I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you. It is what everyone says it is. If you want to know how to maintain a work-life balance, I have to tell you, it’s impossible.
What I would say is you should probably dial back – you may just be doing too much too early.
Over the last couple of weeks, my pain has been steadily increasing. From what I and my physical therapist can tell, inflammation at the newly adjusted border of my scapula is the culprit, likely due to the increase in strength and range of motion exercises over the same period. However, rest, ice, and increases in pain medications have had no effect.
Well, that’s not exactly true. An increase in pain medication last weekend messed me up mentally, such that I am now, officially, done with tramadol for the foreseeable future. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because while the tramadol did slightly dull the pain, as soon as I tapered back down, the pain came back.
So after a week and a half of that, I emailed my doctor with an explicit description of the situation Monday morning.
Also this week, I’m back in the lab on campus, where my post-grad work is scheduled to begin this summer. I’m still not able to do experiments, but I’m shadowing different researchers as they go along, learning what I can. Monday afternoon, I actually managed to get one of the post-docs out of the lab for a walk outside, which is the only way to have a private conversation (the whole building has ears). I explained that I was feeling a lot of pressure, and that I was concerned both with the pace of my recovery and not knowing if I’d be up to the long hours come Fall. I asked if it were possible to perform at the expected level and still maintain some sort of work-life balance. Her response was the first paragraph of this post.
It was a hard thing to hear, but by Wednesday, I had decided to forge ahead anyway, do whatever I could possibly manage, and just see how it went. Then I got an e-mail back from my doctor, the second paragraph of the post, and was reminded of a period early on in my physical therapy, when my pain had started worsening in the days following sessions. Upon discovering this, my therapist explained that some people take more time than others. That my muscles were sensitive. That I needed to go slow.
These two pieces of information have taken the path that had seemed so clear to me just a couple of months ago and enshrouded it in uncertainty. I don’t know what the right thing to do is. I could bury my head in the sand and pretend my physical limitations won’t be a problem, but that’s what I’ve always done and it’s always ended badly. Always.
Clearly, my physical abilities and my chosen career path are incompatible. Is that always going to be the case? I don’t know. But will that be the case come September? Almost definitely. And now that I have run up against that realization, I have been swinging back and forth between heartrending despondence and paralyzing numbness. I don’t know what to do. More than anything, I want to not to have to do anything. I want to just plug my ears and keep on this path and have everything turn out ok.
I can’t face quitting now. Not after all I’ve been through. I’ve worked so damned hard for this. To get this close and then not be able to go through with it… I don’t think I can handle that right now. I don’t know when I’ll be able to handle it. Because I don’t want to have to handle it. I don’t understand why things like this keep happening to me. I thought I was doing the right thing. After all, I was just doing what was in front of me. No pushing, no manipulating, no pretending I could or couldn’t do this or that. Just taking what was presented to me. No more, no less.
Is it possible to do everything right and still have everything go wrong? It would seem so. It seems, to me, that my life will continue to feature me on the losing end of a struggle between what I need to do and what I can do. But what else can I do? What am I supposed to be doing? I don’t know. I want answers and there just aren’t any.
And there’s a little voice in my head that keeps saying What kind of life do you really want to have? And I do know the answer to that question, and I do know that spending every waking moment in a lab isn’t it. But even if it was, I don’t have a choice. If I were a healthy person, I could decide that that was a sacrifice I’d be willing to make for 5 or 6 years in order to have the career I wanted. But all the willingness in the world won’t change the fact that I am not physically healthy, that my body, this fragile, easily bruised, easily spent structure that has been abusing my soul for over a year and a half, will not permit me to follow through with that course of action.
It doesn’t help that there’s pain again. Last night, both of my shoulders hurt awfully; the bad one because that’s what it’s been doing lately, and the good one because it’s so overworked because I can’t do anything with the bad one. Coupled with a mind jammed in fifth gear, I laid awake for over an hour before getting up to take a supplemental muscle relaxant, followed by another half hour of waiting and trying to distract myself until the pain in my shoulders and spine settled to the point where I could find a comfortable sleeping position.
As I laid there, I couldn’t keep from wondering if this was how the rest of my life was going to go, if my body never would settle back down into some sort of relatively pain-free, steady state. Those couple of weeks after surgery, when I was relatively pain-free, now seem more than ever like an aberration, and I struggle to even recall what it felt like. It was utterly foreign to me. This, this working around constant pain to do what little I can, this is where I live. And now, I’m reminded that pain that persists for hours and days, even the mid-level pain that I have now, is not something one can just tolerate while continuing to function normally. It’s messing with my body and it’s messing with my mind and I just wish, more than anything, that it would let me go, would let me be, would let me finally finish a race that I start instead of forcing me off the track before I’m halfway through.
It’s hard not to see that pattern reaffirmed in this. Too many prizes have been dangled in my face and then snatched away. It is easy to understand why ancient societies believed in cruel, mischievous gods. These tantalizing glimpses of what I could have, what my life could be like, hanging around just long enough for me to reach for them before they vanish like mirages, are worse than no opportunities at all.
I know that “why?” is the wrong question. I know there is no larger explanation for why things happen the way they do. But it’s hard not to feel as though I’m missing some important message, and that as long as I keep missing it, bricks will keep getting thrown my way. It’s hard not to sift back through everything that has happened over the last several months, and every choice I made, and wonder if I’m not still doing something wrong.
My brain is still frantically, futilely searching for a way through, a way to have the body I have and the career I want at the same time. But my heart knows better. It watches my mind spinning its wheels in the mud and knows I’m not going to get anywhere, but lets me go ahead and churn because at least it’s keeping me busy. At some point, my suspicions of the ugly reality this week has revealed will be confirmed, and then I will have to go up to the car and pull the keys from the ignition.
But not yet. I have a plan. And that plan is to do absolutely nothing at all, until I absolutely have to. It may not be the greatest plan, but I just don’t have the mental energy for anything else. And maybe that isn’t such a bad thing.