“Bachelor of Arts or Sciences?”
“How tall are you?”
The man frowned at me. “You look taller than that.”
“Really?” My posture has improved, but it seems unlikely I’ve gotten a whole inch out of it. (Or do college women usually lie about their height?) I glanced down at my shoes; combat-type boots with a thick, inch-and-a-quarter heel. “Well, 5’4” today,” I amended, nodding to my feet.
He didn’t seem convinced, but handed me a plastic bag with graduation regalia from the 5’3” – 5’5” Sciences box anyway. “Congratulations,” he said. “Be sure to check out our announcements and rings at the next table.” He shifted his gaze behind me. “Who’s next?”
As I took the package to the register, I was surprised to find a lump in my throat; I didn’t expect to feel so emotional about picking up what amounted to a cheaply made Harry Potter costume. I’d been a little miffed on my way to the campus bookstore, actually, because the only time I could come by was an afternoon after class, and I was already exhausted and the queue was a mile long. The line moved pretty well, though, and before I knew it, I was holding a cap and gown made from recycled plastic bottles (as I’d heard earnestly explained – twice – by the girl sitting at the attendant display) along with tassel, hood, and university insignia in black, gold, and red, respectively.
It wasn’t until I thought back to how I felt this time last year that I recognized the still-tender scar the physical representation of my accomplishment had touched. Last March, it wasn’t clear if it was a good idea to even still be in school, never mind try to complete my degree. I had only a handful of courses remaining, but two of them entailed three-hour weekly lab sessions, and I was barely able to get through the couple of much shorter lecture classes I was still able to take.
Moreover, my chosen career path at the time, which was teaching science to adolescents, was proving to be too physically demanding for me in the state I was in; I could hardly manage a couple of weekly half-days of student teaching (co-teaching, my mentor teacher liked to call it; we tag-teamed her six rowdy cohorts of eighth graders) before pain and exhaustion pushed me out of the classroom. The two days I’d taught the full day by myself (as required by the program) had been orchestrated to land on Fridays so I could have the weekend to recover, and this had proven to be deal-breaker-necessary.
I remember wondering more than once if there was any point in continuing my education at all. Even if I were able to manage the labs, why put myself through them if I couldn’t pursue the career path that was supposed to follow? And now, in what still feels like a sudden about-face though the surgery was two months ago, I’m about to graduate. I’m going to put on a polyester cape and cardboard hat and walk up to the dean of my college and get a handshake and a rolled-up piece of blank paper, and this silly pantomime will mean I have completed a bachelor of sciences; with honors, no less. And I am relieved, and grateful, and even a little proud of myself.
And scared. The principal investigator of my lab, who had so heavily recruited me despite my physical limitations, stopped me on the stairs after the lab meeting this week to ask if I’d been emailed by the graduate department about my acceptance to the program.
“What? I haven’t even been interviewed yet…”
“Oh, they don’t need to interview you,” he was grinning; clearly, he was delighted to be able to break the news to me himself. (And here I’d been stressing about an interview that wasn’t even going to happen; I really have to start getting better about wasting energy on such things.)
“Oh my god.” I got in. This is really going to happen. It’s not yet official, but it’s real. Starting this Fall, I will be embarking on a Ph.D.
Which means “producing,” the lead researcher’s euphemism for churning out experimental data on a weekly basis, as well as taking two or three graduate level classes and teaching an undergraduate course – with lab – in anatomy. Good graduate teachers are in hard to come by; my teaching experience puts me on a very short list. I’d already been franchise-tagged by the anatomy professor, a stalwart mentor of mine. It was a prime appointment, but also one of the most labor-intensive.
