Reimagining your Professional Identity as a Scientist with Chronic Illness – Part III

First, let me start by apologizing for dropping the ball on Part III of this series. I haven’t been doing very well this last month amid high levels of exertion and stress, which inevitably led to higher levels of pain, fatigue, brain fog and malaise. None of that was conducive to sensible writing, so I decided to try and wait it out. Irony of ironies, I finally write the final segment today, when I feel largely bed-bound from a crash! Such is life I suppose.

To recap just a bit (since it’s been a while), this series has been about sharing a roadmap that helped me reimagine where I can take my career after I realized academia might not work out for me. It led me to do some serious introspection about why I loved doing what I did, and how I could continue, albeit in a different fashion, so I can have the same job satisfaction while doing something different.

In Part I, I shared my story of how I had to first get over the guilt of letting so many people down (including myself in some ways), and leaving so many unfulfilled expectations in my wake (including my own). This process made me realize that before you can dream of something different, you have to first allow yourself to dream that dream, and be OK with all the uncertainties that come with major change. That was Step #1.

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Allow yourself to fly free

Once I was OK within myself with making a major career change, I had to somehow figure out where to go with that. Which direction should I go in if I walk away from the ivory tower?

In Part II, I discussed the 3 core steps (Steps #2-4) designed to help me figure out:

  1. What is it exactly about my current job that I love doing?
  2. What are the skills from my current job that I can apply elsewhere?
  3. What do my interests (#1) and choice of skills I chose to master (#2) tell me about my personality?

From here on, then, it was about figuring out the directions I could take my skills in, based on my interests and general personality traits, so I can continue to feel the same core enjoyment in my work.

Step 5. Choosing potential career paths

I would recommend thinking as wildly and broadly as possible at first. Think of every potentially related field that strikes your fancy, and where you think you can use at least some of your skills (even if the job requires other skills you don’t have yet). And then limit those options later if they fail the “reality check” (Step #6).

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Let the sky be your limit

Being one who loves the intellectual, human and communication aspects of science, as well as playing with cool science equipment (“bench work”), my list looked something like this:

  • science writing & communication — I always enjoyed giving science talks and am pretty good with presentations, and enjoy the challenge of simplifying complex materials for easy understanding.
  • science publishing — Slightly different from science writing, in that I was aiming for more assistant-editor or editorial internship type of positions.
  • genetic counseling — I certainly know enough genetics and liked the other idea of working with people to help them. The largely autonomous nature of the position also appealed to me.
  • genetic testing (clinical laboratories) — I could do all kinds of fun “bench work” as a lab personnel, and could eventually work my way up to having my own lab.
  • teaching — I love working with students, and thinking of new ideas on how to teach better.
  • working in pharmaceuticals or biotech firms The idea of doing biomedical research but on a shorter schedule was the main appeal here.
  • crime lab — Another clinical laboratory job, like genetic testing. Fun fact: it was my interest in forensic science that first drove me towards a college degree in Biology!
  • other health-related professions — This is where I was toying with, oh you know, environmental health, where I could use some of skills and interests to directly impact peoples’ lives.

Funny thing, the environmental health/epidemiology job that was my wildest shot is the job I am currently in now (and loving it too)!

So don’t be afraid to think wild and different. But also, notice how everything I wrote above are what attracted me to those career paths. Recognize that reality may be very different!

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Be aware of the shadows in the path you choose

Step 6. Doing a reality check

There are three levels to this reality check:

Reality Check-Level 1. Is the job a practical possibility?

I might love science communication, but if I haven’t already created a portfolio that proves I am good at it, no hiring committee will take my word for it! It takes a license to be able to work in a clinical laboratory, which in turn, takes some studying and shelling out not an insignificant amount of money. It also takes 2-years of schooling, and even more money, to be a genetic counselor. So it’s worth doing some serious thinking at this stage: You may love the job or career path, but is it a practical possibility? Would the job require you to move elsewhere and can you manage without help?

Reality Check-Level 2. Does the job appeal to your personality?

I might love doing the science, like for instance, working on a new kind of cancer drug. But am I OK with the company charging people a ridiculous amount for that drug, if all the while the people at the top making the big bucks, justifying the charges as funding for research? Now, I’ll be the first to admit biomedical research is expensive. And I have nothing against making a profit. But I cannot reconcile myself to science where the primary motivation is profit, and not peoples’ benefit.

You may love the actual job but would be you be happy in the larger environment the job is set in? Does it fit with your personality?

Reality Check-Level 3. Does the job fit with your health care/self care needs?

Spoonies, remember where we started? I left academia because of the expectation that I will work 70 hours a week. My body cannot deal with that kind of exertion. So if the reality of the next job is basically the same, then it cannot be a real solution. This may be the last point in my six-steps to reimagining one’s professional identity, but this is definitely not the least! It is absolutely, the most important, in fact. A successful change of career would be to where you are able to engage in your profession while also taking care of yourself.

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Allow self care to take precedence

It helps to have a list of problems you have with your current job  — things about the job that prevent you engaging in self care or which are triggers for flare ups. And then compare this list to the new potential career option and ask if at least some of those are mitigated. No job will be perfect where you engage in everything you love doing and be able to mitigate all your health issues; it will always be a balancing act. But as long as the scales tip in favor of your health, it is worth further consideration. If you find that it does not, it may be worth considering something else.

All in all, these 6 steps have led me from a career in a biomedical laboratory to one on a computer in public health. Here I am using my data analysis skills and learning new ones in epidemiology. It is not perfect I miss the flexibility of academia but it has other things going for it that I did not have before, such the being able to directly impact people’s health and attitudes. This fits in with the kind of scientist I would like to be; one who uses science to help impact people’s lives for the better. I also enjoy the intellectual challenges that the job poses, being a complete newbie in the field of public health and epidemiology.

While not all my health/self care needs are met, my current job has been an improvement in many ways from the previous one. All in all, I would say I am happy with where my six steps of soul searching has got me. This job has allowed me see that a steady state can exist for me, where work does not eat into my health. And it is indeed practically possible to work as a scientist while also battling a chronic illness.

