Invisibly Ill: Notes on Being Academic and Bipolar

sethSeth is a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at a large public university. His research lies at the intersection of feminist, queer, and affect theories, exploring the emotional experience of reading. He has taught classes in feminist theory, American sexuality, and gendered violence. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder six years ago.  In this guest blog post, Seth reflects on navigating graduate school, the classroom, and academia in general with bipolar disorder.

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Each night before bed, I pack my school bag. I carefully place the next day’s lesson plans, papers, and books inside, propping it on a certain chair at my work table all ready to go.  The routine calms me. Two minutes later I retreat to my bedroom and take my now-reflexive drug regime of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and sleep medication that will allow me to stand in front of my class and critique the very systems (big pharma and the mental health industrial complex) that have saved my own life.

However, my students and most of my colleagues will never know this about me. In fact, from childhood and up to the point where I started writing my dissertation, I racked up several suicide attempts and had willingly overdosed twice. Some of this occurred while I have been in graduate school, but I have taken great pains to keep this information quiet. I know that I am privileged to have gotten emergency treatment on those occasions, to have insurance for my medications, and to be able to go to ongoing therapy even if it is extremely expensive on my adjunct salary. But most of all, I am fortunate have an accepting partner and chosen family. I am thankful for these things everyday; without them I would not be alive.

Navigating Academia With Bipolar

I am a walking contradiction. I teach my students about celebrating difference, but I actively hide and conceal this part of my “difference.” Sometimes it is scary for me to even wear short sleeves during the summer because I worry my students will notice the self-inflicted scars on my arms while I am handing back papers. It’s not that I do not spend hours thinking about telling them. I constantly wonder if speaking about my invisible disability could serve as a transformative teaching moment. But I resist partially because I am afraid, and partially because I want privacy and to keep my dignity intact.

Interestingly, I am out to my students as transgender; they know both my preferred and birth names due to the school’s computer systems and we talk about it in class. I feel no shame about my transition, social or medical. They have seen me physically change, pried apart my body with their curious eyes, heard me talk about my boyfriend as well as various ex girlfriends.

But, I have never spoken publicly about having bipolar disorder or how this diagnosis, which came suddenly during my master’s degree, was devastating. I rarely tell people that during my initial episode: when I brought him letters documenting my disability and the accommodations I needed in order to merely survive, my Latin professor told me that my illness was just a sign I was not strong enough or smart enough for graduate school or academia in general. In that moment I learned that silence was the unspoken rule to sneaking through the maze of graduate school with mental illness. I never spoke about it again, until now.

When I defended my master’s thesis a year later, it did not feel like a celebration of my achievements or scholarly future, but more a militant statement of productivity in the face of hate and discrimination. I showed up at the door of my doctoral institution refusing to register my disability with the campus disability office, knowing that the more that I could “pass,” the better. I now believe this was wrong and the result of an academic climate that values robotic productivity and turns away from any difference, physical, mental, or other.

At my university, as with many universities in the United States, in order for a student to get accommodations or recognition for having any type of disability, they must register themselves through a disability services office that uses various criteria to determine what, if any, help to which they are “entitled.” For example, students with ADD might be given extra exam time, which the office decides on based on the students’ medical files. The problem with this model is that these offices run via a complex mixture of gatekeeping and fear. And with mental illness, something so personalized and dynamic, the situation is infinitely more complicated. Students needing accommodations due to mental illness first have to find doctors or therapists willing to meet them and then ultimately write on their behalf, all in a potentially new city and while on their own for the first time, sometimes without parental support or even understanding. Plus, this requires time, knowledge of insurance companies, and money. Yes, there may be a free counseling center on campus, but appointments can be booked months in advance (as with my university), so students often suffer in shame and silence.