And I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle all of that, physically or emotionally. Not that it will be difficult in the academic sense; even now, I can already tell that I’m in the right place as far as that goes, thank goodness. But my ignominious resume of running myself into the ground drags at my neck like an albatross, reminding me that I am not like other apes, that I can’t just go taking off and doing whatever I want.
should probably need to push the anatomy commitment off by a year; explain to my mentor that I won’t be fully recovered by the Fall and must manage my obligations accordingly. Which has the advantage of being true, but I’m hung up on the feeling that I will be letting her down, yet another vestigial artifact I should probably find a way to resect from my personality like the chunk of shoulder blade from which I was divested nine weeks ago. Fortunately, the official acceptance notices haven’t gone out yet so I can leave that hurdle for another week or two; perhaps by then I will have a better acceptance of the extreme length and slow pace of my recovery.
Even with an easier TA assignment, though, I am terrified that I will founder under the grueling hours inherent in graduate-level work. This past week, pain at the surgery site ticked upward sharply enough to pull the muscles back into guarding mode, limiting my range of motion at physical therapy and forcing me to start taking pain medication during the day again. In searching for a cause, I recall that I did a bit of housework last weekend (laboring under the delusion that I could finally start doing such things for myself again) and allowed the PT intern to push me too far in last week’s sessions.
Still too much, still too soon, same old song, as always, and I’m tired of it, but at least I now know what the right response is. I refilled my prescription for tramadol, set myself back on the minimum dose (which isn’t enough, but it’s bearable and highly preferable to an increase in side effects), canceled yesterday’s PT and started using the sling again. Wait, TGA, did you stop using the sling? Why was that, exactly? Yeah, yeah, I know, save it.
It’s not that I don’t know what my limits are. I just can’t accept them. And because most of the things I do (barring something patently stupid like accidentally using my right arm to reach for the three-gallon jug in my fridge) don’t increase my pain, it is difficult to know if I’ve crossed the line until it’s too late. Whenever I feel like I’m right up against it, I have to decide whether to keep going or not. If I do keep going, I usually – but not always – go too far. But if I don’t, I wonder if I didn’t go far enough, because, of course, nothing happens.
It’s not that I’m not able to key in more closely to non-pain-related signals, like muscle weakness and fatigue. What I don’t know is why I simply refuse to do it, why after I’ve blown past that boundary and my muscles start to shake and fail, I just keep going because oh well, too late now, anyway. And then I berate myself for allowing my pride/ego/imagination to do my thinking for me. The pattern repeats itself with disturbing regularity. I keep making this same stupid mistake followed by my hating myself for it, time after time. I’m still too attached to the person I wish I was and the state I wish I was in.
I may not be emotionally connected to my physical body, but I have a deep, and fraught, emotional connection to its recovery, such that things like looking at my cap and gown on a hanger (I couldn’t bring myself to actually try them on; I didn’t want to jinx it) nearly bring me to tears, and things like the annoying refusal of my recent uptick in pain to settle back down make me want to do something cacophonically destructive, like throwing a chair out my fourteenth story window.
And right now, that emotional connection is endangering not just my recovery, but paradoxically, the very life that hinges upon it, the life over which I’m pushing myself too far for fear of losing. I am so afraid that I won’t get well fast enough – or, the deeper, darker dread that I won’t get well enough – to take this amazing opportunity that’s been presented to me, to fulfill the expectations that [I imagine] are being laid out along my path like streetlights that will burn out if I don’t get to them in time. The fear looms so large that I can’t keep myself from acting to fight it, push it back with exercise I have no business doing or physical tasks I have no business undertaking, just to be doing something, anything, to try to cope with it, to try to keep it from overtaking me.
I suppose I should just let it come. Emotions are not permanent states of being; they blow in and out all of themselves, even at the too-infrequent times when I can keep from acting on them. I should let it sit here until it decides to leave, because I do not know what will happen come September, and everything I do to try to force what I want to happen into being is only making it less likely that it will come to pass, not more so.
Because sometimes the right thing to do is nothing at all. And I hate it, and it feels like exactly the wrong thing. But I have to learn it. I’ve come too far and I’ve been through too much not to.