Getting off the banks

For years now, I have been (on and off) on the bank, resting among the soft moss and watching the river go by. I stepped to the side for a few months when each child was born, and again for longer as my illness progressed. I’m not sure just when it happened, but I no longer know the literature in my field inside out, I don’t know the people by sight and some not even by name, people I do know have have moved. The river is moving onward and I’m left behind.

I attended a meeting over the weekend where these issues became very obvious. I had (to stretch a metaphor) jumped back into the river a few months into my remission, thinking that I was well enough to be fully engaged again. That was great, until the relapse, and now I am in the awkward position of re-engaging while simultaneously managing my illness/disability. Although I will argue, in the end, that this is a necessary transition for me (if I wish to remain who I am/do what I do), it did not go all that well this first time out.

Travel of course exacerbates things. And the type of meeting I was attending was a working meeting where it’s important to be with it and engaged. Thirty to forty people working hard toward a common goal. I was well prepared, a much easier task than being well on the spot in a two day meeting. I worked extra hard to come prepared in case I had cognitive blips, and brought highlighted printouts of almost everything I needed (printout errors meant a few key things were missing). It was not enough. I made errors in categorizing numbers (is 3.2 greater than or less than 2.83? or did I just confuse 2.83 and 3.83? in any case I raised several issues because of this error that were irrelevant). I was jointly in charge of each issue on my plate at the meeting, and while I carefully prepared the issues I forgot to write down who else was leading them, leading to a very public error in attribution. I stumbled a bit when I couldn’t find the right printout. There were physical issues as well (some dizziness, a necessary nap, and so on), but the cognitive ones bothered me far more.

In reflecting back on the weekend, two things stand out to me. First is the realization that (at least in my mind) cognitive difficulties are perhaps the least acceptable to acknowledge and the most likely to lead to negative consequences. I may be overly sensitive here, but my sensitivity is based in part on history. I disclosed my difficulties to a faculty member at my university who had invited me to collaborate on a grant (and at that time also insisted on a limited commitment to the grant, a necessity at the time). They have not invited me to collaborate since. I do not know how obvious my difficulties were at this meeting to the crowd at large, but I cannot help but worry that they may affect the likelihood that future opportunities come my way. In some ways, this is a reflection of how I view myself, sick: not quite whole, not what I or the world bargained for. I’ve overcome many of my insecurities about this at home and even at work, but I see now that I have to do that all over again within my broader community to move forward successfully.

Second, I suddenly understand the appeal of staying on the bank. Why do we have such attrition among those who take a more winding path through life? Perhaps precisely because it is so hard to get back into the flow of things. I know this is no great new insight, others have said it before. But instead of knowing it, I am feeling it now. Anyone who steps out of the rushing waters for a while will face the need to catch up. I do not know about other types of work, but certainly this is true within academia. Almost by definition, if they chose to step aside, they are unlikely to have the excess time when they come back to both immerse themselves in the current, and rediscover what they missed. As a graduate student, this was a major focus of my efforts, not something I can afford now. If new mothers, people who have to pause and care for a parent, women who are working part time, and others who pause and then return are to be supported, perhaps we need to acknowledge (and help with) the recreation of ties and knowledge that is missing .

Instead of knowing it, I am feeling it, and the appeal of not tackling this (new) great challenge on top of all of the rest I face is undeniable.

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