Acknowledging The “One-Body Problem”

Source: PhDComics.com

I am worried about my fellow academics (broadly defined).  Many of us suffer from what I wish to call the “one-body problem.”  I am borrowing here from the term, “two-body problem,” which refers to the challenge of navigating the academic job market along with your (also) academic partner or spouse.  But, I mean “body” in a more literal, physical sense — the responsibility of taking care of one’s body.  It seems that some of us become so overworked and overwhelmed, either trying to meet high (and growing) demands and/or pushing ourselves to meet unrealistic standards.  Consequently, our health and well-being take a toll.

Speaking From Experience

I still steam a bit today when I recall being told by a professor that the mental health of graduate students is not a major departmental concern.  The excuse rationale was that (presumably) many of students come to graduate school with preexisting mental health problems.  If you were depressed when you entered the program, that is on you!  Now, good luck finishing your PhD in a timely manner…  The dismissal was disappointing, but the assertion was personally insulting.

Yes, I experienced teenage angst.  And, I was depressed at times, a reasonable state for pretending to be heterosexual through my childhood and adolescence.  Just like the depression I experienced at the start of college, I was depressed through my first two years of graduate school.  Sure, that all seems like reasonable, and predictable distress through an adjustment period.  But, when I hit the lowest point, letting graduate school push me to contemplating suicide, I knew it was time to make a radical change or get the hell out.  Fortunately, my university’s counseling services offered to put me in time-management group therapy… you know, to make time for suicide between classes.  (The lack of mental health services for graduate students warrants its own blog post…).  I decided to make graduate school work for me, as there was nothing else that I envisioned myself doing at that point in my life.

By my third year of grad school — a generally content period because I began teaching — I was experiencing chest pains.  Eventually, I saw a doctor because I worried it might be heart problems or hypertension.  But, also suspected it might be the symptom of some mental health problem.  Fortunately, the first physician I saw had the great recommendation to have sex to alleviate stress — an outlet with little worry about sexually transmitted infections because I was having sex with middle-class white women (or so he assumed).  I decided to see another physician thereafter, a doctor with a D.O. degree (and the promise of holistic care).  She immediately suggested it might be anxiety, but had me rule out all physical causes first — heartburn medication, stress test, cardiologist visits — oh, thank goodness for health insurance!  Once those were ruled out, I searched for a therapist.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”  My new therapist said it so casually.  Over the year or so that I saw her, much of our conversation focused on the stress of graduate school — both real, external demands, and those that I hyperinternalized.  In my mind, research was the main source of the anxiety I experienced, so I decided to take a year-long break from my research fellowship to teach — nope.  I was told that it would be foolish to “give up” a break from teaching.  And, even in disclosing “but, I have anxiety,” I was told a little bit of anxiety is good fuel for your productivity.  So, I pushed on, anxiety and all.  Certainly, I feel I was successful on the research front, and graduated early by my department’s standards.  But, not without some daily manifestation of anxiety: chest pains, lightheadedness, numbness in limbs, sore throats, eye-twitching, insomnia, nausea, shooting pain in my hip, etc.  I suspect the anxiety also made me vulnerable to other health problems I faced, like pneumonia, an allergic reaction to allergy medicine in my eyes, and multiple instances of strep throat.

Today, I have the anxiety under better control.  But, when I fail to take care of myself efficiently, and I let “should” pile up the many self-imposed demands, it can easily rear its ugly head.  Yes, if it were not for my body’s resistance, I probably would have given in to the pressure to take a job at a research-intensive university.

Audre Lorde

Make Self-Care Mandatory

Unfortunately, it took the sudden death of my 19-year-old cousin in 2011, followed by three more relatives’ deaths, and the recent passing of a friend and colleague, to force me to recognize my mortality and fragility.  It has been driven into my head and my heart that tomorrow is not promised to me.  If I die today, I should be able to do so proud of what I have made of my life and what I have done for others.  Around my office, I have little phrases, poems, and lists that emphasize living well, including the tenure-track as a “7-year postdoc.”  I do not resent that my body’s negative response to the stressful demands of graduate school altered my career path.  After all, my brain would be out of a job if the rest of my body dies.

Yes, we know well that we must be amazing teachers, prolific scholars, and serving on every committee possible in order to get a job, get tenure, get promoted, and any other academic milestone.  But, many of us fail to prioritize self-care as a part of our career.  What are you doing to ensure that you will even be alive long enough to get tenure, become full professor, or leave/retire from academia to start a second career?  What are you doing to ensure that you can achieve these career goals and be happy, and have a life, and feel healthy rather than depleted and frazzled?

I will say that one important starting point is to address the root of any mental health problems (or threats to your mental health):

  • The first is to take a hard look at your career, specifically the demands placed upon you and the obstacles you face.  How much are they affecting your health?  Is that compromise to your health worth the professional gains (in the long run)?  Is there something you can do differently, or do less of, or even just change how you think about it?
  • Second, catch yourself when you start to think of your brain and your body as separate entities.  I have too often found myself cursing my body for needing something that interrupted or limited my work.  I find myself negotiating with my bladder to let me finish writing that one last paragraph; instead, I should be seeing bathroom breaks as necessary mental breaks (which help productivity).  The mind-body connection is way outside of my expertise, so I appreciate the blogging of Dr. Crystal Fleming at Aware of Awareness on this topic.
  • Third, acknowledge that self-care is a political act 1) in pushing back against the institutional and cultural norms that increasingly demand unhealthy working conditions and 2) in daring to survive as a marginalized person in an oppressive society or institution.  You cannot wait for an institution that would rather you devote your life exclusively to your job to take care of you and provide necessary breaks.  You cannot expect the very institution that exposes you to discrimination, harassment, and undermining as a marginalized scholar to provide the resources to survive, let alone thrive.  Each semester, we are asked to make proper accommodations for our students’ abilities and health status, but the question of our own needs is never raised.

Beyond that, I do not have great advice for taking care of yourself.  Here are a few places to look for advice on self-care:

9 thoughts on “Acknowledging The “One-Body Problem”

  1. Amen. And amen. Great post. Two related thoughts or maxims to add to your mix. As an academic you have an infinite amount of work to do, so you cannot imagine that you will take care of yourself or have fun after the work is done.This is liberating if you embrace it. Take care of yourself today.Build a mix of work and life and self-care today that is sustainable for the very long haul. Second, from a friend who had a life of committed activism until she retired in her 50s due to early-onset Alzheimers and, true to her activist bent, was researching lifestyle and diet impacts on brain health. At her retirement part she lectured all of to embrace this motto: “Do less now so you can do more later.”

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    • Ah yes, very important points. Although, I’m wondering how to process what it would mean to do less now. By design, it seems I’m supposed to do everything all at once to then enjoy academic freedom and job security with tenure. Admittedly, I’m worried that that is a recipe for exhaustion, maybe even resentment or “checking out.” Fortunately, I have started pondering how to think about my career in the long-term. I continue to appreciate your advice!

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