Given these barriers, faculty are faced with the difficult task of deciding whether to give accommodations to “undocumented” student. Often, these students will explain to their professors that they are coping with a challenging situation, but found the disability services office too scary to navigate, or that counseling services was full and they did not have a car or funds to get to an off campus therapist. For example, I’ve had students tell me they were mourning the loss of a parent and that they needed extra time for assignments because they were depressed and at times could not handle their homework. Some of my colleagues choose not to give any accommodations to these students unless the depression is a registered “reality,” because they say students lie. But, I always treat these afflictions as tangible and serious. To give up privacy in this way usually means something is truly happening. Even if the university processes students and their individual affective problems as broken worker bees who ruin the hive, I refuse. I always think about my Latin teacher and how he processed me.

Bipolar Disorder As A Disability In Academia

As someone with bipolar disorder who is heavily medicated, I consider myself to have a disability. I know this is not the case for every non-neurotypical person, but it has helped me mourn the loss of a certain type academic life I know that I will never have due to the limitations of both bipolar and its accompanying treatments. I am currently writing my dissertation, but it is taking me longer than other students. I go to conferences, but maybe only one major association a year and one smaller one. Every step I take, paper I grade, or time I set up a student appointment is influenced by bipolar. For example, I have had to cancel class numerous times when my medications were adjusted because I could not mentally focus on my course material; I cannot schedule exams too early in the morning because sometimes I am shaky or too tired to leave the house; I flinch and become jarred when my students scream out during class because loud sounds scare me. And sometimes, even my huge arsenal of medications and various treatment team fails me. But, that’s the nature of this illness: I get manic or depressed, which leaves me hoping I will not have to go to the hospital. Bipolar is always a student in my classroom every semester; I always wonder how much he will join the discussion.

In an academic climate that favors unparalleled perfection and rewards those who reject affect-based learning, it would make sense why I have remained mute to my students (and lots of faculty) despite teaching classes on disabled sexuality and writing a dissertation focused on psychiatry, sexuality, and affect. I fear that I will be exposed as unproductive, incompetent, or weak. From Day One of graduate school, they told me the best scholars wrote the most books. With a life-altering illness, it is hard to think of myself as ever having that ability to compete on that level even though I technically haven’t even centered the arena because I am still in graduate school. Bipolar has taken so much time from me and I mourn it everyday I see yet another colleague publish an article or win a fellowship. I simply cannot do all of the herculean academic tasks demanded by the current state of affairs. I can do some and try to modify, like when I went to an Ivy League summer school and snuck away from several of the large evening lectures to rest in my dorm room and call home for some grounding. Humanities jobs are scarce (like we all know) and I am already at a disadvantage because of my health. I know that I need to adjust my idea of success and what it means. I am learning that this adjustment does not equate me with failure, just difference.

Mostly at this point, at a time that I feel stable, I worry for my students who are learning that silence is the only way to get through college, that is it is better to fail a course than to tell a teacher about one’s anxiety or depression because the stigma of mental illness is worse than the stigma of perceived laziness. To those students I say: I may never see you and you may never see me, but we are not alone.

On Being Autistic In Academia

AutismIn this guest blog post, Stella S. (a pseudonym) shares her experiences as an autistic academic, and offers advice for other autistic scholars (and everyone else) on communication, networking, and navigating academia while being visibly different.

The Impact Of Being Autistic In Academia

I’m autistic.

There, I said it in an academic space for the first time and even though I am writing under a pseudonym, it feels good. I was diagnosed later in life, after I became a PhD researcher (which I still am). Just because it took longer for me to know does not mean that you should call me “high-functioning” or “mild” or any other word that is supposed to make you feel better about my autism. I only identify as “autistic,” thank you very much.

I don’t personally know anyone in academia who is openly autistic. Due to this, I find it hard sometimes to make sense of where I belong.

This made me want to write a little bit about some of the ways that academia makes me feel inadequate and how I am trying to mitigate this. I hope that that this may make some people more aware of the issues autistics face. I pass as a neurotypical (i.e., non-autistic) and no one in my professional life knows about my autism. This has an effect on my well-being and my mental health, though. As I have started to make sense of my own narrative, I have often felt guilt over my autism. Being publicly autistic does not feel safe due to the amount of people who see it as an excuse or a trend. It is very difficult to consciously care for myself while also having to strain myself to do certain things because I cannot explain why it is causing me distress.

