In the Grand Scale of Things

The title is a bit tongue in cheek today because the little wildflowers are anything but “grand” in scale! But these tiny flower bouquets, that seem to crop up out of nowhere, add a lovely bit of color to the woods and can be such a joy to ponder. They can feel grand in essence despite their diminutive physical presence.

These little yellow flowers are abound during the spring season in a swampy wooded area I like to walk in whenever the weather isn’t oppressively hot. That isn’t very much of the year when one lives in the sub-tropics, so I really have to make the most of the time I have! That they are spring flowers should be no surprise given their bright as sun yellow color.

I find it sad how most people walk past these little beauties without a thought, only to behold the tall, defiant cypresses that grow in the same area. The latter are majestic and worthy of looking up to (and I mean literally, for these trees can be really tall), but in many ways, I prefer the delicateness of the former. The flowers just feel “happier” to me somehow.

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Do you see that little fuzzy ball on the bottom right? I’ve no clue what it is but it’s so cute!

That is so much of life, isn’t it? Especially with a chronic illness. When the good days are few and far apart, we try to make the most of what we’ve got. When the big goals seem too far beyond reach, we focus on the smaller ones. We learn to find joy in the smallest of things.

It sounds like a compromise, and everyone makes some compromises in life at some point or another. But when you’re young, you face judgement from ignorant faces, who are not intimate with your trials, but who feel you have made that compromise too soon in life. You’re left to wonder if you are getting “too comfortable too early” (in my Ph.D. advisor’s words) too close to the ground.

Or is it simply that you have realized that the things that mean the most to you are exactly where you are. That true happiness really is in the smallest, the most seemingly insignificant of things. And that when we reach for the heights, it is usually only to attain something of an illusion – an illusion of power, of respectability, of security. And during that process, as we are looking up at the heights, like that of the cypresses, we miss all the joyful little wildflowers that beckon to us from down below.

In a quiet, meditative moment, it may be wise to wonder: In the grand scale of things, which one matters more?

In the last few weeks, I have gone through another round internal conflict in trying to balance the part of me that wants to reach for the heights, and the part of me that sees sense in drawing the energy from the wildflowers. I concluded that the little joys of the present outweigh the potential of illusory powers in the future. While it is true that I would find much joy in making the best use of my scientific training to benefit society, I had to admit in a moment of honesty, that I would find more joy in not feeling like absolute crap while doing it! This meant finding a line of work that may be “closer to the ground” but more in line with my priorities.

None of this is to say I still don’t have that ambitious spark which would like to see me accomplish big, important things in life. But for now, I feel like just getting through my new exercise routine, without the excess fatigue grounding me in bed for the next several days, would be accomplishment enough for me!

Gentle hugs,

Fibronacci

How I did Graduate School with Fibromyalgia

Earlier this month, I officially graduated with a Ph.D. in molecular genetics.

It is both relieving and terrifying to have graduated, finally having no set obligations. After the months of intense flares that I was able to tame not all that long ago, I have decided to take a break before moving on to another job. Alas, I still have papers to finish in the meantime, and my future to contemplate, so it will be interesting to see how this break turns out!

But now that I have finally graduated, I feel a bit more confident writing this piece, a list of 10 things that helped me do graduate school with fibromyalgia.

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When you feel trapped . . . but know you’re capable of flight

It is sort of a “Part II” of my Reflections on Graduate School, but with more practical information regarding the management of fibromyalgia, so I hope that it helps a few more of us chronic illness fighters navigate through the quagmire of graduate school. And because many of these suggestions apply in general as well, they may as well be my 10 tips for managing fibromyalgia!


1. Prioritize –  With a chronic illness, you may not be able to do everything you would like. So prioritize what needs to be done first, what is most urgent, and do that first. Work your way down the list of less important things (aka, things that can wait till tomorrow). That way, if you run out of your energy aliquot before getting them done, you do not have to push yourself to do it anyway.

2. Get help when needed (undergrads/assistants) – It can often be difficult to admit you need help, and then put forth the effort to train people under you, and supervise their work. But with the right, reliable person, this can be a lifesaver! It takes some work to switch from the “doing”  mode to the “managing/supervising/mentoring” mode, but those are extra skills you have the opportunity to learn! And it is win-win on both sides: your student learns some new stuff, maybe even feels a taste of independent science (depending on their level of experience), and you get to rest your body a bit, while still working your brain!

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How fibromyalgia helped me be a better mentor

3. Make your work area as comfortable as possible – If you spend a lot of time at your desk, it helps to create an ergonomic workstation – which, of course, is a dream on a grad student salary!  So I have a pillow on my high-back office chair (both hand-me-downs), and a heating pad against my back, to help me sit “without” pain. I also have a small box under my desk, and a blanket. The blanket is for the extra chilly-feet days. As for the box, I often put my feet up on it so I can recline, and be comfortable at my desk. I realize it is not necessarily the best posture at all times, but (perhaps unfortunately) in my mind, pain relief trumps all else – and it really feels so good to stretch my legs out comfortably on the box! I also have a TENS therapy unit at work. I am not 100% sold on TENS therapy, and it looks ridiculous to be twitching or jerking if someone walks in, but I’ll try anything when I’m desperate! A friend also let me have an ergoBeads cushion to rest my wrists while typing. I am not frequently wracked with wrist pain, but I am grateful for anything that may prevent it!