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Every day brings a new set of possibilities

That last bit I seriously doubted until I worked out my options from Step #5, which was my first glimmer of “real” hope that this might work out after all. I know many spoonies often struggle with where to go if they cannot remain in a profession they identify with, as I did for a long time. This is especially true for grad students (spoonies or not) because we become so specialized and go so deep into our fields that it becomes hard to imagine something different from it. If that is the case, I hope my three-part story here of how I broke the mold helps you think of ways to break your own as well.

As a final note, I would like to add that one need not only look towards paid jobs when reimagining their professional identity. It is entirely possible to engage in your core interests even from unpaid work and hobbies. Either way, I hope that the steps in this series of posts help you take a piece of your life back that your chronic illness may have stolen from you.

Love,

Fibronacci

Reimagining your Professional Identity as a Scientist with Chronic Illness – Part II

Since around the time I was planning my graduation, I had been giving a lot of thought about how I can be a scientist without pushing my body farther than it can realistically go. I was lucky that I could still work and that meant a lot to me. I wanted to keep it that way instead of sending myself down a bad spiral with a workload I could not handle. But I found it terribly hard to extricate myself from the “academic conditioning” that academia is the only way to go for a Ph.D.

From my internal deliberations then, aimed at redefining my professional identity, was born this series of posts. At a time when I felt lost, not seeing a way forward for myself if I did not continue on the path I was already on, this series of steps helped me devise a new direction for myself.

While I hope it will be helpful for other scientists/grad students seeking a path outside of academia as well, this post is not only for them. Too many of us spoonies are forced to relinquish existing careers we cannot handle anymore. I hope this post is also helpful for them who may be wondering where they could possibly go if they quit a job they closely identify with.

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The path “least trodden” is the path forged for oneself by one alone.

In Part I of this series, I discussed Step 1, getting over the guilt of leaving academia, before I could even start thinking about other paths. The guilt was on many levels, but I mostly felt bad about how I was another statistic adding to the list of chronically ill people leaving academic science, instead of standing up to it and perhaps helping to make the road easier for future grad students like me.

But I quickly learned that you cannot educate everybody — even when you talk the science behind your condition to other scientists. I also learned that my first responsibility is to always to myself; I cannot do anything for others if I cannot take care of me first. And if I wanted to continue sciencing, I would have to find a fairer path than the one I was on.

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Allow yourself the freedom to fly free

Once I got that, I was able to move on to the three core steps that helped me figure out where I could take my life after academia.

Step 2. Understanding what you enjoy about your current work

Assuming you enjoy doing what you currently do, figure out what exactly is it about the job that you like. Let’s call these “transferrable interests.

For me, the intellectual aspect of the job was perhaps the most rewarding, followed by the thought that my work might benefit people in some way some day. I also enjoyed the hands-on “bench work,” i.e. all the pipetting, playing with test tubes and chemical solutions, and sticking them in fancy machines that use mind-blowing technology. Regardless of the frustrations inherent in “bench work,” I found joy in the process itself, regardless of the results (though a successful result always added to the joy!). And finally, I enjoyed sharing knowledge with others (through talks/seminars) and helping a new generation find the joy in science (through my role as a teacher).

Figuring out what about your day to day activities bring you happiness is a great place to start, because it lays the foundation for the kinds of jobs to seek. Ideally, you would then look for jobs where you can still engage in as many of these interests as possible.

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Look within to find your own daily source of joy

Step 3. Recognizing what you are good at in what you do

This is the part about “transferrable skills.” Many grad students (including myself) get so absorbed in the day to day workings of the lab, that we start to feel like our skill is the entire package. But if we look at the components of the package, we realize that the individual skills could be applied to other things. For example, nearly all grad students probably have the at least some of the following skills by the time they finish grad school:

  • Creative as well as critical thinking
  • Troubleshooting skills (i.e. ability to figure out what’s wrong and how to fix it)
  • Research skills (i.e. the ability to sift through a haystack to find the needle)
  • Solid argumentation skills (i.e. being able to back up what you say with facts)
  • Ability to clearly communicate verbally and in written medium
  • Ability to communicate to both specialized and non-specialized audiences
  • Experience with Microsoft Office (or equivalent) products, other softwares (e.g. statistical or image manipulation tools), and/or technical skills (e.g. programming)
  • Great organization and project management skills
  • Tenacity to see both short- and long-term projects through to the end, regardless of their complexity

Recognizing the specific things that you are good at helps in two ways: (1) it adds to your confidence that all that time you spent in grad school wasn’t wasted time even if you cannot continue in your planned path; and (2) it helps you start practically looking for where you can now apply your skills, and get paid for doing what you are good at!

Once I overlaid the jobs that that matched both my skills as well as interests, I knew I finally had ball rolling!

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Recognize your own blossoms

Step 4. Realizing what #2 and #3 tell you about you

Understanding your transferrable interests and skills are great, and they might help find job options that sound good on paper — but they alone may not serve you well in finding a new fulfilling job until you understand what your interests and skills tell you about your core values and motivations.

For instance, I would describe myself as a scientist with a heart; who sees science as way of bettering the world and helping humanity. I am not someone who views science as a way of making money or how to snag the next big patent or paper. I am also not a science snob; I enjoy talking science with other scientists and non-scientists alike. More than scientific facts, I lay emphasis on the scientific process, which I like to talk about with people, to help them make informed decisions. But I also recognize that not all things can be done “scientifically;” some things are just based on how you feel, and I don’t discount the validity of that approach, when appropriate, either.

Realizing the motivations that drive our interests and motivate us to master the skill sets that we are good at help to rule out certain jobs that may involve doing the things we like but does not fit with our overall personality.

For example, I could not see myself working in a place where the primary motivation for doing science was profit. (I have nothing against making money, as long as that is not the core goal of the science I am doing.) Knowing this helped me rule out certain options (e.g. the pharmaceutical industry), and helped me draw up a shortlist of potential job options.

