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.

Nude Models, Pot Brownies, and Frankenfoot: A Tribute to My Grandmother

I’m back in Florida with my family, decompressing after an incredibly productive and fun—but exceedingly stressful—week of archival work. Unlike previous trips, I am actually excited to keep researching. The one major impediment to continuing research is my present location, which is approximately 3,000 miles away from both my home and the majority of my archives. Thing is, I’m really happy here, and reluctant to leave. I’ve found that happy medium between work and family, and am loathe to give it up. That feeling is even stronger today, because today would have been my grandmother’s eighty first birthday.

The last photo I have of myself and Granny.

The last photo I have of myself and my grandmother.

My grandmother—I always called her “Granny,” which drove my mother up a wall—died seven years ago. She died in her sleep, the death she’d always wanted, at the age of 73. I was in college 800 miles away, attending Bryn Mawr. It was a matter of personal pride for her, because, despite growing up mere miles from the campus, she always told me she never would have gotten in, on account of being an Irish Catholic.

By the time she passed away she’d been living with my family for over a decade, and was equal parts my third parent and my responsibility. I drove her to her doctor’s appointments, she taught me how to knit. I brought her food when her foot got run over by a Buick (that actually happened… she broke six bones and developed a serious case of “Frankenfoot” as a result), and she laid in bed calmly agreeing with me whenever I needed to rant about something parent or high school related. I took her to the craft store, and she did my laundry. She told me I would “start an argument with a brick wall,” and I mocked her relentlessly. She was a fixture in my life, and—as is the case with most fixtures—I took her for granted. And then suddenly she was gone, and for the first time in my life I found myself besieged by grief.

I was besieged, but my grandmother had long ago been broken. Granny moved in with us shortly after the death of one of her three daughters, and was never the same. By that time she was also dealing with the early stages of dementia and other medical problems that limited her in ways I am only now able to understand. She had an incredibly difficult life, and given my age, I couldn’t really appreciate the gravity of her physical and psychological challenges.

In fairness—both to myself and to my grandmother’s memory—she was also totally cuckoo bananas. She was quite possibly the world’s worst driver: from a hit and run at the public library to the time she ran into our local Wachovia, every trip with her was a hair-raising adventure. She was a truly heinous cook who gave herself E. coli at least once. She got jelly on the newspaper every single morning. She had a cat named “Cooter.” She routinely told my brother and I to “bugger off, dear,” and taught me turns of phrase that to this day make me sound like I come from another era. I always described her to my friends as the eccentric old lady who lived in my basement, and to this day I stand by that description. What I didn’t fully appreciate then, and wish I could tell her now, is that she was so much more than that.

My grandmother being nutty as she was wont to do.

My grandmother being nutty, as she was wont to do.

My grandmother was basically the coolest person ever. This is a blog post, and Granny deserves a book, so to those of you who knew her, please excuse my brevity. For the rest of you, strap in. I’m about to list all the reasons that my granny was cooler than your granny:

  • Both of my grandmother’s parents were artists, and she used to talk to me about coming home from school—in the 1930’s and 1940’s—to nude models posing in the living room. Growing up with a bunch of artists, she never tried to compete in that arena, but as she got older she started to indulge her creative side. By the time she lived with me, she was remarkably crafty. Knitting, needlepoint, drawing, painting… you name it, she probably did it, and made sure to expose me to it. She made beautiful things, and by the end of her life was especially into quilting; I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention that she occasionally sewed pieces of fabric to her pants legs. Nobody’s perfect.
  • Granny dedicated herself to her studies and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English. She remains one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met, the type who’d re-read War and Peace over the course of two or three days, just because. She studied Elizabethan England and the Civil War in her free time, and introduced me to many of the best books I’ve ever read.
  • While in college, my Granny—an Irish Catholic girl from a suburb of Philadelphia—fell in love with an Indian man. My great grandparents told her they would never approve of a mixed marriage, but that they wouldn’t actively prevent the wedding from happening if she went to India and lived with his family for several months… their logic being that she’d never be able to stand living in such a dirty and barbarous country. Long story short, my grandfather had to drag her back to the United States, as she would have gladly spent the rest of her life in India if given the choice. She married my (brown) grandfather in Pennsylvania in the 1950’s, and she did it in a sari. Because she was a total badass.
    My grandmother and grandfather posing for a highly improbable wedding photo.

    My grandmother and grandfather posing for a highly improbable wedding photo.

    My granny, getting married her way.

    My granny, getting married her way.

  • Approximately a decade later, Granny ran off to Mexico to divorce my grandfather. She returned to the US a newly single woman determined to raise her three small (and half brown) children on her own. Imagine for a moment the kind of courage it would have taken to become a single mother of three biracial children in the early 1960’s. Granny had some serious ovaries.

    My grandmother and grandfather with the first of their three daughters.

    My grandmother and grandfather with the first of their three daughters.

  • During the “Mad Men” era, my grandmother started working in corporate/commercial real estate. She bought properties that companies used as tax shelters, which… doesn’t happen anymore. She was very good at her job, but as is so often the case, found herself making a lot of money for other people. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of a very complex industry, and managed to stay alive through decades of swimming with the sharks. Just as she rose to the top of the totem pole, tax shelters were eliminated and the industry in which she made her name disappeared.
  • In the days when she did have cash, my grandmother made good use of it. She and her best friend—also a successful, single business woman—took trips to faraway places like China, unaccompanied by men. Because why not? She was utterly unafraid of the unknown, because she’d kicked the unknown’s ass so many times already.
  • When my aunt became ill with a very rare disease, my grandmother became her caretaker. My aunt—who will have a blog post of her own someday soon, as she was a pretty cool lady too—had a fierce advocate in my grandmother. When my aunt was in chemotherapy so bad that it was almost worse than the disease she was battling, my grandmother did what it took to get her hands on some marijuana. She’d bake up pot brownies, and bring them to the hospital. Because she was amazing.
Granny with one of my cousins. Which one, I haven't the foggiest.

Granny with one of my cousins. Which one, I haven’t the foggiest.

So yeah, basically, Granny was the world’s coolest grandmother. She only spent seventy three years in this life, but what a life she had. Hell, she even died the way she wanted to… if that isn’t a mic drop I don’t know what is. The last conversation we had was about a summer internship I’d received; she told me she was proud of me. I’m proud of her too, and I really hope she knows it. Happy Birthday Granny.

 

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

The Return of the Jedi (NYPL Edition)

I can't be the only person who thinks the movie would be better if it was all about research librarians, right? Truth be told, I'm a Trekkie. Click for link to the image.

I can’t be the only person who thinks the movie would be better if it was all about research librarians, right? Truth be told, I’m a Trekkie. Click for link to the image.

Apologies for the (almost) two day long radio silence. I honestly believe that time moves more quickly in New York City, and—“rebel” that I am—I respond by becoming a tired, slower version of myself. I was born in New York State, but did most of my growing up in North Carolina, and I imagine the resulting conflict is as biological as it is cultural. But anyway.

I haven’t spent much time in the archives yet, but Ihave seen enough to tell you that this trip is teaching me a very valuable lesson. It sounds silly for an historian to say this, but I’m learning not to underestimate the importance of time. A lot can happen in a year.

I was in these exact same archives last August, and—after a solid week of searching—walked away with nothing but doubt. I wasn’t seeing anything in the archive that proved or disproved the theory I’d been working with, and a personal friend and former member of ACT UP made it inescapably clear that I probably wasn’t going to find what I was looking for. Instead of seeing the situation for what it was, I gritted my teeth and flew back to California, determined to make something out of nothing. Hardcore denial.

That’s not the way I usually operate. For better (and occasionally for worse), I’m very calculating when it comes to my scholarship. I don’t waste time. If my archive gives me lemons, I normally cut my losses, make lemonade, and run to the next topic as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, my trip to New York happened mere days after a major family trauma, one I continue to deal with even now. I found myself in New York City, hundreds of miles away from home, brokenhearted and recovering from a horrendous cold. I had not yet embraced the idea that therapy can be a form of preventative care, so I hadn’t established a relationship with a counselor. I was a mess. Growing up, my scholarship was my shield; whenever something bad happened, I put my head in a book and thought the trouble away. Even if the world was falling down around me, I could always count on my brain, until last August. I’d hit a dead end in my research, but I simply couldn’t accept it, because it made me feel like a failure. Clearheaded, historian Andrea knows that dead ends are a natural and productive part of the research process, but in my grief and exhaustion, the worst case scenario prevailed.

The aforementioned denial delayed the inevitable, but I did eventually give up on my dissertation project. It was the hardest choice I’ve ever made as a scholar, but when I finally told my committee that I would not be writing the dissertation that I’d defended mere weeks previous, I felt about fifty pounds lighter. Once I opened myself up to new and interesting ideas, they came quickly. The ideas came so quickly, in fact, that a five minute conversation with one of my committee members spawned a whole new dissertation project, one that I still wake up every day excited to work on.

Even though I knew I was here to research a different topic, I must admit there was a part of me the dreaded coming back. What if the archive disappointed me again? I named my blog the freakin’ Six Million Dollar Scholar, and it wasn’t intended to be ironic. What if my triumphant return to the New York Public Library was a bust?

Good news folks: I don’t have to answer that question. Thus far, the archives have been incredibly good to me. Within a few hours of arriving at the archive, I’d filled all the folders I arrived with. That means I’ve found more in a couple hours this time around than I found in a week last year. I had tremendous faith in my new dissertation topic going into this trip, but all the evidence I’m collecting now tells me that—in addition to finding a project that has the potential to be awesome—I’ve “tapped a vein” in the archive that will continue to serve me well long after the dissertation is over.

In future posts I’ll actually discuss some of the incredible things I’m seeing, but for now I just wanted to revel in the fact that the same place that made me question my intellectual worth a year ago is validating me now.

What a difference a year can make.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

Gaze Into the Crystal Blog

In my last post I offered a glimpse into the past, into the various and sundry reasons I feel inclined to add another blog to the mess of them clogging the arteries of the Internet. Today, I want to look to the future. What exactly is SMDS going to cover, and why? Put differently: what’s the plan, Stan? To a certain extent, I’m going to let this blog write itself. In the recent past, a great many very accomplished people have reminded me of the old adage that “the more you write, the more you write.” So, to a certain extent, this blog will be me putting words on paper in a good faith effort to speed up the dissertation research and writing process. I hope that at least some of those words will be devoted to the following:

  • Graduates student life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There’s a veritable boatload of books out there about how to succeed in graduate school—and I’ve read many of them. Most of those books, though, have left me wanting. “Okay,” I’ve found myself saying, “so I need to make sure I’m writing every day. How the eff do I do that? Where does that discipline come from?” At a more personal level, how do I—an historian of HIV/AIDS activism and death—spend every day swimming in a river of tears, without getting wet? Even if I magically discover the discipline to be the next Gregory M. Colón Semenza (and that, a best I can tell, would be amazing; so far his has been the only book I’ve seen fit to recommend to my friends), how do I stave off the sadness inherent to my work? What about the fact that the two people I love most in the world, my mother and my brother, live 2,500 miles away? How do I get, and stay, in shape? The point I’m (clumsily) trying to make is that graduate school is a way of life, and I want to make sure I’m living the best life I possibly can. This blog will chronicle my attempts to do just that.
  • Discussion of scholarly texts. By NO means am I going to fill SMDS with academic book reviews. Nope. What I am going to do is keep a log of the books and articles I’m reading, and share my reactions to those works. In the event that anybody starts reading this blog, they’ll be introduced to a very specific—and, at least in my mind, fascinating—body of scholarly literature. At a more self-serving level, I’ve never trained myself to take notes while reading, and have accepted that I never will. It’s just not my style. Instead of scribbling on the pages of my books and articles, I’m going to scribble on this blog. In order to write a semi-decent post on a monograph, I’ll have to type up something, and that’s a hell of an improvement over the nothing I’ve been doing for such a long time.
  • Six Million Dollar Book Club. I need to read things that aren’t about AIDS. I need to. I listen to audiobooks when I work out, and as much as possible (which is far less often than I’d like) I try to read a few pages of something before bed. I’ll read fiction, creative non-fiction, and even—in service of the first bullet point—the occasional self-help book. If I read something I enjoy, I’m gonna tell y’all about it. If this blog gets any traction at all, I’ll post in advance of beginning a book, so that we can read together. Kind of like a book club, without the living room.
  • History and higher education rants. I occasionally have opinions, and have been known to share them liberally. I try to keep track of hot topics in both the field of history and in academia writ large, so you can expect the occasional post on those subjects.
  • FUN. I go places and do things, and some of them are fun. When I do fun things in fun places, I’ll tell you about it. I’m an historian who sucks at journaling and has an average memory, so if I’m going to devote my time to writing this blog, at least some of that time is going to be reserved for recording all the awesome things I do.

So there you have it. You know where I’ve been, and you know where I’m going. The only question left is: do you want to join me?

 

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

The Six Million Dollar Scholar

Those who know me know I’m not short on confidence, but—like so many female academics—I’ve recently been finding myself struggling with imposter syndrome for the first time in my intellectual life. Before this year, I was that rare breed of graduate student who never looked back. I knew I’d made the right decision in coming to UC Irvine. At a broader level, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I belonged in academia. I felt it in my bones. It’s funny, because I didn’t feel that way at all when I applied to grad school, but the same experiences that eroded the confidence of my peers during those early years pumped me up. “Are you not entertained?” I’d shout throughout the halls of ivory tower. I was Spartacus, but with books and articles, not blood and sand.

Then I began the dissertation stage of my career. More accurately, the dissertation stage of my career started me: started me questioning my intellect, my research, my goals… everything. (It’s worth mentioning at this point that my poor little dissertation doesn’t deserve all the blame, I was also weathering a major family tragedy that both brought on a wave of depression and at the exact same moment forced me to take stock of my life. Not a particularly unusual cocktail, but certainly not a desirable one either. In my limited experience, depressed people aren’t the best at self-evaluation). For the first time in my life, my scholarship began to suffer. The self-doubt in which I was mired was bleeding onto the pages I wrote. I have some wonderful cheerleaders in the UCI History Department faculty, and knowing that, for the first time (at least to my knowledge), I was disappointing them, helped me realize that I needed to reset. But how? How do I leave my “grad student imposter” identity behind and become the “Six Million Dollar Scholar”?

I’m not 100% sure yet, but I do know this:

I can rebuild myself. I have the technology. I can make myself better than I was. Better, stronger, faster.

I’ll add “happier” to that list. I’ve realized that the key to a productive and fulfilling scholarly life comes—at least partially—from being content with one’s life outside academia. And so, starting December 31st of 2013, I began making multiple incremental changes to my life. Those changes—which I’ll discuss in detail in future posts—are really beginning to add up. By practicing radical self-care of the Audre Lorde variety, I’m finding it much easier to live a life of the mind. I’m happier, more resilient, and more committed than ever to getting my Ph.D. and landing the job of my dreams.

This blog is one of the more drastic changes I’m making in my life this year, which explains why this first post is coming in July, not January. I really needed to psych myself up to launch this particular project. I’ve wanted to blog for the longest time, but something’s always held me back: I’m not interesting enough, I won’t have the time, I might make a huge mistake and nuke all my job prospects, I don’t know how to use a computer, etc.

I may well be boring, and yes, sometimes blogging is going to take time away from other more valuable things, but guess what? I have both good judgment AND a content management system! I’m just going to do this already. If other people read it, that’s fantastic. If they don’t, that’s cool too.

So there you have it. I’m laying the foundation and starting to rebuild. I’m well on my way to being the Six Million Dollar Scholar.