I was chatting with a friend the other day about her PhD, remembering a stage in my own where I felt I had the whole thing held in my mind for a short time. It was only there for long enough to get the conclusion and the introduction written, and then it was gone. But for that short time I had a magical sense of understanding, a sense of “it” that I had not had before and never had again.
The last week in Project Recovery has been in many ways wonderful. The worst of the relapse, or rather relapses, is over and I feel really confident that I am entering remission. I am beginning to look ahead with anticipation more than fear (though there is some of that too), I don’t panic when the spasms that seize my throat, whoosh away my breath and make me feel like I will choke get hold of me. My energy levels are returning and though my walking is taking some getting used too I am past the stage of longing for the abilities of before to return. My dreams have become less disturbing, and though I do feel an ever-present sense of fear of it happening again, the fear feels familiar now. I can see in my mind’s eye the errant signals, the broken synapses, the mis-firing muscles. It feels unwelcome but understandable and therefore less frightening. I have even begun to rationalise my fears as “my body’s way of encouraging me not to let myself do anything to bring on another relapse like that again”.
I feel a million times more emotionally settled than at the peak of all this – a.k.a. “The Day I Nearly Shaved My Hair Off”. During the worst of it all I had to do, all I could do, was bear it. Now though I am required to do something rather more active – to resume ‘normal’ life. (I hesitate to write that as the last time I did I promptly had another relapse!) I’m no longer a passenger on this train, I’m the driver. The problem of course is that unlike a PhD this project has no end, or rather no clear, visible, end. There will be no moment of clarity and understanding. We live our lives with next to no idea of what is around the corner, or when the tracks will run out and the journey end. Sometimes we are fairly oblivious to the idea of the end, and other times we repress the idea of it in order to make the pact with the system we must in order to survive within it. Nevertheless we do somewhere inside ourselves know it must end, but we don’t know how. More particularly, as these last few weeks have hammered home to me, we have no idea how that last stage will play out. Will it be sudden or protracted, gentle or violent? Will we be at ease or racked with pain? Will we be calm or distressed? I do feel a little comfort from the knowledge that when things were at their worst I “bore it” pretty well. I retreated into myself and held on as tight as I could. I also feel a sense of relief that I did not fall apart, at least not publicly or for any length of time. I slipped pretty far down the hill and though I was often terrified, I managed to hold on (the Long Night of the Mercifully Missing Hair Clippers excepting).
I learnt so much in these last few weeks about what is important to me. I felt regret in spades – despite what Piaf said I can’t imagine many have gone to their deaths truly regretting nothing. I also learnt I think for this first time (ever the late developer) the importance of seeking help. The stoic in me runs deep but at times like these it is not helpful to dwell too deeply on the more conservative interpretations of Stoicism my protestant ancestors gifted me. Sharing and seeking help have aided me through this time more than anything else.
Whilst the medical part of the recovery seems well underway, and psychologically I am less ill prepared for something like that happening again, the future beyond ‘medical’ recovery is going to be a big challenge. I feel unsettled by MS’s irritating habit of, when asked “So what happens next?”, shrugging its shoulders and looking off mysteriously stage left. Life is changing but the parameters are still very vague. However I do feel reassured by one thing. Whilst we may not have the luxury of an equivalent to the “final submission date” of a PhD we do in life share one very important commonality with PhD students. A PhD is a community effort – family, friends, advisers, fellow students, other academics and your academic community more generally all are vital in producing that thesis. A PhD is a lesson in the necessity and rewards of asking for help.
So today I am thinking about my friends and family, near and far (thank you social media and Skype!) who quite literally carried me through these last weeks. I am thinking of my wonderful MS nurse who knew me well enough to instantly put a stop to the neurologist’s suggestion that I be hospitalised and managed to get me the help I needed at home. I am thinking of my beautiful boys who put up with their summer holidays being plunged into turmoil. The help of all of those people, their thoughts and kindnesses, made a difficult time also a beautiful time for me. We will never have that wonderful moment in life that PhD students get – never see “it” suddenly all there, and making sense. But we have the reassurance that help can be asked for, and the knowledge that help will be given. Thank you.