The effects of airplane turbulence aside, I’m feeling more like myself and realizing how much I’ve been meaning to write about. The surreal nature of being classified in the ER. The progressively decreased emphasis on quality of work in favor of quantity of interpersonal drama on Inkmaster. Something about Crossed‘s Cindy or Crossed: Family Values‘ Adaline and/or her Mom for a CFP. And, for months now, my recent experience teaching first-year writing in Columbia’s summer bridge program for the second time, as it has kept me afloat through a rocky semester of teaching in which I had to power through the pain and fog of recovery in order to make money to survive, and simultaneously ignore the nagging feeling that, maybe, I shouldn’t have had to.
Mark Strand once wrote: “We all have reasons for moving./I move to keep things whole.”
As I faced the pale shadow of myself, floundering in my work load and trying to find my way back to the teacher I knew I used to be, the memory of ASP 2014 sustained me. As professors we talk warmly about students “getting it,” and I knew, whatever my pedagogical lapses as I recovered, I had helped those students “get it” and, as dark as my map had become, that was a place my teaching could return to.
A while back a friend of mine proposed the following theory: I’m actually a Saiyan, but because my body isn’t taking enough damage in battle to level up as it ordinarily would, it has to take the initiative to fight itself so I can achieve my next power level. I wouldn’t say I’m over 9000 by any stretch of the imagination, but.
But like always I’m using humor to minimize how far this situation spiraled out of control.
One month and one emergency surgery later, I’m healing well and readjusting to basic movement and day-to-day living, and my mood is so improved that I can only think my exacerbated depression lasted so long not because of Lyrica withdrawal, but because for three weeks my body was struggling to inform me that it was dying.
My to-do list is a mile long, so obviously I’m updating my blog. In my absence, I’ve been publishing creatively—check out my pieces in r.kv.r.y and DIAGRAM if you haven’t already followed all my buzz about it on Facebook or Twitter—reworking my novel for the final time, and teaching three courses, while attempting to read a book or two for that dissertation proposal I have to write, probably sooner than I’d like to. Besides all that, I’ll break down my life like this: Fuck you, American healthcare system; and fuck you, American system of education that accepts the semi-hazing process of working yourself to the bone to simultaneously finance a higher degree and survive; and fuck you, government standards of disability that indicate that if you are at all functional, you’re not in enough pain to qualify for anything.
Yes. I did forget. In fact, I may still be in the midst of remembering. And oh yes: I passed with flying colors.
It seemed only right to begin with this clip, as it a) continues the Gurren Lagann theme of my recent quals-related posts, and b) it enfolds triumph into the singular traumatic event in the series, which c) correlates to the trauma of the entire qualifying exam experience and which also d) happened to be the subject of my first real conference paper, which I presented as an adjunct/independent scholar. That was the conference that solidified my decision to pursue a Ph.D.
Note how I keep searching for patterns, even when they don’t matter to anyone but me. It has been my preferred method of sense-making ever since I started attempting to make sense of my vicarious experience of the Sri Lankan conflict, the problem of accepting that I’ve survived something when that something feels like nothing at all.
There’s a connection to be made here too, but I won’t beat the dead horse.
I realize I’m not alone in feeling like the qualifying exam is a traumatic experience, which simultaneously makes it seem better and worse. That is, I’m glad to be in good company, but if we all know this is how it is then why does it have to be this way? Maybe that’s just my natural inclination to dismantle all of the things, including institutional codes. But it’s something I’ve been wondering about. There’s already an excellent post about the experience of Ph.D. feedback here. All I can do here is do my best to build on it given my own experience.
Am I subconsciously thinking of myself as the one capable of administering the blow that brings the other to his senses? I think I always feel more like the target, the one desperately in need of that punch to remind me that things are possible, I am capable, and TMJ notwithstanding I can still grit my teeth. And maybe it’s related to the purpose of this post, that I rely so heavily on narratives as sense-making making devices, as new ways of understanding not only my subject position but also those of others. That I am interested in the semiotics involved in manipulating the cognitive processes that transpire in the space between eye and text object, whether they pertain to our methods of reading and looking or our understandings of visual-verbal combinations: what W. J. T. Mitchell called”image-text” relations–that is, relations between the image and the word: namely, the “imagetext,” or syntheses of visual and verbal elements that accord and/or amplify meaning; the “image/text,” in which the synthesis is dissonant and visual and verbal meanings undermine, contradict, or elide each other (p. 89). This was, after all, my method of analysis in my paper on the simulation of PTSD in the visual-verbal juxtapositions in Gurren Lagann, which in retrospect might have made for a more controlled case study. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My oral defense is on Monday, and because I’m terrified of revisiting my comps answers, I’m (productively?) doing nothing and letting my thoughts about each question settle. I’ve got a few irrelevant problems overwhelming my brain, and I thought I could clear my head by thinking through them here, which will hopefully enable me to face my own writing. First, my theoretical positioning; second, the body as a technical assemblage; third, what the hell am I doing with my life.
