Vertigo, and other symptoms that will screw with your PhD

When people use the word “dizzy,” they typically mean one of two sensations. The first is presyncope, or lightheadedness. Feeling like you’re going to pass out. The second is vertigo, or the feeling of motion. You can feel like you’re moving, or you can feel like you’re staying still and the rest of the world’s moving. Either way, your inner ear is telling you one thing, but the rest of your senses are telling you another, greatly affecting your balance — and your stomach.

During the second year of my PhD, I fell suddenly ill…and then didn’t get better. At the time, it was assumed that I had picked up some sort of weird virus (I was an international student, most of my friends were international students, these things happen) and that this combined with the stress of my PhD had set off mental health issues (not unreasonable, given my personal and genetic history), but one of my symptoms had my doctors scratching their heads: vertigo. Constant, moderate vertigo, occasionally and unpredictably escalating to severe vertigo. And while a lot of things can be faked, even the most skeptical of doctors will admit that nystagmus isn’t one of them.

For months, I was ill, and I didn’t know why. I was put on wait list after wait list, with doctor after doctor being utterly perplexed and then trying to make me someone else’s problem. I was exhausted and in pain and could barely stand up straight and freakin’ losing my vision and things were getting worse, not better. Completely separately from this, my personal and academic lives were both simultaneously imploding. In a fairly terrible self-fulfilling prophecy, my mental health was declining. Life sucked. After several years of therapy, I now know what I should have done, but at the time, I was an foreigner in my early 20’s with essentially no social support system. Things were awful.

As terrible as it is to have a chronic illness, it’s worse to have a chronic illness and not know what it is. To anyone out there reading this without a diagnosis, my heart goes out to you.

If you have vertigo for long enough, eventually you will be seen by an ENT. (Vertigo sucks, but it won’t kill you, and apparently ENTs are very busy people. It took me nearly a year to get an appointment with one.) The ENT seemed to regard me rather incredulously. Yes, I had one symptom under his purview. But I also had 20 others that quite clearly did not belong in his department. Nevertheless, he ordered a test for something I almost certainly did not have, wrote a letter to my GP, and wished me luck.

I indeed did not have this particular vertigo disorder.

The test did, however, reveal the true cause of my symptoms: a very serious, very rare neurological disorder.

(I should have been tested for that neurological disorder basically immediately upon showing symptoms; the reason that I wasn’t is a series of horrible coincidences not particularly relevant to my story. Trust me, if you have vertigo, you [a] don’t have what I have and [b] will have already been tested for this.)

Things happened very quickly after that.

See, there are, it turns out, three types of this neurological disorder. In the first type, you die basically immediately. Since I had been showing symptoms for over a year by that point, I clearly didn’t have that. In the second type, doctors do a bunch of horrible things to you, there’s a chance that you’re fine, but there’s also a chance that after all that horrible stuff, you lead a pretty diminished quality of life for a bit, and then you die anyway.

And in the third type? In the third type, your symptoms might eventually stabilize. You never get any better, but you might not get any worse, at least not for years and years. You take medication to control the pain, the fatigue, the dizziness, the nausea. You take more medication to control the side effects of that medication. You mourn the loss of your vision, of your memory, of your mental acuity. Someday you’ll wind up in the second type or the first type. But until then? You just get on with your life.

So that’s me. After my diagnosis, I was very, very ill for a very long time. But then things started to look up. My neurologists, psychiatrists, and I began to find combinations of meds that actually somewhat worked. Years of therapy started to pay off. I went back to my PhD, finished it, actually convinced someone to hire me as a postdoc. At the moment, I have a partner, a visa, a bank account with positive numbers in it, some papers with my name on them. I’m doing alright.

To succeed in academia, I feel like you need three things: talent, training, and time. I was, if you’ll pardon the complete lack of modesty, a pretty kick-ass undergrad. I have tangible proof of my academic potential. Two very shiny degrees plus some highly marketable skills speak to my training.

My problem is time. Or, rather, energy. My currently contract is 0.8 FTE: 30 hours per week, 6 hrs/day. I work slightly more than so that I can fit in more non-grant work (finishing up papers from my PhD, applying for my next job, working on collaborations that don’t involve my current supervisor), but absolutely most that I can function in a day is 8-9 hours. That’s it. Pain and fatigue and the schedule of my medication don’t allow for anything else.

I see my partner maybe 2 out of every 3 weekends (we work in neighboring cities), and when we’re together we do low-energy things like watch TV and play board games. That’s it. That’s my life. I don’t really exercise, don’t really cook, don’t really socialize, don’t really have hobbies. I, who conned her undergrad institution into letting her take 25% more credits than what was needed to graduate, while working 2 jobs, while leading multiple extracurricular groups, while going running every morning; I, who am full of stories of epic fieldwork adventures in far-off lands, now have days where I consider going to the post office to be an achievement.

I’d make a great academic. It’s what I’m trained for. It’s what I’m good at. I have awards to prove that I’m a good writer, to prove that I’m a good teacher. I can write grants, write code, communicate with members of other disciplines, communicate with members of the public.

I am a part-time postdoc, and I am damn good at my job.

Can I make it in academia?

Let’s find out.

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