I had surgery during a global pandemic

When I started this blog in October, dear Reader, I promised that it would be an academic cum personal blog. At the time of writing that first post, I was incredibly ill and underwent emergency surgery two weeks after it was published online. In fact, I posted my second post, ‘Women and Power, Part One‘, moments before getting in a taxi to go back to the hospital for MRI scans, more blood work, and more consultations with the surgeon. I should say, I do not endorse this sort of life/work balance and I only continued to keep the blog going in October with the fear of precarity as an ECR weighing down on me. If I could go back in time, I would have been gentler with myself and allowed myself the space and time to heal mentally and physically from my surgery without pressuring myself to keep up my academic persona. This was the motivation behind my hiatus during the festive period. Here, I want to reflect on the importance of listening to your body during the PhD and advocating for yourself and your health.

30 October 2020

I had an emergent laparoscopic cholecystectomy with bile duct exploration. What this means in non-medical speak is I had my gallbladder along with four gallstones from my bile duct removed by keyhole surgery. It was a success. However, I experienced minor complications, namely, inflammation of the cartilage around my rib cage, which kept me in hospital for two nights for pain management and is an issue I’m still coping with when I overexert myself. A good, if painful, lesson on listening to my body and resting when I need to. My surgery was the conclusion of months, if not years of pain, that was ignored and diminished by myself and my doctors as ‘PhD stress’.

A pre-surgery lewk. You’re welcome, internet.

July 2017

I had my first gallstone attack while I was home in North Carolina visiting my family for a short ‘break’. I put ‘break’ in inverted commas here because even though I was away from my home university, I was still putting myself under extreme pressure to continue to work on my thesis as I entered my final years as a PhD researcher. At the time, I dismissed the pain as muscle spasms, since they were confined to my mid-back, right shoulder, and rib cage. As a varsity long-distance swimmer in high school, I had an old shoulder injury, which I assumed was the root of the cause of the pain exacerbated by the discomfort of international travel with heavy suitcases. Over the next few years, I had a few more attacks, which I easily dismissed as stress-induced indigestion, assuming the obvious cause of my physical symptoms was the PhD. I would continue to blame my physical symptoms of illness as ‘PhD stress’ well into 2020 when I was working toward my thesis submission.

March 2020

I began to have gallbladder attacks 3-4 times a week. I convinced myself that it was merely a correlation between these episodes, the stress of submission and the stress of submission during a global pandemic. I assumed that the symptoms would disappear as soon as I hit send on my email to college with my thesis enclosed.

Dear Reader, they did not.

April 2020

I had an attack every night after I submitted and by the Thursday I finally deemed myself ill enough to phone my GP. Maybe it’s an ulcer. Maybe it’s acid reflux. The GP was quick to dismiss these symptoms, suggesting they were probably caused by my stress levels (and weight – still unimpressed about being fat-shamed in 2020!) and she prescribed an acid reducer and told me not to call back unless the symptoms had not improved. The symptoms didn’t improve. I called back in two weeks time and was assured that acid reflux symptoms could be ‘quite painful’ while she ordered more tests. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the next few months, but needless to say, the tests were inconclusive, I started to feel marginally better and I assumed that we had gotten to the root of the problem.

25 September 2020

I was done with the PhD. Doctored. My stress levels were relatively minimal. I was back at work in the restaurant I work at part-time. I had been offered teaching for the autumn semester. Life was pretty good all things considered. That night in September, my partner made one of his signature pasta dishes (meatballs and mushrooms), full of creamy, cheesy, goodness. What came next was the longest and worst gallstone attack of my life. It lasted 18 hours and it was still 2 days more before I started to feel anything approaching ‘normal’. As I no longer had a PhD to blame my symptoms on and it happened immediately following a fatty meal, the cause was more obvious. More tests were ordered. My blood work came back slightly abnormal. I was still too young to cause much worry about complications from gallstone disease, so I attended an ultrasound scan. The radiologist confirmed I had gallstones. I had another attack that day, likely caused by the agitation of my gallbladder during the scan. Having finally had an attack during business hours, the GP was able to see me and quickly decided I needed to go to hospital. I spent the next week in and out of the hospital for more tests and finally the MRI scan, which confirmed that I had four gallstones in my bile duct, which made my case emergent as I was at risk of the duct rupturing, causing serious complications. I was incredibly lucky that within five weeks of my major gallbladder attack (likely when the stones moved into the duct) that I was having surgery to remove it.

Dear Reader, the irony is not lost on me that while I was starting a blog titled ‘An Errant Academic’ errant gallstones had simultaneously gone for a wander and were wreaking havoc on my health and my body.

Two of the four unexpected body modifications of 2020. Here’s to 2021 seeing a return to more fun body mods, like a new tattoo or piercing.

This health crisis taught me a few things.