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When you find yourself considering an unlikely branch, return to your roots to see if that’s where you belong.

In the third and final segment of this series, I will discuss the last two steps in my process, as I used my reflections to draw up a list of potential career paths and the final considerations I made, especially regarding my health, before moving forward.

But these are the core three steps that I used to actively decondition myself from thinking that academia is all there is for me. Breaking down my job into its component parts and analyzing what it all meant to me helped me realize there may even be potentially better directions for me out there than what academia had to offer!

At all major forks in life, I feel like some introspection is key to helping us overcome the hurdles and find a reasonable solution. But it can feel like we are lost in a sea of confusion when we are faced with losing a career path we closely identified with. In times like that, I hope these steps can help one understand why the job means as much as to them as it does, and then apply those core motivations in a more health-friendly direction. Stay tuned for more on that in the next post.

Love,

Fibronacci

Reimagining your Professional Identity as a Scientist with Chronic Illness – Part I

In my last post, comparing my experience being a scientist in government vs. academia, I had promised to talk a bit about how I got there. Admittedly, it’s a bit surreal to me, because this time last year, I was practically despairing that I might not have any career at all, forget one in science. Having experienced the pressures of academia first hand, I knew it wouldn’t be conducive to my health to continue in it. But it was immensely daunting to seek a life after academia as a scientist with a chronic illness.

In this series of posts, I will discuss my story — it has been a long, and in many ways, is an ongoing journey to redefine my identity. But before I could do anything else, I first had to assuage my feelings of guilt for wanting something different out of my life in the first place.

Step 1. Overcoming feelings of guilt and loss.

Ever since I joined my lab, it was made clear in no uncertain terms that I was being trained for an academic career. From the boss’ point of view, that’s what a graduate program is designed to do. It’s an apprenticeship model, where your mentor trains you in the arts and crafts of the trade, so you carry their mark forward as you grow in the field. That is your job, and your responsibility.

So when my body couldn’t handle double the full-time workload that is expected of the field (I was probably working under 40 hours at the time trying to get my health back in some sort of order), I was immediately relegated to the side. Once a promising student, I was now a waste of time; a wayward kid; a lost cause. And I internalized some of that at first, and felt guilty for letting my advisor down. I knew he had high hopes of me, and I felt guilty for not being able to live up to it.

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Guilt is a fire that scorches the soul

But there was another kind of guilt at play, one that hit at my core. Academia is still a very male-dominated field; I felt I once had the potential and motivation to add to the roster of successful women in academia. But there are even fewer disabled and chronically ill scientists in the field. We can be ostracized at best and actively discriminated against at worst. So we hide our disabilities, afraid to stand up to those who look down upon us for fear of ruining our future prospects.

I felt like I should try to make it as a successful academic scientist, even more so now that I had fibromyalgia, so no one could doubt our scientific acumen! Once at a stable point in my academic career, I could raise awareness for our cause without fear of retaliation; mentor more students with disabilities; try to change the culture in academia that sees us as lesser mortals. I felt like I had the responsibility to stand up to the establishment that had looked down on me. Walking away from it felt like walking away from a battle, like they had defeated me and my spirit. And I felt guilty for giving up on all the future disabled or chronically ill grad students I might have been able to help.

It took me a long a time to see that these feelings of guilt were misplaced. It is my life and my body, and my first responsibility is always to myself. To keep myself healthy, and active, and in a mental state to be able to enjoy life. It is my responsibility to find a fruitful direction for my own life, one that suits my current needs.

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At the edge of all light

To feel beholden to others’ expectations of me is only a noose I held around my own neck. I realized that is never how I lived my life so far, and it would be a mistake to start now. As far as thinking of my own past dreams or future hopes are concerned, they only serve to make me feel worse. They do no practical good in helping me carve a way forward.

I also realized that advocating career over self-care is hardly being a good role model! Especially with a chronic illness like fibromyalgia! How can I help other people if I cannot even help myself? Perhaps my limited energy is best spent raising a candle to the issues from the outside, rather than burning in the fires on the inside. It was time to let go of my misguided sense of pride.

The first step in any journey is often the hardest to take, but also is the most important for it sets you on a new course. Once I was able to get over the feelings of guilt over leaving the career I strove for for so many years, I felt like a fog had just cleared from my view. By the time I graduated, that was perhaps my single biggest accomplishment; bigger, even, that the Ph.D. And when I finally could see the different directions my career could possibly go in, I felt the glow of a new hope warming a heart grown cold and scared.

In the next post(s), I will talk about the specific steps I used to retrain my brain to think of new possibilities and new directions. I know when I was seeking some of this information, I had none I could turn to. So I hope that this series of posts will reach future grad students and scientists in a similar boat, and I hope they find some value in it.

Gentle hugs,

Fibronacci

Working with a Chronic Illness: Scientist in Government vs. Academia

As I was getting close to finishing graduate school, I was contemplating many career directions. I liked the flexibility academia offered, but the labor expectations of a postdoctoral appointment made that a difficult option for me with fibromyalgia. So I looked towards private industry (pharmaceuticals, hospitals, genetic testing companies, etc.) as well as science jobs in government. I knew they would be less flexible but also come with a saner work load. And I wrote about my thoughts regarding whether a highly flexible vs. a more routine-oriented job might better for a fibromyalgiac such as I in Part I under this title.

Finally, I chose a job as an environmental health scientist in government. And nearly every day, I thank my lucky stars for getting it! After 3 months of employment, I am absolutely loving my job (except for the hard bits here and there). Like everything, it has its pros and cons over the “standard” post-PhD academic route. And I felt it deserved a fair comparison for other grad students with chronic illnesses who may be considering non-academic options. So here’s my take on “sciencing” in an academic lab vs. on a government computer!