Last year, a 20-year-old man named Michael Israel committed suicide after battling addiction to painkillers. His father, Senator Tim Kennedy, and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman blamed the system, ultimately proposing a legislative package to “Save the Michaels of the world.” Thus, in an effort to crack down on prescription drug abuse, namely over-prescribing on the part of physicians, New York State enacted the I-STOP (Internet System to Track Over-Prescribing) Act one year ago. It takes effect on August 27th, along with its Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP), which apparently insecurely records, tracks, and transmits patients’ medication histories, dates of attempted and dispensed refills, and so on.
Somehow I missed this memo until yesterday, when I was confronted with the ugly reality that, thanks to I-STOP, I can’t get a refill prescription until after the new system takes effect.
In its overzealous quest to save the Michaels of the world, the State has blatantly chosen to ignore the undue burdens placed on those who medicate responsibly, and with all the hardships it already places on patients and providers, why am I surprised?
In my life as it was prior to my diagnosis, in the course of my usual exploration of the Internet, I came across the Schmidt Sting Pain Index. It is an imprecise but admirable attempt to catalogue and describe the pain caused by Hymenopteran stings. I possess an amateur fascination with entomology and herpetology and with Schmidt’s original paper, which assigned a perhaps inexact number to each sting but accompanied each with a refreshingly creative description of the pain. An entomologist, Jason O. Schmidt was inadvertently stung by several members of Hymenoptera in the course of his research and realized the the potential uses of quantifying pain. Though it wasn’t his primary research, he didn’t waste the data; instead, he created a five-point scale from 0-4 to classify the kinds of pain one receives from being stung (The Straight Dope). Archetypal representatives are listed below:
0: Imperceptible. The stinger doesn’t penetrate the skin.
1-range: Sweat bees (light, ephemeral, almost fruity); fire ants (sharp, sudden, mildly alarming); or the bullhorn acacia ant (someone has fired a staple into your cheek).
2-range: The bald-faced hornet (mashing your hand in a revolving door); or the yellow-jacket (hot and smoky, like W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue).
3-range: The red harvester ant (bold and unrelenting, like someone is drilling your ingrown toenail); or the paper wasp (caustic and burning, with a distinctly bitter aftertaste: like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a papercut).
4-range and higher: The tarantula hawk (blinding, fierce, shockingly electric, like a running hair dryer dropped in your bubble bath); or the bullet ant (pure, intense, brilliant pain, like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail grinding in your heel).
In my life post-diagnosis, this scale has taken on new meaning.
Fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS), a chronic systemic pain condition that is especially heightened by pressure, can range from a 1 to a 4+ on Schmidt’s scale but rarely, if ever, is it a 0. The symptoms are unique to each sufferer, but in my experience the pain has ranged from acute and persistent, like clasping a lit electric bulb between your bare hands, like blades sunk deep in a flexing muscle, like pricking, itching needles, noisy on the skin, like a sweaty fist working your heart, like vivisection, no sleep agent, no anesthesia.
This piece is for those medical professionals who wrote me off as healthy because I was professionally dressed, “I looked too good to be unwell,” or who asked me, point-blank, “And you’re sure it’s not all in your head?” It is for the people who tell me, with a tired, tolerant patience they don’t deserve to have, that “pain is largely psychosomatic, you know? Just stop thinking about it and it’ll go away.” It is for the countless, awkward Schmidt 4.0+ days I’ve had to dodge a well-meant hug, or flinched at a touch I couldn’t avoid. It is for Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, which has conferred upon itself the godlike ability to decide whose pain is deserving of extended outpatient treatment. (Hint: mine no longer is.) It is for the people who sympathize but do not or cannot understand because I appear more or less functional. It is for the Schmidt 1.0 days, when I lull you into thinking I’m “better,” or the predominant and tolerable 2.0-3.0 days, when controlling my outward response can be performed through sheer will.
Mostly, though, it is for all the times you have not seen me break down and cry, on the subway, in line for a bus, on the NJ Transit stairs, on the walk from the train station to campus or from one classroom to another or in the bathroom during class breaks. It is for all the times I couldn’t take it, and you never knew.
This was my overarching impression of my first year as a Ph.D. student: too much reading, too much coursework, too much busy work, for any real reflection outside of class sessions. Forget integration with preexisting or current research, or time spent with the subject of research. There was too much insistence on fast turnaround and constant production, the same old reliance on the inescapable “publish-or-perish” adage, with the added pressure to present at conferences, seek out internships and future funding opportunities, collaborate, research, endure.
This is what I found so startling, this emphasis on endurance over enjoyment, on gritting your teeth through coursework to reach the relief of quals and the dissertation process, what should ostensibly be the most depressing, isolating portion of the Ph.D. experience. But the most repeated (and dare I say soundest) piece of advice I received all semester was the vague encouragement that “it does get better.” I’m still not convinced.