  1. It is frustrating that initially I had to continually advocate for myself to my GP in April when my symptoms became increasingly unmanageable. I hope that telling a woman she is probably just fat and stressed will no longer be an appropriate ‘diagnosis’ someday.
  2. I dismissed my own symptoms and wrote them off as ‘PhD stress’. ‘PhD stress’ and its physical manifestations should never be normalised. Maybe it’s not entirely healthy to blame all physical discomfort as ‘just’ the PhD. Maybe, more importantly, the fact that the PhD can take such priority and exact such a toll on physical and well-being ought to be interrogated.
  3. The NHS is a beautiful, wonderful thing. As an American, I had several friends from the US reach out to express their sympathies that in an already difficult year I had to face unexpected medical costs. I was happy to tell them that I hadn’t gone into debt by getting sick. Something that is far too common in the American healthcare system.

I am incredibly lucky that I was able to have surgery during a global pandemic, as weird as it sounds. It saved my life. Now to listen to my body more in the future and honour it by not allowing the expectations of my academic persona to overtake my mental and physical well-being.

I’m a SurVIVA, Part One

Recommended listening: Destiny Child’s ‘Survivor’

This blog post’s beginnings were in a series of emails I sent to friends preparing for their viva in the time of Covid-19, with everything from submissions to vivas being moved online. My submission date for my viva was 20 April 2020, which I thought would be plenty of time to proofread, double-check references, and finesse the arguments within each of my chapters. By early March, I started to worry that the rising rates of Covid-19 infections in the UK would mean that the university, archives, and libraries might shut before my submission date. The few weeks in March before everything did indeed shut was a ‘controlled frenzy’ of activity, making sure I had everything I needed to finish my thesis from home. In the end, I didn’t fully pull it off. There are still images of seal casts in one of my chapters where I hoped to have images of the original impressions, but the archives cancelled my image requests and done is better than perfect.

Hearing the whoosh of my email submission as it went through.

I’m aware that there are a plethora of blog posts on preparing for the viva and what to expect, but with the announcement of Lockdown 2.0, the virtual viva may be here to stay for the foreseeable future. This post and it’s sequel intend to give some helpful advice on what to expect in an online viva and offer some helpful tips on how to prepare for it. And let’s be honest, I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to make a terrible pun in the title and reference Destiny’s Child.

Preparing for the Virtual Viva

I started thinking about my thesis again two weeks before the date of my viva. The break from my thesis and doctoral work was intentional. After the ‘controlled frenzy’ of the run up to submission at the start of lockdown, I was completely burned out. In addition, I had developed what I thought was stress-induced acid reflux and I was more sick than well by 20 April (it turns out I had gallstones and was very ill, but that’s for another blog post). Because I associated being ill with coping with the stress of submitting during a global pandemic, I decided to take a break from my academic work and recover. I’m glad I took a break. The viva is only the next step in the process, it’s not an end point of the PhD, and allowing myself time to regroup after submission meant that I was happier returning to my work to prep for the viva.

Two weeks out, I broke up my thesis into manageable chunks to closely read through each day. This worked out to a chapter a day. I broke it up in this way because it allowed me to go through each chapter more carefully without getting the panic of imposter syndrome by reading through it all at once. It also allowed me to identify places in the thesis where I might have elaborated on an argument more and to actually write in the margins or on a piece of notebook paper what I would say. This helped me build up my confidence around contentious points. I also made a colour-coded key for my thesis so that I could identify for myself different themes that ran through the thesis as well as the overall argument.

My heavily annotated copy of my thesis, along with post-it note key.
Thesis with argumentative additions.

7 days before my viva, I met with my supervisors. I chose to meet with them 7 days out specifically so I could bring questions that I had from my week of reviewing and preparing. They flagged 3 questions that were likely to be asked in the viva. These questions are broadly applicable:

  1.  Where does your work feature in current historiography? In your own words, what is the state of your field in 2020?
  2. This question specifically related to my methodology for seals, but broadly be prepared to talk through your methodologies and why you did your research the way you did.
  3. What is your thesis’s contribution to knowledge?

I actually answered these questions on notebook paper. I wrote them out at my kitchen table, without looking at my thesis. It was much an exercise to prove to myself I knew my material as much as it was a preparatory exercise for the viva. One of the most useful things I read online about vivas is that they are open-note exams. You are expected to bring your thesis and notes with you, so I made sure I had answers to these questions written down in case I panicked in the viva I had something tangible to look at to help me refocus and ground myself back into the examination.

I re-read my introduction and conclusion the day before my viva and spent the rest of the day doing things that made me feel good. For me this is herbal tea, meditation, my yoga practice, and reading. Full disclosure, I still had a panic attack the night before and barely slept. While I don’t recommend having a panic attack, I will say it’s okay to be nervous. It’s natural to feel anxious about the viva, but it’s also important to remember that your examiners want you to succeed too.

Here ends part one, dear Reader. The next blog post will cover the virtual viva experience and how we celebrated even with Covid restrictions.

Not all who wander are lost

‘That savage forest dense and difficult’

This blog has taken some time coming to fruition. I started thinking about it as I came to the end of my PhD during the Covid-19 crisis watching as academic job after academic job, heritage job after heritage job was postponed or disappeared from various job posting sites in a response to economic changes. I felt like Dante’s voyager-narrator:

     When I had journeyed half our life’s way,

     I found myself within a shadowed forest,

     for I had lost the path that does not stray (Inferno, Canto I, ll.1-3).