I feel that if more people knew about what it is like to be an autistic academic, they may take us into account. This may, in turn, make us feel more comfortable to be publicly autistic in academic spaces. You should note that autistics have widely different profiles in abilities, so I am not suggesting that my difficulties will be shared at large. Some of my difficulties will also be shared by neurotypicals: the difference between you and me, though, will be their amount, their intensity, and the impact they have.

For this particular entry I will talk specifically about communication, networking, and being visibly different. Although the advice I will suggest is based on my own experience, I am hoping that people of varying strengths and weaknesses, autistic or not, will find them helpful.

Communication

I thrive in clear communication. What I found upon entering the world of academia, though, is a lot of rubbish talk, politics talk, and talk that suggests power relations, to name but a few. I particularly struggle in face-to-face communication, and I may be slower to process what is being said.

My advice:

  • It is ok to ask for clarification in class, meetings, or talks. This may seem obvious, but it can be hard to feel free to ask questions when everyone around looks as though they are getting everything quickly, feeling the pressure to sound and look “clever” at all times.
  • If the situation allows it and you have everyone’s approval, recording a class or meeting may be an option. This will allow you to review what was being said later on, freeing your mind to listen and get involved, instead of having to listen, take notes, and get involved, which can get overwhelming.
  • If this is a meeting where things to do are being decided, you can ask that an email be sent around outlining what will happen next. If this is a meeting with your advisor, you can send an updated agenda at the end with basic notes and ask them to check.
  • Take your time to find out whom you can trust, as well as whom you may not be able to trust. While I find that the “cheerful” and “outgoing” student often seems to be a must (and I am very good at acting “cheerful” and “outgoing” myself), I have realized that people can manage to be this way while not giving away their trust. This is particularly important if you struggle to analyze who is “safe” and who is not.

What autism is not

Networking

Boy, isn’t networking so important in our work? At least that is what I keep hearing, seeing, and experiencing. Networking is extremely difficult for me. I have observed a group of people who know nothing about each other in the morning and leave happily networked in the afternoon. Yet, I’ve spent the day on the side-line, trying to start a conversation or say something, but am unable to do so. It can take me days to recover after an event that entails heavy networking.

My advice:

  • Observe, observe, observe. Admittedly, I am still in the observation phase, but I am trying to find ways that people use to network so that I can imitate them. That said, not everyone’s style will suit you: don’t fall into the trap of doing things that are completely out of character either.
  • What I struggle with the most is finding how to start the conversation. Once it is going, I can manage a lot better. If you know someone at an academic event, follow their lead. There may also be opportunities for you to talk that will make people want to come and talk to you themselves, such as Q&As after talks and presentations. Otherwise, hovering around seated areas may be a way to include yourself in a conversation.
  • Ask people about their research. People love to talk about their research and this may be an easy way in.
  • Do not talk too much about yourself. Yes, people love an enthusiastic student, but if you’re anything like me, you may struggle with turn-taking in conversations. I find that taking deep breaths at regular intervals can help to give time for the other person to intervene and reply, if they wish to.
  • Twitter! I found that this is a great way for me to network and feel like I am doing something positive. It also makes it easier to connect with other disabled academics, who may not be otherwise visible to you. I still need a limit or I run the risk of feeling overwhelmed, but it works a lot better than face-to-face interactions.

Being Visibly Different

Even though there are lots of friendly people around in academia, it can be difficult to be visibly different. Disclosure involves risks, and it puts you in a vulnerable position. Finding people you can trust with this information is not a given, as autism is so misunderstood. While I don’t feel I have been actively discriminated against, I know that I have missed certain opportunities because of the way I act and talk. On any given occasion, people may assume I am cold and unenthusiastic. At the other extreme, I may be seen as overenthusiastic, which can perceived just as badly. Imposter syndrome put aside, I also know that I can simply come across as “not quite having it together.”

My advice:

  • If you are not already doing so, I would suggest you start looking at the blogs of some autistic activists such as Autistic Hoya and Neurowonderful. There is acceptance and a sense of identity to be found by taking part in the autistic online community.
  • Take small steps. The day I attended a training day and used my usual self-soothing techniques throughout the training (this is called “stimming”) was a liberating day. This involved a “tangle,” an object that I was seemingly “playing” with, but actually helps me to stay focused. No one dared to ask what this was. I acted as though I belonged, like my tangle belonged. I owned it. I acted like it was normal. Because it is – for me.

