The Academic in Pain, or, Why I Want to Have Surgery

Tomorrow afternoon I’m going to be meeting with my surgeon to discuss the results of my MRA, and next steps. If said next step doesn’t involve surgery, I’ll be shocked… and not in a good way.

Nobody likes being cut up, but—in my world, anyway—it’s far preferable to managing symptoms. As any academic living with chronic pain will tell you, managing one’s work and one’s body takes a serious toll. I’d rather spend a few weeks out of the academic game now than working for years with a divided brain.

I’m not being literary when I use the term “divided brain.” When one lives with chronic pain, their brain is always partially occupied by processing that pain. Neurologists can explain the science of pain better than I can, but I’m intimately familiar with its results: fogginess, forgetfulness, and fatigue. It’s one of the world’s crappier alliterative triple threats.

My grandmother always used to say "If I had a brain I'd be dangerous." I concur.

My grandmother always used to say “If I had a brain I’d be dangerous.” I concur.

I lived with chronic pain through all four years of college. During my freshman year I was recovering from major surgery. Sophomore year was spent managing pain in an attempt to hold off yet another surgery. The first half of my junior year was spent walking with crutches, and the latter half on medical leave, recovering from the surgery I’d been trying to avoid. Senior year—circle of life style—was spent recovering from major surgery.

Did I do well at Bryn Mawr? Yes, I did exceedingly well. Could I have done better? Yes. Maybe not much better, but better. I also could have been happier. I missed out on everything from dance parties to studying abroad to trips into Philadelphia with friends, because pain made those experiences more upsetting than enjoyable. To quote one of my favorite 1950’s PSAs, “Perhaps a diagram will help!”

Now that I am again struggling with chronic pain, I’m finding myself operating much the same way I did in college:

  • I planned to get a good eight hours of sleep last night, but my body overruled me and I got twelve hours instead. And yes, I still laid down for an hour during the day. I’ll be in bed within the next hour, meaning that I’ll have spent more than half of the past day asleep.
  • My desk is littered with sticky notes to help keep me from forgetting all the things I’m supposed to be doing, and everything in my iPhone calendar has an alert attached to it. Everything.
  • I schedule my academic work around my pain medication,
  • Simple things like shopping and laundry require strategic planning to maximize efficiency and minimize the number of times I have to climb the forty stairs to my apartment.
  • Spending time with me means you’re coming to my apartment. I love all of the people in my life, but—as I put it to one friend—these days I’ll only leave the apartment for money, food, and medicine.

I’m pretty good at managing with a divided brain, but it’s not ideal. As we all know, college is one thing… graduate school and beyond is another thing entirely.

I’ve been lucky up to this point in my life, because I’ve always known that at some point I wouldn’t be working with a divided brain anymore. That’s a luxury that many people do not have, and one for which I have always been very grateful. It’s a huge part of the reason I decided to spend my life studying patient advocacy.

That’s why tomorrow afternoon, I’m going to have my fingers crossed for an aggressive, invasive, painful procedure. The sooner I can get back to thinking with my “whole” brain, the sooner I can get back to the business of making the academy a more accessible place for all of us.