1. I do miss the serious flexibility academia offers.

Working in a relatively respectable position, I actually still have a reasonable degree of flexibility. Nobody would fuss if I came in at 9 one morning, instead of 8.30, or took a slightly longer lunch break, and just made up for it in the evening. But nothing quite offers the extreme flexibility that is unique to academia. It takes time to build up the leave time you need in order to comfortably make doctor’s appointments or other life commitments that may take longer than a couple of hours. Accruing leave at about 1 day per month means having to push through many flares initially, until sufficient leave time is built up.

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The sad reality of my flexibility dreams, captured perfectly (as always) by Jorge Cham!

2. I start work earlier, which can be painful (literally and figuratively).

Many of us have our “best hours” later in the day – I certainly do! – and having to start moving too soon before my bones and muscles have had a chance to thaw can be a struggle in the morning. As a senior grad student, I was able to work 10 AM to 6 or 7 PM, because I called my own shots. As a government employee, I feel the earlier hours very sorely on days when it is especially hard for me to get out of bed.

Realistically, however, if I took  a postdoc position, I would not have been able to exercise a 10-to-6 workday anyhow. Most postdocs are expected to work anywhere from 60-80 hours, under an intense amount of pressure. But on days when I am seriously flaring and desperately needing a bed to lay down on, I really miss the ability to work from home or just lay on the couch for 15 minutes while some test tube is incubating.

3. I really like the shorter hours though!

It is much easier to pace yourself when your body knows what to expect from each day. This job definitely offers that regularity of schedule. However, like with any transition, it is taking me a bit of time to find that new pace. Still, coming from an environment where the trade-off for flexibility is working till 1 AM in the morning, it was an interesting experience to leave every afternoon while there’s still some daylight! And now that my husband is all better, I really appreciate all the rest time.

4. You are actually off on government holidays and weekends!

This was a new experience for me too, as I typically worked through all holidays and many weekends as a graduate student (as most academics do). But here, we get several long weekends a year, and you are expected to NOT work during that time! These extra off-days often come right around the time I really start to need an extra rest day, making them very welcome and much appreciated! And I found out long ago, that weekend rest time is absolutely essential for me to continue working period. So it is really nice to have this guilt-free time off!

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Not anymore!

The sum of #3 and #4 is that this job comes with a reduced anxiety factor for me.

While I was in academia, I felt like I was always carrying a huge weight of unfulfilled expectations. I knew what I was expected to do, and that I was not able to do it. I was well on my way to completing the Ph.D. and had a history of being a dedicated worker, so I was not kicked out of grad school. But there was always the latent anxiety from knowing you are not quite the grad student your advisor may have hoped for.

Here, I finally felt that weight lifted off my shoulders. My boss is amazing, and she made it clear that I surpassed her expectations. And she is more than happy with what I am doing at the pace that I am doing it in. This has resulted in much reduced anxiety, and had added to my career satisfaction.

5. There is less physical activity as a data scientist than in the lab.

This could go either way. Sitting too long can cause extra pain and stiffness, so it’s good to move around time to time. But for me, the pain in my legs went down (in general) after I took this job! I imagine I must have been overworking them at the lab, likely by standing or walking more than my body could reasonably muster, and I never realized that until I got out of that environment for a while.

6. Government is more slow-moving and bureaucratic than academia.

Which, again, has its pros and cons. You will not publish a lot of papers very quickly, but the ones you do will be meaningful and thoroughly vetted before it even reaches peer review. Instead of publishing just for the sake of it, the idea is more to publish when you have something important or meaningful to say. While the bureaucracy can be irksome at times, it is the same mechanism that allows you rights to fight your position in case of any disagreement with the boss, or say if you need to negotiate special accommodations. In academia, your boss is your master. So if s/he does not agree with you, then other routes are all but blocked for you. Here, there are clearer rules for such things that both employee and employer must abide by, so there isn’t a ridiculous power imbalance.

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There is a WHOLE new vocabulary in the “adult” outside world, that I am now learning!

All in all, this job has really been a great boon for me! I am somebody who is environmentally conscious, and actually care about the topic of environmental health. In fact, what I studied before – epigenetics – is closely linked with how the environment can affect our health! It’s just that now, instead of working on the molecular mechanistics of it, I am working on the human aspect of it. Personally, I find that much more rewarding, knowing that my work is reaching people now, instead of just the hope that it might help somebody decades from now!

So if you are a grad student, or a scientist, who is struggling with a chronic illness and looking out for various options, I would recommend staying open to government jobs. In the future, I might even do a short series on how I was able to expand my horizons regarding career options (basically, getting over the fear that my science career was over if I couldn’t make it in academia), and other potential job options for scientists with chronic illnesses. I know I searched high and low for much of this information when I needed it, and sadly, found little of it. So, it is my hope, that these posts might reach others in a similar boat as I, and help them in at least some little way!

Love,

Fibronacci

What I Learned from my Leap of Faith

I ran, and I ran, and I ran, until I could run no more. I was at the edge of a cliff, and the only way forward was down. The waves roared below but I had no choice. Down, down, down I went. I felt the ocean breeze spray my face. Yet I did not hit the rocks. That’s when I realized, I could fly!


In fantasy terms, that largely summarizes the last year or so of my life. After struggling with a bad fibromyalgia flare all of my last semester at graduate school, I was at the end of my tether. I realized I needed to take a break before continuing on to any new work in order to prevent a complete collapse.

It was a tough decision for me at the time. It had been nearly a decade since I was on any vacation longer than a few weeks. I was concerned that while my body might feel better during a period of sustained rest, my brain would feel “wasted” without any brainy-work to do. At the same time, I was facing a lot of judgement from my professors who were not privy to my physical problems, and were convinced the break would ruin any prospects of a career. I was also worried that without something substantial to occupy my mind, I may be too focused on the pain and feel the worse for it.

Not knowing how I was going to react to an indefinite period of unemployment, it was largely taking a leap of faith. But as it turned out, most of my worries never came to pass. And in the process, I even learned a thing or two about myself!