Closing Comments

Being an autistic in academia isn’t easy. I read all the advice out there for students and feel as though much of it does not apply to me. Sometimes, after a long day of real life interaction, I feel as though everyone is so peppy and good, and I’m just a mess who needs to leave the room regularly for sensory reasons.

Fellow autistic academics – you’re here, though. You made it so far. You belong. Your autistic self also has a lot to offer. Your research probably links to your special interest. You’re driven. The networking and the interviewing and the need to be known (because you need to show that you are making an “impact”) can be overwhelming. But, remember that academia offers you so, so, so many opportunities to be cooped up in front of a computer focusing on what you love.

Dr. Adrienne Milner On Being Invisibly Disabled In Academia

Dr. Adrienne Milner is a teaching assistant professor in sociology at the University of Alabama Birmingham (see her full biography at the end of this post).  In her guest blog post below, Dr. Milner writes about navigating academia with an “invisible” disability, driven, in part, by her determination to “tough it out” as a former athlete.

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Transitioning from Playing through to Working through the Pain: Athletics, Positive Deviance, and Being Invisibly Disabled in Academia

milner head shotBefore winter break, we had a college-wide faculty meeting with the Dean of Arts and Sciences to discuss the events surrounding the decision to eliminate football, rifle, and bowling at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). As someone who researches race and sex disparities in sport and teaches many student-athletes, I felt the need to express my support and concerns for my students during the meeting. I felt a bit nervous speaking out as a young, non-tenured, cisgender woman, but wasn’t aware of how visibly upset I must have been until after we adjourned. The dean came up to me, gave me what has been dubbed “the Christian side hug,” and asked if I was okay.

I was emotional because I know what it feels like to have a lifelong athletic career taken away. The summer after my freshman year of college, a car accident prevented me from continuing to play college basketball. During my time teaching as a graduate student at the University of Miami (UM), I witnessed a similar sense of loss among student-athletes who were suspended by the NCAA because of the Nevin Shapiro scandal. One of my brightest and most charismatic students, DeQuan Jones, was forced to obtain counsel and sue the NCAA after his indefinite suspension. He won his case and was eventually reinstated. His and many other football and basketball players’ personal reputations were damaged, however, and they suffered extreme losses in their professional draft stock.

I admire DeQuan for standing up to the NCAA and the UAB football team for expressing raw emotion during their meeting with President Watts after he cancelled their program. I was never as brave; throughout the majority of my academic career, I was silent about my car accident and my resulting disability.

Those of us who study sport are well aware of the positive deviant messages athletes receive and internalize from an early age, such as playing through pain, not letting the team down, and winning at all costs. “Positive deviance” is behavior that departs from norms but is interpreted as appropriate, and in sport, often results in hyper-compliance to sport values such as seeking distinction, taking risks, and challenging limits (see Hughes and Coakley, 1991). For me, conforming to this dominant sport ideology began at 10 years of age when I finished a summer league basketball game after breaking my foot, and continued to manifest throughout my athletic career and beyond. No matter how much I was suffering, I put my game face on, which in my academic life consisted of maintaining a smile and performance of an energetic, friendly, and positive self. Fooling my professors, students, and colleagues into believing I was able-bodied resulted in my personal satisfaction of “winning” at my disability.

It took me a year and a half after I was hired at UAB to disclose my disability to colleagues. Interestingly, it was in the form of a party invitation which read:

Please join us for dinner and a toast as we celebrate The Settlement of Milner v. (Insurance Company)

Many of our friends and colleagues are unaware that growing up, Adrienne was a competitive three-sport athlete (she played basketball overseas, consistently contended for AAU national championships, and was recruited to play both basketball and lacrosse in college). However, when Adrienne was 18 years old, she was in a car accident that ended her collegiate athletic career and left her with permanent injuries and chronic pain, After over a decade of litigation, the parties have come to an agreement that validates Adrienne’s suffering and course of medical treatment. Let’s honour Adrienne for what she has accomplished despite these circumstances and support her as she closes this chapter of her life!

