Part-time PhD in a pandemic

It’s been a little over a year now since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and we switched to remote work, school, and ways of life.

My PhD experience hasn’t been all that typical. I’ve been working full-time and doing my studies part-time, commuting to campus one day a week to work and do school work in the lab. I don’t TA (except for that one semester–and that was a time) and I typically take one course at a time. Transitioning to remote work and school didn’t seem to change too much of my day-to-day, except, of course, that I was doing it all from home.

One of the biggest challenges I faced during this time was getting access to library books as a commuter student who lived in another city. Specifically, a city that was in a red zone (or a level 3, or whatever the early classifications were) while Guelph was in a yellow or orange zone meant that I couldn’t come to campus and pick up books. So, I had to postpone my summer directed reading course until the library was able to make accommodations and start a home delivery program for commuter students.

Once the program was in place and I was able to order library books to be mailed to me at home, I decided to start my directed reading course mid-way through the summer term. I knew this would mean finishing up the course while I was starting my final course this fall, but I figured it would be no big deal. I’ve always managed above-average workloads and stress levels and hadn’t really felt the effects of social isolation. I generally prefer being alone and enjoyed having a slower social schedule in the summer months. But what I didn’t know is what the fall had in store for me.

Stressing out…and finally being diagnosed

Sometime in October, after pushing myself to my breaking point trying to juggle a SSHRC application, two courses, my RA position and my full-time job, I booked a doctor’s appointment. I was beyond stressed out. I had developed this intense tension in my left neck and jaw, was staying awake at night obsessing about every bad thing that had ever happened in my life, and felt like I was barely hanging on. I needed some relief.

I’ve had headaches for as long as I can remember. I’ve been told my problems are from migraines, from being dehydrated, from my cycle. I’ve been told to take painkillers, drink more water, and try ice packs on the back of my neck. Nothing worked.

After speaking with my doctor in October, he suggested that I try massage therapy. He told me that my symptoms sounded more like a referred pain condition instead of traditional headaches. He wrote me a doctor’s note and diagnosed me with cervicogenic headaches.

Cervicogenic headaches are basically caused by referred pain from elsewhere in your neck, shoulders, or upper back. It usually presents on one side (for me, the left) and can be exacerbated by stress and activities like hunching over a keyboard day after day. It’s a chronic condition and means that I experience some degree of pain almost every day.

After years of struggling to manage the pain, I felt a huge wave of relief at finally having a diagnosis and a potential treatment plan. But something else my doctor said really pushed me off the edge: that if I wasn’t able to reduce the stress in my life, I was likely never going to have full relief from the pain.

Every day after work in November, I lay on the couch and cried until I went to sleep. But even during this difficult period, I still found joy (although it was significantly diminished) in my individual research and was able to finish my two courses. I took several weeks off in December and spent the time relaxing, reading, playing Animal Crossing New Horizons, and watching Christmas movies.

Grief

I don’t want to share too much about this yet, but in late December and early January, we realized that our sweet boy wasn’t acting like himself. We took him to the vet and after several weeks of tests, a couple of procedures, and many sleepless nights where we checked on his breathing every couple of hours, we made the difficult decision to put him down.

We plunged into a deep mourning period and we’ll probably continue to grieve the loss of our Prince for a really long time. As of writing this, no more than a couple of days have gone by at a time without me crying over how much I miss him.

Looking ahead to the rest of 2021

Since my diagnosis, and especially since the loss of our floof, I’ve tried to work on prioritizing myself and only doing the things that are actually bringing me joy. I’ve said no to things and let myself let things slip when they need to. I’ve started the long process of re-evaluating what’s important in my life and what’s truly going to bring me happiness.

I’ve also been having massages every 3-4 weeks to manage my chronic pain. I use a heat pad on my back and neck most nights. I bought massage balls to use at home. And sometimes, when it’s really bad, I adopt what a friend has termed the “soft office” and work from the couch, the bed (which my partner calls my softest office)…anywhere that makes it more manageable. This is where you’ll likely find me as I begin reading for my comprehensive exams this semester…and maybe a hammock or a dock or two once the summer hits. But wherever I end up reading, I plan to take it slow, remember not to hunch myself over, and try to enjoy it.

It has been an incredibly difficult year for us and for so many people in the world. Looking ahead to the rest of 2021, I hope to continue to work on accepting myself as I am, prioritize my physical and mental health, and dwell in the deeper and darker emotions in life when they arise.

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