So here are five things I learned about myself when I stepped off a ledge into the dreaded unknown:

1. I can actually enjoy taking a complete break from work for a while!

It certainly took a while — at first I was just very stressed about not having a career direction — but then slowly, I was able to embrace the lack of all absolute obligations, deadlines and requirements! Instead of feeling wasted, as I feared I would, I felt more open. Once I got comfortable with not having anything particular to do, I felt my brain slowly creep out of its “lefty” mode and start spreading its wings! I felt more creative and free, and thoughts and ideas flowed in and out of my mind more easily. I loved the peace and quiet, the serenity of the guilt-free time to think and write. Now that all of my energy wasn’t spent working, I had more energy for other things (like, as silly as this might sound, washing my hair!).

2. It is impossible for me to be bored.

I know when I first floated the idea of the break, many well-meaning people thought I might get bored. I wondered about it too. But as it turns out, my mind is too full of things to ever be bored! I always have something going on in there — perhaps a new idea for a painting, or a blog post, or even a future book! Most of the time my mind is full of reflective, meditative thoughts about both the world inside of me and that which surrounds me. My home is practically a library, so I always have a stack of books I am working through next to my bed. My capacity for imagination may be endless when I choose to engage in it. And I am surrounded by both instant access to knowledge (thanks to the internet) and a mind that voraciously craves new and varied information about a diverse set of topics. So, as I learned, it is impossible for me to get bored as I am engaged in too many activities at any one time, even if I don’t move a limb!

3. I can get too inward-focused for my own good.

Truth be told, given a choice of living in the “outer” world and the “inner” world, I would choose the “inner” one any day. And as I got all comfortable living in that “inner” world last few months, I realized that is also a problem. As someone who has always suffered from social anxiety, it has taken me years of practice at being around people to learn how to function properly in the world. It is never comfortable, but it is an important life skill. Yet now, I seem to be using fibromyalgia as an excuse to get more and more away from the outside world and turn back inwards. Without any definite obligations to attend to, I feel especially free now to just give in to the regular ups and downs of the condition, and just stay in and recoil into my own world even more. This can begin to feel too comfortable after a while, something which, ironically enough, makes me quite uncomfortable! So I learned that I need things that push me against my instincts and challenge me, so life stays fresh, interesting, and even a little challenging all the time!

(Besides, neck strain from too much reading is contributing to some killer headaches last couple of weeks, so it is clearly time I got out and did something else!)

4. I am more OK with leaping into the unknown than I had thought I was!

When I was first offered my current job with the state government, I was not sure about it at all. I was afraid it will take me too far away from biology proper. But ultimately, after a lot of deliberation on other potential options, I decided to take the plunge. One of the things that appealed to me about the job was that I knew nothing of the specifics of what I was about to do! That was a good thing, because I did not know enough to know what to be stressed about! And I realized that I love this feeling of the “beginner’s mind” that can only be accessed when exploring the complete unknown. This is how I felt when I first walked into the research lab as an undergraduate that I eventually graduated with a Ph.D. from! I knew nothing about doing science, so I was eager to learn all I could. With an open mind, I was able to think about what I was learning without the restrictions that come with expertise. It was a feeling of freedom, of possibilities, of growth, and of accumulating life experiences — all of which I dearly cherish. Now I feel ready to inhabit the “beginner’s mind” once more. I have no real clue where this unexpected path will take me in the future, but I am in for the ride with an open mind.

5. I was ready for a major change.

After spending several years working as a bench biologist in academia, I will be a data scientist for a government agency. That is about as different as different can get, and I remain surprised the opportunity even came by me! But, I feel ready for it. I feel I am too young to cage myself into a narrow realm of possibilities. I had stayed long enough in academia to recognize the good, the bad and the ugly in it. It was time for me to explore a different setting now, a different field. My interests are too widespread to be constrained into the narrow niche that a standard academic career demands. So if I am going to play outside of the academic playbook, I would have to create my own paths into a non-standard career. I feel like this job out in left field is the first step in that direction.


For a fiercely analytical person, who likes to weigh the pros and cons of everything, taking a leap of faith can be very difficult. This was especially true of me in the case of my break from employment, because it conventionally bodes ill so early in one’s career. But at the time I had few other choices, and luckily, everything turned out just fine in the end! Plus I really appreciated having the time to exclusively manage the nasty flares that have gripped me most of this year. So I wanted to write this post not just as a future reminder to myself to not be so afraid of doing the crazy “unthinkable” thing, but also as an encouragement to anyone else who may be in a similar spot as I was back then.

If you’re feeling iffy about the jump but it’s edge of your cliff, close your eyes, and trust your wings.

Love,

Fibronacci

Dealing with Disappointment

Chronic illnesses bring with them a slew of disappointments, big and small. While it seems against the whole “stay positive” theme to admit that, ignoring disappointment under the guise of “positivity” is a bit like hiding an infected wound under a bandage — it may look clean and tidy on the outside, but it’s still festering inside. Therefore, we all need tactics to deal with those disappointments — actually treat that infected wound with antimicrobials — and do it with a positive attitude!

This past week, my physical state has led to some definite disappointments. I was down with a fibromyalgia flare and recurrent migraines for the entire week. It was one of those weeks where I was barely up from one assault before the next one knocked me back down. Each time I was expecting to feel better, and each time I was disappointed.

First came the piercing pain, the nausea, the occipital and trigeminal neuralgia, over several days. As the migraine abortives dulled those, other symptoms asserted in its place: a worsening of the gnawing pain in my legs, neck and back spasms, shooting pains along my spine, burning pains all across my back and arms. For a day or two, it was hard to even dress myself or comb my hair. Then when time and tramadol dulled those a bit, I realized I was in the grip of complete and utter fatigue. I was exhausted to where I was dizzy and eating, at times, was a difficult endeavor. Only by the end of the week did I see a pattern, and realize that I was in for an all-around fibromyalgia flare.