Even the last sentence of the invitation conforms to dominant sport ideology, suggesting that I have conquered my disability and moved beyond my physical limitations.

After my car accident, it took me my remaining 3 years of college and another 2 years of graduate school before I registered with disability services, which was not nearly as helpful as it could have been earlier in my education (e.g. using time and a half to complete a 72 hour comprehensive exam with dislocated shoulders and hips, herniated disks, and migraines for me would have been more detrimental than beneficial). Not only did I forego years of services that I was legally entitled to, not disclosing my disability may have resulted in a misunderstanding of my character since presentation of self is so important in academics’ teaching and professional careers. Because of my injuries, some days, I am unable to brush my hair, tie my shoes, or stand for long periods of time. When I am in pain, I generally look rough, act distant, and may vomit as a physical response to the trauma my body is experiencing. Without explanation, this behavior is at best, odd, and at worst, signifies a substance abuse problem.

I’m not sure why I waited so long to tell the people who I saw every day, and who were generally kind, thoughtful, and understanding, that I was disabled. Perhaps it was the competitor in me that never wants to ask for help, or the fear that I would be viewed as incapable of performing my job. Disclosing an invisible disability is difficult, and may not be the right decision in all situations or for all academics. However, sometimes concealing it may also have consequences. I am fortunate to have a wonderful advisor who understands the sport mentality and makes a point to ask how I am feeling, supportive colleagues who covered a week of my classes and sent flowers after I had complications from back injections, and empathetic students who don’t mind when I teach in “tree pose” or pop my shoulders and hips in place during class. I am also fortunate to have witnessed honest communication about what one is entitled to from our football team and from DeQuan, who despite what he unjustly endured, ended up playing professional basketball. That being said, the athlete in me will still enjoy a sense of victory if anyone reading is surprised that I am disabled.

References

Hughes, Robert and Coakley, Jay. 1991. “Positive Deviance Among Athletes: The Implications of Overconformity to the Sport Ethic.”  Sociology of Sport Journal 8: 307-325.

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Biography

Dr. Adrienne Milner is a teaching assistant professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Milner’s research addresses issues of equity in terms of race and ethnicity and sex and gender in sports and political contexts. Specifically, she examines disparities in access to sport participation and analyzes the costs and benefits of participation for individuals with complex and diverse identities. Her other work focuses on racial and sexual attitudes, policy preferences, and inequality in the Obama era. She has a forthcoming book with Dr. Jomills Henry Braddock, II on segregation in sport.

“Passion, Perseverance, and Power” – Reflections By Erin Breedlove

Below, Erin Breedlove reflects on her experiences in college as student with disabilities, and her aspirations to become a tenure-track professor. See Erin’s full biography at the end. You can find her on Twitter @erinrbreedlove or via email.

Passion, Perseverance, and Power

Background

Erin Breedlove

I just graduated from college. As in, a little over a month ago. Those four-and-a-half years taught me so much more than I could have ever imagined. You see, I was the girl who prided herself on missing only one day of class this semester for the first time ever. Rest assured that the reason that this is monumental will be understood later.  You see, I was the girl who didn’t believe in wearing sweatpants or pajamas to class because I thought of it as a sign of disrespect. I did have my dress-down days where I’d wear yoga pants and jewelry and makeup, but how could any student sit in a lecture that is prepared by someone who has authority over them and who has spent probably triple the amount of time in preparation than in actual lecture to ensure that you learn accurate, up-to-date information, live with themselves after sitting in the front row of that setting donning pajama pants with a Scooby Doo print?

But you see, I was also the girl who used the clothes that she wore and the things that she said to try to mask an aspect of my physical appearance with which I’m almost always in competition. I have cerebral palsy, and though it is a mild case, as opposed to the images with which you associate the condition, I still have more issues with the fact that sometimes I have to cut back and take the “B” on the paper instead of the “A” because I’m simply tired, and my time management techniques often look different than most. There’s no doubt that I’m very motivated by academia, and I’m excited to see how I’ll use the tools that I’ve learned and developed to ensure success in the future. This is why my GPA is a 3.0 instead of a 4.0. All things considered, I’m really proud of myself.

