Slamming on the brakes


Never underestimate the distractive and debilitating powers of ‘a sore throat’…

I don’t see myself as someone who gets ill that much, perhaps due to my immune system or just the sheer amount of stubbornness/denial that I inherited from my mother. It’s not that often that I’ll get kicked down, and when that does happen, it’s not for too long.

This first part of May, though. These past two weeks. Wow. This has been different.

What started as what I thought was a tension headache soon developed into full-blown night tremors, cold sweats, photophobia and a whole list of wonderful things. After hitting that brick wall, a much larger wall of spiky, grey concrete was then right ahead of me, forming the words ‘tonsillitis’ and ‘strep throat.’ The end result was a constant pain whenever trying to do something, like breathing. Mix that fun in with the requirement to take penicillin 4 times a day on an empty stomach (and therefore having to time eating habits)… and you can see that it hasn’t been the best start to May.

But this post isn’t just to bitch about my sudden downturn in health. What this has resulted in, for the first time since starting my Ph.D, is a complete halt to anything academic. No reading, no writing, no e-mails, and dare I say it… no thought. In the times that I have been awake (sleep has been my best friend), I have been able to use the Internet for 15 minutes maximum, or read something printed on paper for about 20 minutes, before the sweating, headaches and/or lack of concentration really set in. In fact, it would be just enough time for me to realise just how much work is piling up and how much work everybody else seems to be getting through. As such, it was a vicious cycle: try to work, see how much work everyone else is doing, panic that I’m falling behind, feel even worse. Rinse and repeat.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts about the ‘cult of busy’ and how we apportion swathes of guilt when doing something other than academic work. Just take a look at the Twitter profile of Shit Academics Say and you’ll see how much of the humour relies on the becoming-overused “you should be writing” meme. While such a feeling of guilt can grind you down when you’re merely procrastinating, I can assure you that the feeling is crushing when you know that you are physically unable to continue with your work. All you can do is switch off and wait…

…and against the advice that some hardcore workaholics would give, it’s the best thing you can do.

Aside from the occasional reaction to the penicillin, I’m now ramping up my work to get back on track. I still feel like I’m behind, but I know that if I had continued to push myself when my only usable skill was to sweat on command, I’d probably still be in a dark room trying to breathe correctly. Hopefully this is a minor blip, but at least I know that if it does happen again, it’s far more useful to stop than it is to try and keep pushing.

To those who currently or used to suffer from tonsillitis repeatedly: you have my complete and utter sympathy, and I never wish to go through something like that again! However, I’m also aware that there are far worse things that can befall you at any time, let alone during Ph.D studies. Although I haven’t needed to do so, if you’re reading this and you’re feeling really ill, please remember that there are support structures available at your institution that can assist you in these times, from minor extensions to longer periods of recovery. Talk to your supervisors, course directors, admin teams… let them know what’s happening, and I’m sure the pressure will ease up afterwards.

Remember: our work is important, but our health should (and will) take priority.

Header image by Joan Valencia:


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