The career that I had envisioned for myself post-viva had disappeared from view and I felt dizzy from being knocked off course. The ground had shifted underneath and the way that had seemed clear was now not visible.

Glencoe Lochan Trail, Glencoe, Scotland

This feeling is not unique to me, nor is it entirely new. The academic job market for post-PhD and early career researchers has become increasingly competitive and challenging for those in the arts and humanities. However, the emergence of Covid-19 and the subsequent crisis has created an entirely new and arguably bleaker field for those of us emerging from the PhD searching for work. I feel similarly to an errant knight, having completed his training, set free into the world, yearning to prove my mettle and gain my fame as best I can.

Errant here, I hope, will show its full range of meaning each week as I find my way as an early career researcher. My penchant for etymology started in my undergraduate with a Latin tutor that enjoyed testing (torturing) us with the tertiary and quaternary (and so on) definitions of verbs. Errant is derived from the Latin errare, which translates primarily as ‘to wander’, much like our knight above. Other definitions include ‘to go astray’, ‘to make a mistake; err’, and ‘to vacillate’. Each of these definitions relate to my PhD and my academic journey thus far and I will take each of them in turn.

To go astray

My PhD doctoral project was never linear in its progression, despite my best efforts to impose a linearity to it. However, the more my research progressed, the more I realized that my efforts as a researcher had to meander because the pursuit of over-looked and under-valued histories are often not waymarked in the archives or easily seen at first glance. The development of my academic work occurred as I wandered and some of my best ideas came when I leaned into the complexity and inter-connectedness of my source material. Academic wandering is increasingly hard to do with the pressures of academic progression, the push to finish in three or four years, and the notion that if you don’t publish you certainly will perish.

To make a mistake; to err

When I first started studying Latin, this was the definition that came most readily to mind. Even now when I see the word errare my mind jumps to the English ‘error’ as its spelling resembles the Latin so closely. To make a mistake is something that I feared at the start of my postgraduate work. The thought of getting historical interpretation wrong even two years ago could induce an instant panic attack and and a cold sweat. This mostly tied into the imposter syndrome I dealt with throughout my PhD. Every year before my progression meeting, I would worry that one of my supervisors had found me out and that the meeting would be my exposure for fraud. This, I now know, was all in my head, but the fear of ‘getting it wrong’ certainly marred the development and confidence of my PhD thesis in its early drafts.

And I did get it wrong sometimes too. Not every early interpretation of my findings was the best fit. Getting it wrong is an important part of the process. It allows you to embrace the complexity, or what I like to call the messiness, of medieval primary source material. I used to associate making a mistake with failure. But it’s not. Making a mistake is just an opportunity to return to the source material and re-think, to fall back and re-group.

To vacillate

I love to vacillate in my work. This perhaps ties into my fear of making a mistake. I would feel much more comfortable wavering between different opinions or interpretations rather than settling on one that is rejected by my peers. I don’t think all vacillation is bad. There are times when there is too little surviving evidence to offer decisive conclusions. Here, a tentative offering of suggested interpretations seems better to me. This seems especially necessary in histories offering alternative chronologies, i.e. women’s and gender history and others, where the evidence is patchier and the conclusions don’t necessarily fit within ‘master narratives’.

Allt na Calliche trail, Invergarry Scotland

‘The road goes ever on and on’

I am aware that beginning a blog with the opening lines from Dante’s Inferno might convey despair or a general hopelessness on my part. However, it was not my intention. Dante’s Divine Comedy, like other medieval works is a journey. The emphasis is on the evolution of the voyager-narrator. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were stories told to pass the time on the way to Canterbury, not what happened once they got there. As I evolve from PhD student to early career researcher in these uncertain and unprecedented times, it would behoove me to continue to reflect on the fact that the journey is far more important than the destination.

A very excited Rach post-viva, August 2020

I ought to draw this rambling prologue to a close and offer you, dear reader, a programme for what is to come. I intend for this to be an academic(ish) blog. What I mean is that it will be a reflective and meditative space for me to explore ideas that relate to my research and a space for me to continue with my writing now that I’m not being kept to the deadlines of the PhD writing up process. It is an academic cum personal blog. My past historical practice and current work has been subjective and reflexive and I intend to continue my practice in this way. Expect to see posts reflecting on grief, loss, mental health, as well as politically charged issues like the #metoo Movement. As it is personal, references to the Lord of the Rings and other literature, like Dante and Milton, will abound as they hold a special place in my heart and are often what I turn to for comfort. I will close here with Milton:

Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;

The world was all before them, where to choose

Their place of rest, and Providence their guide;

They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,

Through Eden took their solitary way (Book XII, ll. 645-50).

And so I emerge, newly doctored from the PhD programme, wandering slowly toward the career meant for me.

Onward.

 All references to Dante are taken from Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Allen Mandelbaum (trans). (London, 1995).

Reference to Milton comes from John Milton, Paradise Lost (London, 2003).