Re-ignition

In my last semester of college, I took my hardest course in the psychology program. It was Behavioral Neuroscience. The teacher just happened to be my adviser, who is literally the best professor I’ve ever had. It was a grueling course. Because of my cerebral palsy, my proprioception, that is, the relationship between your body and space, is slightly off, and in addition, my depth perception deficits prevent me from being able to see objects three dimensionally. Learning models of the brain was the hardest aspect of this course for me, and I had never shed as many tears over a course as I did in this one. I was frustrated. Before the semester had begun, I was able to chat with my adviser about some techniques that would help compensate without fundamentally altering the nature of the course, as they say. Ultimately, I was able to be really successful in the course, with appropriate diligence and dedication.

The class re-ignited a passion for me, to be honest. About a year ago, I began exploring what a career in academia would look like. After seeing and being intimated by the requirements and prestige of the field and of those three letters that all in academia desire, I was scared away. When I discovered that hard work and supportive professors and a passion that is unspeakable work together, there are endless possibilities; I started asking myself questions. Can you see yourself doing this for life?  What would you research? Both of those answers are yes, and to research, since my area of interest is rehabilitation counseling, I will devote my time to different topics that affect college students with disabilities.

Realization

The truth is, though, I’m scared. I know that the opportunity to get a PhD will always be there, tenure track is always the rage, and universities will always be a necessity, but how many times do you see professors with disabilities on the tenure track at R1 institutions? I’ll break the mold, if you insist, but when does the grit come into value? Will my students respect me? Will my department chair understand that my syllabus might be spread out so that I can manage my grading and fairness to my students on top of managing something that causes stiff joints when it rains?

People need us; students need us, and society as a whole needs us. While I realize there are many “what ifs” to any situation, it’s real. Academia has made it tough on those of us who have passion, despite issues beyond our control, to display it in an effective manner. I came from a small, public liberal arts university in the Southeast, and I never saw a faculty member with a visible disability in my four-and-a-half year tenure as a student. Fear held aside, I’m ready to take hold. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, we must “be the change [we] wish to see in the world.”

Ready or not, tenure track professorship! Here I come!

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About Erin Breedlove: I am a recent graduate with a Bachelor of Science in psychology from a small, public liberal arts university in the South. I have been a tireless advocate for students with disabilities, and I speak as an individual with a visible disability. Currently, my passion lies in academic research that will better the lives of people with mobility oriented disabilities. To act on the passion, I hope to pursue graduate studies in rehabilitation counseling to contribute to the improvement of quality of life for people like myself.

Growing up, my stuffed animals had the same level of education as myself, and I have always loved school, the nurturing environment provided by relationships with teachers and professors, and the fact that in school, everyone always has at least one thing in common: you believe in the power of education. Additionally, I hope to help to broaden the horizons of current and future students in higher education by expanding the number of applicants with visible disabilities to the tenure track positions in university settings, emphasizing the culture experience that will derive from it for all individuals in the learning community.

On “Commuting While Crippled”

Casey, a graduate student in kinesiology, has kindly shared with us a recent post on “commuting while crippled” – a concern scholars with disabilities face that is rarely discussed on campuses.  Be sure to check out Casey’s blog, Adventures of a Part-Time Wheeler (and its facebook page!), including another post on travel-related concerns as a disabled person.

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Commuting While Crippled

Minnesota MS 150 bike ride, June 2007

Photo description:  This photo was taken in 2007 at the MS 150 bike ride in Minnesota.  It was taken on a paved bike trail with grass and trees in the background.  I’m on a seafoam green road bike (skinny tires and curved handlebars).  I am visibly fat wearing spandex black cycling shorts and a jersey that says “Erik’s Bike Shop” along with a white and teal helmet with a blonde ponytail visible.  I have dark sunglasses and a smile (although I didn’t see the photographer…I was just having fun!).

