“Learn Something”: Reflections of a Chronically Ill Graduate Student

Kaitlin Pontzer // When I was I child, I watched movies with my dad.  He has always been a lifelong student of films, and he shared these precious experiences with his kids.  We sailed with Captain Bligh, sleuthed with Sam Spade, fought the bandit Calavera, searched for gold in the Sierra Madre, and even reached the edges of the universe with Carl Sagan.  But the scene that he quoted often to me, one that comes back to me over and over lately, is a simple one from a musical called Camelot. In it, King Arthur describes being lost and hopeless and receiving this almost comically unsophisticated advice from Merlin:

“The best thing for being sad is to learn something… You may grow old and trembling in your arteries.  You may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins… There’s only one thing for all of it.  Learn.”

The words are buried deep in my motivations, largely responsible for my academic pursuits. Curiosity and the desire to know things, to soften the edge of fear, pain or loss with the awe that comes from unveiling some mystery endlessly bigger than myself, was a current flowing beneath my desire to read, to hide away in libraries, and to bury myself in the archived stories of others. 

But, like Arthur lost in the woods, I lost this motivation for some time, and for two nearly insurmountable reasons.  The first reason was illness, and the second was graduate school. 

I have been ill for about a decade.  I have a chronic pleural effusion in my right lung cavity, and no one seems to know why.  I have unexplainable recurrent abdominal abscesses and accompanying elevated inflammatory markers.  I have lost track of the thoracenteses, the trips to the hospital, and the procedures to remove liters of fluid from my stomach.   I am, in the words of numerous highly educated medical professionals, “a mystery.” And with this mystery, this undiagnosed disease, comes the ongoing attempt to work through sickness, the need to pretend to be well, and the unrelenting pain that mocks all ambitions and pursuits.   

The second reason for losing the thread of my motivation, the self-forgetful love of learning, is perhaps more commonly understood: the academic lifestyle.  All of us have heard from the moment we step into graduate school about the bleak job market.  It seeps into our studies and makes us think more about our image than our ideas.  It makes our work a thing that can rat us out, exposing our inadequacies, rather than a thing in which we can lose ourselves.  Most of us have stood in conference conversations, fellow students looking over our shoulders because someone more important might come into the room, someone with a job on a string.  Competition and pressures are well poised to kill the curiosity that is at the heart of scholarship, and of the humanities in particular.

Consider the relationship between these two things, chronic illness and academic pressures.  Consider how the pressures of scholarly pursuit can mirror, perpetuate and exacerbate physical suffering, fear and uncertainty.  Graduate students working for minimal pay, many with the weight of school debt, all wondering whether a job will come; junior faculty keeping up in a publish or perish culture; professors maintaining the uneasy balance between research and instruction: academics are perhaps beautifully posed to appreciate the weight of chronic illness, and yet, at the same time, ill able to alleviate it.  The pressures of academic life are precisely those that make contemplative scholarship hard to come by.  And yet, it is precisely this contemplative scholarship that is so useful and at home with the experience of chronic illness.  An ill person can be an excellent scholar, but can they be a competitive academic?

After over a decade of chronic pain and flare ups of an undiagnosed illness, I have begun to remember that initial message that my dad gave me.  Now I can offer to others who may be suffering the meager help of remembering why we came: call it scholarship theory.  Like music therapy or meditation therapy, contemplative scholarship can retrain our mind to think differently about our own suffering.  Yogis speak of pranayama, of “dropping in the middle of a difficult moment and bringing your attention to your breathe” (Gates, 305).  Meditators recommend mindfulness: “immediate awareness of physical sensations, perceptions, affective states and processes” (Grossman et al., 36).  Psychologists talk about breaking the cycle of pain, a process whereby cognitive reactions to physiological sensations perpetuate a cycle of stress and pain.  Similarly, if we look at our own work as a chance to lose ourselves in something bigger, new, or simply other, we find exactly that sort of relief that can break the cycle of pain whereby symptoms, stress, inflammation and anxiety feed and perpetuate one another.  Studying, rather than merely being a preparation for an uncertain and competitive career (an attitude that the chronically ill will agree is fatally counterproductive), can be an opportunity to change our relationship with our pain, suffering and fear. 

I cannot offer insight that will alleviate the uncertainty of a job-market-driven graduate student experience, nor can I resolve the illness that weighs me down.  But these twin uncertainties do not have to feed off of each other.  I can remind myself, and perhaps help one or two other people who might be similarly heavy-laden, that there is a reason for being here. 

If, like me, you learn because it is a chance to look at a world bigger than yourself, to lose your own worries, terrors, grief, shames or suffering in stories, galaxies or past worlds that dwarf your own small concerns, to turn personal worry into humble wonderment, and perhaps even to be a better person for the perspective, this is something that uncertainty and pain cannot take from you.  It is something that can make you not only a fine scholar but a devoted teacher, communicating this self-releasing wonder to students who are more than essays to be graded, but rather humans with their own need for such wonder.  In short, what chronic illness has done is to bring me full circle, in spite of the pressures of academia, to the reason for being here in the first place.  Because pain, loss, fear and death are with us always, and there is only one thing for it: learn something. 

Works Cited:

Camelot. Dir. Joshua Logan. Perf. Richard Harris, Venessa Redgrave, Franco Nero. Warner Brothers- Seven Arts, 1967.

Rolf Gates, Mediations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga, 305.

Paul Grossman, Ludger Niemann, Stefan Schmidt, Harald Walach, “Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction and Health Benefits A Meta-Analysis, Journal of Psychosomatic Research 57 (2004), 35-43.

Barbara Bruce discusses a cycle of pain, in which pain, inactivity, isolation and stress perpetuate one another. Barbara K. Bruce, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Pain Relief, The Great Courses, Season 1, Ep. 1.

On the production of cortisol as a response to stress that can trigger and perpetuate a pain cycle, see Rob Boddice, “Chapter: Chronic Pain,” in Pain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press),102-104.

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