TW: Suicide ideation, Images of hair loss, Images of medication
Collecting my hair falling in batches around me was something I slowly came to accept as a daily ritual, as was the case with the dozens of pills when I could afford the prescriptions. I have been suffering from a chronic neurological condition and its fluctuations are debilitating, even when I look ‘fine’ on the outside. Some of the ways I experience my condition include muscle fatigue, joints locking suddenly, lack of coordination, memory gaps, week-long migraines while constantly in pain, disorientation and brain fog; in short, a body on permanent false alarm mode and attacking itself.
I’ve been also severely depressed with relapses since my early twenties in a constant post-traumatic downward spiral, which coincided with twelve years in academia. Eventually, it became difficult to tell which condition was triggering the other. My mental state and physicality were tangled into a messy knot that was at times too unbearable to break through. I had come to the brink of quitting many times, quitting whatever career ahead, quitting my PhD, quitting any remaining faith and effort, quitting life.
I’ve been working in Higher Education as a lecturer for 13 years now, and have thoroughly enjoyed every part of my journey from class teacher, to senior lecturer and senior fellow of the HEA. My love of mathematics, and researching the effectiveness of how mathematics was being taught in secondary schools, made me question how much of an impact I could make as a classroom teacher or as a Head of Department, and so when the opportunity arose I decided to move into teacher education and training.
I have suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS-D) for just over 10 years now, which is a condition that affects the digestive system, causing stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea (IBS-D) and constipation (IBS-C). Despite this being a lifelong condition there is no cure and the exact cause of IBS is still unknown (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/irritable-bowel-syndrome-ibs/). The two main triggers of IBS are food and stress, and for me the trigger was being trapped in a failing marriage with an abusive partner, and then moving abroad where things only became worse.
Nine months after the move abroad, I managed to return home, and thankfully had started working again as a university lecturer so found some solace in that. However, trying to keep my marriage from falling apart, and being in denial about the situation I had ended up in, took its toll on my health and my symptoms worsened. Foods had started to became triggers too, and I decided it was time to consult with my GP and find out what was going on, who immediately referred me to a specialist as my quality of life had deteriorated significantly.
As time went on I learnt what my trigger foods were, and managed to reduce the frequency of my IBS-D symptoms, I had separated and subsequently divorced by then too, and I finally felt in control of myself and my life again.
I am 2 years and 11 months into my 4-year PhD. I was once told that a PhD could feel like running an obstacle course of a marathon distance, but I could say the same of figuring out and managing a chronic illness. It turns out I have had to do both in parallel. I had been experiencing health issues for 3 years before the symptoms worsened during the 2nd year of my PhD. This still impacts my life and ability to work today. In this post I will explain how I have tackled the challenges brought about by my health issues in relation to my studies.
I’ve always known I wanted to help people, to understand their “whys” in an effort to better understand them. So, naturally a career in psychology was the perfect fit. Yet I had no desire to become a psychologist and wasn’t aware of any other available avenues to realising my goal until I found neuropsychology and neuroscience; since then, I’ve never looked back. Except I didn’t happen upon this career path until I was in my thirties. I didn’t find the career that fit without going through a number of jobs that didn’t fit. So, here I am starting a PhD in my mid-thirties. Inevitably asking myself if I made the right decision. Sceptically asking myself if I’m capable of completing a PhD. And constantly asking myself if pursuing a PhD at this point in my life is even worth it.