89_Solitude
Based on a similar painting (unknown artist) that was swathed in cool blues and depressing hues, I experimented with some colors to inject HOPE into the scene. (oil on 8X10 canvas; available)

The result was that I missed all week’s worth of pool exercise classes (though I stayed continually optimistic about being able to go). I also missed the once-a-year outdoor art market that was held yesterday. I have no energy to get up to do anything at all, not even a bath. Needless to say I was fairly disappointed. Disappointed that I “wasted” a week in bed, disappointed that I have no energy to pursue my painting aspirations, disappointed to have missed the art market that I was looking forward to for months!

Unfortunately, weeks like this are not uncommon for me. They have caused me much agony in the past. At first, I would push through regardless. Then later, as that stopped being an option, I would be reduced to tears, wondering if my life will now forever be at the mercy of my condition. Then one day I realized that while many things may indeed now be affected by fibromyalgia, one thing I do have some control over is how I react to it. Having sparred with the “dark side” before, I knew I had the power to “unsink” myself. Therefore, in order to keep my chin up while dealing with such disappointments as my own body has proven to be, I developed a few practical tools.


The three main tools in my “coping with disappointment” toolkit are:

1. Finding an alternative that’s equally appealing

One of the most disappointing things about being down with a chronic illness is thinking of all the things you missed. Chief among those last week was the art market I really wanted to go to but really didn’t feel up to. I have also been hoping to start painting more since last weekend, which has not yet happened. So instead, I decided to engage in other painting-related activities that I could do from bed:

  • I worked on my new Etsy shop, listing new paintings on there regularly.
  • I tried creating fancy displays for my paintings with a new app I downloaded, and have been sharing them on my Facebook and Instagram art pages.
  • And last but not the least, I am sharing my artwork through the blog posts I am writing!
PhotoFunia Kitty and Frame Regular 2017-11-17 03 47 34
One of the fun painting displays I created using the “Photofunia” app. My painting of the daffodils is titled “A Breath of Sunshine” (oil on 8X10 canvas; available).

There have been other “alternatives” in my toolkit too, like writing/blogging, reading* and marathoning through Stranger Things and Anne with an E.

The result was a week where I was in pain and discomfort (I won’t sugar-coat it), but I kept myself “active” from bed, engaging in things that made me happy! The week was not what I wanted it to be, but it was enjoyable in its own right, making it hard to be too disappointed by it.

2. Listing the recent good times

When dearly-held plans get trashed, when life disappoints you, it is easy to feel like your whole world is nothing but a dark dreary mess. I can’t definitively prove it, but I have it on good authority that time moves slower when you are in pain! So it is no surprise that it feels like the low point lasts forever. But the objective truth is that the sun has not been and will not be behind the clouds forever. It was out once before, and it will be again. And even while it’s hidden, there are some silver linings!

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The Silver Linings (oil on 5X7 canvas; available)

One of the ways I remind myself of this is by listing the good times I have had recently:

  • Mini art vacation last month
  • Haunted house on Halloween
  • Steampunk festival
  • Shopping (for office-wear for my new job)
  • That’s right, I got a new full-time job! It is with the state as an environmental health scientist.

When you list all your fun times like this (even if you were in pain during some those times, or crashed afterwards — which I did), you realize that all is not dark and gloomy with your world. Life is not all that disappointing as it might seem right now.

3. Showing yourself some self-compassion

Whether or not anything in the toolkit helps you feel better, it’s always good to show yourself a bit of compassion regardless. The idea of self-compassion is to treat yourself like you would treat a good friend. Be kind to yourself as you would to a friend.

Self-Compassion Teapot

This one in particular is a work in progress for me. When I feel like I am “wasting” my time in bed, I try to remind myself that resting when I feel down and out is hardly “wasting” time! In fact, it is the only thing to do! I am being more efficient with my time by recharging when needed; if I kept pushing through, I would only prolong the flare and be less productive for longer.

So don’t berate yourself for the rest you need. Try not to begrudge a bit of comfort eating, or the pleasures of binge-watching Netflix shows. Or give yourself time to weep, if you so feel; allow yourself the space to be unhappy. Disappointments lose a lot of their edge after you have just allowed the wave to wash over you like a tide. Every tide eventually ebbs.

newinnervoice


Though I placed a lot of the examples of my tools in context of this past week, all of these work for much bigger disappointments as well — such as the mega-disappointment of dealing with a chronic illness in the first place.

For example, my new job as an environmental health scientist with the state government is one of those “equally exciting alternatives” to my plans in academia! And if I think back to all the years that I was in high school and college, the years I spent doing the science I loved, the time I spent in the company of colleagues and friends I loved, those are some very good times indeed! My life has been worthwhile through storms I have weathered before I developed fibromyalgia, and will continue to be so as I weather this one as well. And as for self-compassion, that’s a worthy attainment regardless of whether you are ill, but especially if you are chronically and invisibly ill. When the world misunderstands and mistreats you, you may be the only one showing yourself some much-needed kindness.

I hope that my toolkit give you ideas to develop your own tools to fight the disappointments that a chronic illness might bestow upon you. And if you’re a veteran chronic illness warrior with some tools of your own, I invite you to share them below so others reaching this blog may benefit from your experiences as well!

Gentle hugs,

Fibronacci

 

*If you’re curious regarding what I am reading at the moment, it is Martha Mason’s autobiography “Breath,” where she talks about how she lived a fulfilling life of over 70 years, ~60 of which were spent in an iron lung following a childhood bout of polio. In fact, the idea for this topic on how I deal with (far lesser) disappointments came from my musings of this book!

 

Each painting has a story, one that I strive to tell here. Since many of them have to do with my journey with fibromyalgia, 20% of all yearly sales income from my paintings will go to the American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association (AFSA), who fund research into this poorly understood condition. If the paintings and/or the cause touch your heart, as they do mine, please feel free to contact me through my Facebook page for more information. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey!

Temporary yet Timeless

Though I like having nice things as much as the next person, I have to admit that I am more of a sucker for experiences.

