an academic institution affords the kind of flexibility that I may never experience in any other setting. So all the reasons to quit were psychological, nothing logistical.

Psychology can be powerful enough to transform us and shape our decisions. With some practice, and within reason, we can learn retrain our brains to think of current obstacles as future achievements. The hardest part about continuing grad school was not that I felt I couldn’t do the work. It was, instead, the loss of respect I felt at every turn when I could not keep up my former hours, or work at the same speed – the perception that I was now somehow weak or less than I was before. A large part of this was not necessarily just other people, but also “academic conditioning” that was haunting me from within my subconscious. But regardless of this general no-room-for-weakness atmosphere, or perhaps precisely because of it, I learned to see myself as quite the opposite of how they would have liked to paint me.

I realized that, because of my experiences, I was stronger and more than I was before!

Anima (8X10, oil on canvas) — my internal warrior & heroine!

One thing I recognized since being more selectively open about my diagnosis is that everyone is fighting their own battles. But one is not made a hero for just fighting, or even winning, a battle. One is made a hero for how they fight it. I decided I was going to fight mine, and fight mine well. I felt increasingly that it was not enough, any longer, to just try to be a good graduate student, or strive for women scientists, or be a feminist voice for career-women in the conventional sense. I had to find within me to be more than that.

I decided that I will strive to be a better person because of my struggles, internally as well as externally. 

I will learn to be more compassionate (towards myself, as well as others who may not always be understanding of my condition); I will try to reengage in interests I may have lost touch with (so I am not beholden to the one deity, science); and I will be even more introspective than I was before, learn more about myself, so I can carve out a new identity for myself as I move forward.

Drawn into the Light (7X14, oil on canvas)

Once upon a time, I used to be naive enough to think you can get whatever you want, be whatever you want, as long as you work hard enough for it. But life makes too many decisions for you, and often at very critical stages, so that is not always possible. Once upon a time, I had dreams of being able to follow my intellectual curiosity wherever it took me. The reality, however, is that if I did that, I would be potentially looking at 60-hour work weeks with little time for rest. I would be a flaring mess of pain and fatigue if I followed that route!

But it is not impossible to reimagine ourselves, our interests, our desires, and channel them into another path. The last two years of my life, trudging through grad school with FM, I have spent a lot of time focused inward. I have questioned what I like and why I like it, and how I can do it differently in a way that is conducive to a healthier lifestyle. I have also had to untrain my brain from thinking my intellectual pursuits are automatically married to academia. Once I did that, I could see the different possibilities that may still be out there for me.

Reimagine the possibilities!

So by no means is this the end of the road for me. I like to think of it as a fresh beginning. I have gained insights through my years as a graduate student with a chronic illness that I could not have gained otherwise. It formed a preface to my life’s goal, which is learning how to merge my health needs with my intellectual ones without completely giving up my ambitions. The next years will write the chapters on how (and if) I am successful in ever attaining it.

I look forward in continuing my journey forward, and sharing any insights with you. Thank you for accompanying me so far in this roller-coaster ride that led to my Ph.D.!