4. Seek working solutions for cognitive problems – I am perfectly aware how cognitive dysfunction can get in the way of the smartest of people. Unfortunately, brain fog has struck me at some of the most inopportune times as well. I do not have a solution for every time this happens, but I have written an article before on how to manage brain fog so you retain sufficient brain function on a day-to-day basis. I hope that provides some ideas on this point!

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As any self-respecting scientist will tell you, the solution to brain fog is of course COFFEE! (Do not believe them blindly)

5. Slow down – One way of minimizing brain fog is to slow down and take it at your own pace. I know that in graduate school we are conditioned to feel guilty for slowing down, and not all professors even tolerate it enough to let us continue. I was very lucky by that measure. I had a project that could sit in the freezer overnight (or even a few days) if needed, and a prof who did not kick me out for doing 10 AM to 6.00-7.00 PM days. I am ashamed to admit that for about a year, when I was on physical therapy, I worked part-time (<8 hours) two days a week, though I tried to make it up sometimes over the weekends whenever I could. I don’t think my boss has been too happy about it necessarily, but I have tried to be as efficient as possible during that time, and finished all my responsibilities on time. I feel like slowing down was my #1 key to even continuing in graduate school, though I frequently worried about coming off as “lazy” or “unmotivated.” But the truth is, my motivation to continue doing science is what convinced me to keep the reduced hours. The alternative was to not do it at all. I wrote more about this topic in a previous post whose title says it all I think: Slow and steady stay in the race.

title_ _Brain-body problem_ - originally published 10_1_2010 - Jorge ___
The sub-conscious can be a good motivator, but try not to let it bully you!

6. Use flexibility well – Flexibility is a double-edged sword. If you are working independently, and do not have an overbearing boss, academia offers more flexibility than any other situation I can imagine. This is great on those really bad days when you absolutely need to stay in bed. Assuming your work can wait (and I realize not all work can), the flexibility means that you can rest now, and just catch up over the weekend, if needed. However, flexibility can also lead one to keep odd hours, or no set schedule at all from one day to the next. This can be problematic as your body does not what to expect when. I feel like keeping a steady routine was really key to me getting a handle on my “new normal”, so use the flexibility graduate school affords with care.

7. Do not procrastinate – The other issue with flexibility is that it becomes really easy to procrastinate! This is usually a bad idea, in my opinion. Almost invariably, as the stress of an approaching deadline builds, I feel my FM symptoms worsen. If at that time, I also need to do a bulk of the work that I hadn’t done before, that robs me of the rest time that my body needs. Also, it is more stressful if you know you have a lot of work to finish in very little time. So if your symptoms react to stress, try not to procrastinate!

8. Sleep well before important days – Lack of sleep or poor sleep often makes everything worse for me! I hurt more, am tired more, and can think less. So if there is an important day – such an exam, meeting or interview – I try to get good sleep the night before! I have found zolpidem (Ambien) to be an excellent aid when all else (hot baths, herbal teas/supplements, etc.) fail.

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The secret to avoiding this vicious cycle is to use flexibility well and not procrastinate! And, of course, treat your body well!

9. Practice and prepare, but be OK with making mistakes – This is as true when you are teaching, as when you may be giving talks and presentations. Despite practicing a lot before my dissertation defense, I fumbled more times during my talk than I would have liked. Though in retrospect, and from the audience’s perspective, it was not such a big deal, it sort of wounded my perfectionist’s soul. And yet, each time, I picked up where I fell, shrugged off a little and moved on. When I have made mistakes while teaching classes, I have admitted it, and then turned it into a learning opportunity. I feel like fibromyalgia has taught me more about being OK with making mistakes than anything else ever – enough so I now call myself a “recovering perfectionist”!

10. Try not to schedule back-to-back classes – This one especially holds if teaching long classes, such as 3-hour-long laboratory courses, when you are on your feet and active the whole time. It is also one of those things where it just depends on the person! If it works better for you to schedule it all on the same day, and just have one miserable day a week, instead of two, then ignore this point. But if you are like me, and that one day casts a shadow over the entire week, then it may not be worth it. I have found it easier to split it up over multiple days, so I am not under too much strain on any one.


Graduate school (in an academic institution, at least) is interesting because you are part employee and part student. So I hope that my management tactics has some relevance not just in graduate school, but school in general as well as the workplace, and not just for fibromyalgia either, but other chronic illnesses as well.

Cheers to all my fellow-fighters!

Love,

Fibronacci

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.!

Love,

Fibronacci