While material objects you acquire may be permanent (in the practical sense of the word), it is human nature to slowly just get used to its presence and take it for granted. And then that grand old antique grandfather clock you coveted forever until you found it on a killer deal loses its appeal, and its ability to make you happy.  Even worse, acquired things may only be temporary (like money), in which case the happiness they bring is doubly short-lived and may even be followed by some misery!

Experiences, however, are usually by nature temporary — and yet, they are timeless! Think back to a wonderful family vacation, or a funny incident that happened to you, or even a particularly interesting class you took or a memorable event you participated in. Think back to a time when you learned something new, or saw something in new light, gained a different perspective, or found a new way of looking at things which you had never considered before. Chances are, simply thinking back to the family vacation brought an image to your mind, or remembering that funny incident made you chuckle. All of these experiences were in the past, their time come and gone, activities done and over with. And yet, you carry some essence of them with you forever!

Experiences, unlike physical objects, also have the potential to teach you things and promote self-growth. This is perhaps almost more true of unpleasant experiences than pleasant ones, a chronic illness for example. I remember in Michael J. Fox’s autobiography, Lucky Man, he said getting Parkinson’s disease was one of the best things that happened to him. Until I gained some acceptance of fibromyalgia, I could never have understood what he meant. But even in dealing with what has been a far less debilitating experience than Parkinson’s, I have learned and grown so much that I am kind of glad it happened to me. Sounds strange, doesn’t it, given how much I gripe about it? But I feel like the griping and then getting over it is all a part of the experience too!

Particularly, the experience of going through a competitive grad program with FM has taught me an important lesson in life. That regardless of what others say, think or do, you’ve got to be true to yourself! Your self-worth cannot hinge on others’ (negative) evaluation of you. You cannot educate everybody, not even when you talk the science behind your condition to scientists. When you feel alone, instead of feeling dejected and lonely, use that space to spread your wings and find your own flight. Do not feel guilty if you choose to use a particularly good day to turn your back on the world and enjoy it simply for yourself! There are too few of those in our lives to waste them on others’ expectations of how you should be spending them, rather than how you want to be spending them.

Perhaps all these thoughts combined made me particularly fond of the featured image, which I clicked on a recent trip to the local zoo. Here’s a pelican who doesn’t give a hoot about the world, he’s without a care except to just make the most of a beautiful day! The photo, a bit overexposed, is perhaps technically flawed, but you can really feel the sun on his back, the splash of the cool water, and his ecstasy of motion.

It is a reminder to live life unabashed and cherish small moments of pleasure.

A reminder to not let imperfections tarnish the timeless beauty of the experiences.

Love,

Fibronacci

Real Neat Blog Award

Some time ago now Lavender and Levity nominated me for the Real Neat Blog award, and I am just getting around to it. (And of course, since Halloween was yesterday and it’s such a fun holiday, I had to do something with that, hence the creepy logos!)

Let me just start by saying thanks; I am so grateful to have been nominated for this blogging award! It’s always gratifying to know your blog is being read and that somebody enjoys it enough to nominate it for an award, thus encouraging others to check it out as well. I also enjoy how these awards make for a great way for us to get to know each other more informally. So here goes!

Real Neat Blog Award_2

The ‘rules’ of the Real Neat Blog award are: (feel free not to act upon them if you don’t have time; don’t accept awards; etc.)

  1. Put the award logo on your blog.
  2. Answer 7 questions asked by the person who nominated you.
  3. Thank the people who nominated you, linking to their blogs.
  4. Nominate any number of bloggers you like, linking to their blogs.
  5. Let them know you nominated them (e.g.: comment on their blog; linking their blog notifies them too I believe)

Real Neat Blog Award_3

Here are the answers to my 7 questions:

  1. What natural disaster best represents you?

In public: Snowstorm. I can be very cold and freeze people out if they aggravate me, or if I feel they are a negative impact on me.

In private: Volcano. I can sometimes erupt and spew lava with some ferocity, typically after small aggravations have been brewing underneath and building for a long time.

  1.  If you had to pick one of the two, would you rather be too hot or too cold?

Too cold. (I am not fond of the heat at all!)

  1.  If you won a trip anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Hmm, maybe to some of the Caribbean islands! I visited the Virgin Islands a few months ago and fell in love with the ocean in that part of the world.

  1.  If you could only have one of the following in your dream home, which would you choose: a housekeeper, a personal chef, a personal assistant or a landscaper/gardener?

Housekeeper. No contest there! My husband is a great cook, and I can be my own PA. I can even do some gardening if needed. But cleaning? Ugh! That’s anathema to me!

  1.  What’s your favorite drink?

There’s too many and they are too varied to list just one.

Non-alcoholic: Other than tea (including herbal) and coffee, I am currently loving coconut water, kombucha (cultured tea with probiotics), and tamarind soda.

Alcoholic: I love most cocktails (White Russian & Sangria are definite faves); Hoegaarden is a particular favorite in beer; as for wine, I am reasonably fond of slightly dry, not too heavy-bodied red wines, but Auslese Rieslings are probably my favorite (somewhat sweet, fruity, white wines that are a delight just by themselves or with fruits).

  1.  You should have been in bed an hour ago, but you are still on the Internet. What non-blog webpage is open on your browser?

Netflix; though technically, it’s open on my TV through our Nintendo Wii. If I’m on the computer, probably YouTube.

  1.  Why do you think you were nominated? (Hint: it was because I felt there were good things about your blog, so positive answers only! I want you to humble brag!)

I had to ask my husband to help me with this one, and he said I have a way of digging deep and sayings things which are difficult to put in words; that my posts are very honest, well-thought-out pieces about living (not just surviving) with a chronic illness. Ideally, I would also hope to fill a niche with my blog about scientists with fibromyalgia/CFS/similar invisible illnesses. There’s not very many of us, that I know about, who openly talk or write about going through graduate school in the biomedical research field (which is very competitive and infamous for long work hours, and hence not friendly at all to tired old slow-pokes like us). It is my hope that my blog is a window where people can read about the experiences of one scientist with fibromyalgia, and hopefully help others in similar situations as myself.

