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.

Exercise: How Dealing With My Body is Transforming My Mind

I’ve spent most of my life allergic to exercise, on account of it being boring, painful, and a waste of my time. Then I had two major, life-changing surgeries—more on those in another post, I’m sure—and suddenly realized that exercise actually doesn’t deserve it’s own circle of hell. At least half of the misery I’d felt all that time was the result of not having fully functional legs. Woops.

One of the few pictures I can get of my little brother dancing that's copyright free... because I took it in our backyard in 2010.

One of the few pictures I can get of my little brother dancing that’s copyright free… because I took it in our backyard in 2010.

My “laziness” has always been a source of some embarrassment, in no small part because my younger brother made a career of dancing. Even now, when he’s not dancing, he’s skinny, flexible, and ripped. He has a lot of the same physical issues that landed me in a hospital, but somehow they landed him center stage.

Now, my brother is exceptionally talented, and I know I shouldn’t compare myself to him—for being very close, we’re also remarkably different. Nevertheless, watching him win trophies at tae kwon do tournaments, perform in New York City with dance schools that I’ve actually heard of, hell, watching him correctly dribble a basketball, has always left me thinking “we come from the same genetic pool… I should be able to do this.

Since about 2010, I’ve been flirting with exercise, in the hopes of releasing my inner Jane Fonda. There have been times I worked out damned near every day for months, and then years of inactivity. There are three major problems that have kept me from being as physically fit as I’d like to be: (1) boredom, (2) lack of time, and (3) my physical limitations, which—much to my chagrin—still exist despite the aforementioned surgeries. I’ve solved two of these problems, and figured if I share my solutions, maybe good karma will help me with the third.

  1. Boredom. I don’t really get to have a lot of variety in my work out routine. Doctors have told me I should really stick to the lowest of low impact activities: swimming, biking, and “running” on the elliptical. Being a creature of habit, I don’t mind this… I like my workout to look exactly the same every day. (Yes, I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do, and frankly, I don’t care.) The problem is that none of these activities is exceptionally exciting. What I’m finding works best for me is to listen to audiobooks while I work out. The problem is, it’s easy to tune out most audiobooks when you’re working out. Even if, like me, your natural inclination is toward books that most people find snooze-worthy, you need to pick books that are exciting, and then force yourself to only listen when you are engaged in the physical acivity of your choice. My best workout companion thus far has been the wildly popular The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It’s the first YA book I’ve ever “read,” but I suspect this particular genre may be the key to keeping me fit.
  2. Lack of time. Far and away my favorite physical activity is walking. It’s nice and slow. And therefore takes a lot of time. Time I don’t have. I really like going to the gym and using the elliptical too, but—even though the gym is super close to my house—going ends up being a two-ish hour commitment. And all that bouncing around tends to give me a headache. I know I need to prioritize my health, so a few months ago I finally bit the bullet and bought myself an exercise bike. It’s a fold up/roll away bike, but out of sight is very much out of mind for me, so the stupid thing is crammed in my bedroom. As much as I hate looking at it, and as embarrassed as I am to have spent money I honestly don’t have on gym equipment when I have a super uber deluxe gym within walking distance, it really does save me a ton of time. A ton. And—added bonus—I’ve never once run into one of my undergrads while riding it.

Then there’s that third issue: my own anatomy. I thought I had that part figured out: as long as I always did slightly less than I felt capable of, I reasoned, my body should be able to handle the stress. Progress would be slower than it is for most people, but I’d eventually attain my fitness goals.

Well, that worked for a while. I even logged a hundred miles on my new bike! But then I started feeling some pain. I took a week off and it went away, so I got back to working out. Maybe I got too excited—I always feel good while I’m working out—or maybe I should have taken more days off. Point is, the pain returned… and it hasn’t gone away.

Celebrating my mother’s birthday at the Bradenton Riverwalk… which, thanks to me, ended up being more of a “riversit.”

I’m in Florida right now visiting my mother and the aforementioned buff little brother. I haven’t worked out at all in almost two weeks,

and it still hurts to walk. I’d actually built up some visible muscle over the past month or so, but it’s now melting away before my eyes. And I can’t really do anything about it.

Travel plans being what they are, it’s going to be a while before I get to a doctor. The worst case scenario isn’t really that bad, all things considered, just inconvenient. Minimize your physical activity, they’ll tell me. Rest. Take pain medicine.

The whole thing kind of pisses me off. I guess the one thing you really can’t hack is your own body.

But enough whining. I’m trying on relentless positivity for a change, and I’ve liked the results. The good news in all of this is I do know I am capable of exercising. Not only am I capable of exercising, I’m capable of enjoying the process.

How does she make this look FUN? Click on those ridiculous legs of hers for a link to the site I lifted the picture from.

How does she make this look FUN? Click on those ridiculous legs of hers for a link to the site I lifted the picture from.

I’m never going to be Jane Fonda, but I can be healthy. It will prove a bigger challenge for me than for the average person, and occasionally—like right now—I’m going to be put in a time out by forces beyond my control. But I like a challenge, right? It’s the reason I chose to study history over the subject (literature) that came to me more easily. It’s the reason I decided to go to graduate school. I don’t particularly like the person I am when I’m not rising to one occasion or another. So it’s all good. Instead of kicking ass on my stupid little bicycle, I’m writing. I’m exercising another (arguably more useful) muscle. Intention is half the battle. And right now, I’m plotting my triumphant return to daily exercise. It’s not burning calories or building muscle, but it does make me feel better.


“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.