The past few years as a graduate student, I’ve had a pretty constant gripe about the difficulties I’ve had with transportation to and from the campus.  I live within what would normally be considered “walking distance” from campus, which means that I live about 0.75 miles away from campus (which I could wheel if the hills wouldn’t flip me backwards out of my chair).  As a kinesiologist (someone that studies human physical activity), I deal with ableism, both internalized and from a sociocultural standpoint.  It’s compounded by being fat, with the standard response to being both fat and gimpy is “just get off your ass and you wouldn’t be fat OR gimpy.”  Yeah, right. *sarcasm*

Non-walking options are also prohibitive.  Handicap parking lot passes run about $325 for the school year (and does not guarantee a spot that is actually walking distance for me, or safe when I’m wheeling).  The city bus system doesn’t have a spot nearby (as my home is considered close to campus).  The “special needs” bus requires a one hour window for a ride, which is not feasible with my schedule or my actual health care needs (and that’s when it actually works….it is notorious for losing appointments).  I’ve asked my partner to drive me to campus, but it costs more gas (as he works from home usually) and it grates on my fierce need to be independent whenever possible.

I’ve been toying with options.  I’ve wanted a moped for about a decade now ever since I saw a Vespa scooter, but I would need a three-wheeled scooter because of my balance and my shortness.  I would also need money that I just don’t have right now (the cheapest trike scooter I’ve seen is about $2,000 and the one I’ve been drooling at from Auto Moto with a roof is about $4,000).

Another option that I’ve wanted to pursue but can’t afford is a recumbent trike.  They aren’t that common, although recumbent exercise bikes in gyms and rehab facilities are.  This style of bike would allow me to bike without worrying about tipping over or dealing with legs that randomly give out on me.  Just like the moped, they are way out of my price range with most of them above $1,000 (and the good quality ones like the Catrike are at least $2,000).

My bronze crutch rigged to my red commuter

Photo description:  Photo taken outdoors at a bike rack with a bush in the background.  It shows a bronze forearm crutch attached to the handlebars of a red commuter bike (hard to see because of the bright sunlight and bush in background).

On Monday, I gave my old commuter bike a try.  It’s a youth Giant brand mountain bike that I bought when I first moved to North Carolina (I nicknamed it the Red Dwarf Giant because of the small size).  I had a bike shop in 2008 swap the tires from trail tires (which are thick and nubby and make road riding more difficult) to commuter tires (that are thicker than road racing tires but smooth).  I tied my forearm crutch to the handlebars, which doesn’t help with my balance and proprioception issues, but at least I have it to help me dismount and walk around campus.

How did it go?  Well, it was rough.  My partner helped me get the bike ready for me and we had to do some on-the-fly adjustments.  The seat had to be lowered significantly because I have to be able to reach the ground with my legs while on the seat….which means that I can’t pedal in an efficient manner (and makes it much more difficult to pedal, especially up hills).  I’m also unable to stand up and pedal to tackle hills.  I was a sweaty mess for my meeting with my faculty adviser (thankfully my adviser is also a kinesiologist, so the “freshly exercised” look is pretty normal in our departmental offices).

Since the ride to and from campus wasn’t too bad, I tried it again on Tuesday.  My rear end was sore because I wasn’t wearing padded shorts and my seat is an original factory issued barely padded beast.  The seat position, while rectifies part of the problem with my balance, makes any incline hell on my body and my spine.  Being able to get to campus without using gas is great, but it hurts and burns energy that I still don’t have.

This morning, I had to ask my partner to drive me to school.  Not only has biking blown through spoons that I sometimes don’t have, it seems to have eaten the energy I need to get to work and to do my scholarly activities.  Just crawling out of bed, getting into the shower, getting dressed, and grabbing the easiest breakfast option left me feeling like I needed to go back to sleep because of extreme pain and fatigue.  I managed to get through my four hour shift, but I’m not sure if I can manage to get my reading done for class tomorrow, or if I’m going to be able to go to the intermediate tribaret bellydance class tonight.

The bike commuting experiment may continue, but we’ll see what happens.  Money really has me stuck between a rock and a hard place.