Real Neat Blog Award_0

My nominees/Blogs I’d love for you to check out:

I know a lot of people don’t participate in these awards, so don’t worry about it if that’s the case. If you do, I would love to see your responses to the questions below and get to know you more in a fun way!

  1. Crafts, Chronic Illness and Adulting
  2. Fibroloveaffair
  3. Invisibly Me
  4. Ginger Fancy Photography & Reflections
  5. Mabel Kwong

My questions:

Lavender & Levity did a great job of coming up with awesome questions, so I’ll reuse most of them and add a couple of my own!

1. What natural disaster best represents you?

2.  If you could swap lives with someone for a day (living or deceased), who would you swap with and why?

3.  If you won a trip anywhere in the world, where would you go?

4.  If you could only have one of the following in your dream home, which would you choose: a housekeeper, a personal chef, a personal assistant or a landscaper/gardener?

5.  What’s the one thing that annoys the crap out of you?

6.  You should have been in bed an hour ago, but you are still on the Internet. What non-blog webpage is open on your browser?

7.  Why do you think you were nominated? (Hint: it was because I felt there were good things about your blog, so positive answers only! I want you to humble brag!)

thats all folks_1

I hope you enjoyed getting to know me a bit more through these answers! And I look forward to the responses of my nominees, if they choose to participate. Thanks again to Lavender and Levity for her nomination.

Love,

Fibronacci

The Glow of a New Hope: Redirecting Career Possibilities as a Scientist with Fibromyalgia

I love painting sunsets.

Aside from the fact that they are simply gorgeous, the glowing light also signifies a lot of hope for me. First, the warm colors in the light of the setting sun has a psychologically uplifting effect. And second, on a more philosophical level, sunsets signify a state of transition, where you are standing at the threshold between the old and the new. A state of liminality. The very nature of the sunset marks the end of an old, and therefore by extension, the beginning of something new! It’s a beautiful close to what once was, and invites you to think of what the future will bring.

Featured image: Twilight’s Last Glow (oil on 6X6 canvas; available)

It was about 7 years ago that I first got into academic research as a career. The field of epigenetics fascinated me: it is the study of the various modifications on our genetic material that fine-tune how the genes actually behave. If you think of the DNA code as just the lyrics to a song, then the epigenetic modifications provide the tune, so you can actually sing the song. I was enthused enough to learn more about the subject so that I joined a research lab that studies the same. Over the next 7 years in that lab, I first completed an undergraduate honors thesis, and then a Ph.D. dissertation.

Epigenetics
A conductor wouldn’t know how to direct the opera with just the libretto (the genes), s/he would also need the accompanying musical notation (the epigenetic marks).

All that time I was on a single-lane, yellow brick road to become a tenured academic professor in Oz. I worked hard since the junior year of undergrad, often working long hours without pay, paying all the seemingly appropriate dues for a supposedly cushy future. But I was devoted to the deity called “science.” I knew the sacrifices I would have to make to reach my goal, and I was ready for it. At the time I felt like that was really what I wanted of my life. And besides, it wouldn’t matter if I did not – I was conditioned to think that that was the only road possible for me after a Ph.D.

Yellow brick road
The yellow brick road to the ivory (emerald?) tower!

So then when I was struck with fibromyalgia, about halfway through graduate school, perhaps you can imagine my state of mind when I felt my dreams had just gone up in smoke. I felt I was now trapped into this very narrow specialized field, educated beyond most jobs, with a medical roadblock in the only credible path to a bright future. In addition, it certainly did not help that my advisor, who had high hopes for me, now thought that I was a lost cause. He had no reasonable advice for me other than to “just deal with it.”

I have now spent upwards of 2 years trying to get out of the dark mindset that my professional life is ruined because I am no longer able to spend 60-80 hours per week working any ol’ time of the day. It has taken a lot of career research, reading other peoples’ experiences of life after academia, and talking to people who were more supportive of my seeking “alternative” routes, to really figure out new possible directions for myself. More than anything else, it has required me to shake off the chains I had put around my own expectations of my future. I had to do some serious soul-searching about what I truly enjoyed about my job, in order to figure out how I could continue engaging in that, in a way that is not so detrimental to my health.

recycled-art
Reimagine the possibilities!

The result has been a liberating feeling that I have a lot more paths to choose from than what I was initially led to believe. I just spent the last year or so considering traditional postdoctoral research appointments, along with “non-traditional” post-Ph.D. options like teaching, as well as jobs in science publishing, government, and clinical laboratories. Some of these are more directly connected with the topic of my graduate training (molecular genetics/epigenetics) than others, but I was not shy about looking into related but different fields like human genetics, environmental health, public health and policy, and forensic science. I even considered options that would require further schooling, such as genetic counseling and molecular epidemiology.

Not all has been bright and sparkly, though, as I sought out new potential directions for myself. I learned that it can be incredibly hard to budge even a tiny bit from your field of specialization, especially after a doctorate. At the same time, I also received enough positive responses to have faith that difficult though it may be, it is not totally impossible! However, it does require you to be honest with yourself about your priorities (both professionally and personally), and keep realistic expectations of your job search. It is possible to carve out a new fork in the road for yourself, but it takes time, perseverance, and a healthy dose of luck.

Despite it not being all glowy, I nonetheless feel like this period of transition after graduate school is like a sunset. It is a time to reminisce about the past as one chapter in my life comes to a close, and to contemplate what new experiences the next one will bring. Nobody knows what tomorrow holds; but for now, as I stand on this threshold, the possibilities are endless!

Love,

Fibronacci

 

Each painting has a story, one that I strive to tell here. Since many of them have to do with my journey with fibromyalgia, 20% of all yearly sales income from my paintings will go to the American Fibromyalgia Syndrome Association (AFSA), who fund research into this poorly understood condition. If the paintings and/or the cause touch your heart, as they do mine, please feel free to contact me through my Facebook page for more information. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey!