I was of two minds going back to school. The first was like Peter Pan and his shadow.
“If he thought at all, but I don’t believe he ever thought, it was that he and his shadow, when brought near each other, would join like drops of water, and when they did not he was appalled.”
I would slip back into the rhythm of school, with its percussion section of tests and deadlines rattling away, and the music of learning would enchant me as it always did. My department would once again feel like home – a sort of chaotic, dysfunctional home at times perhaps, but home nevertheless. Oh, there might be a few changes, but once I was back into the swing of teaching and studying and tutoring, I would be back.
I tried not to let the other bit of my mind have too much air time, because it wasn’t particularly concerned with “thinking” either. Instead that bit of my brain tried to shake and worry the details of my return like a puppy with a rag – should I tell my students? What about my bosses? How was I going to manage to lecture when I couldn’t always stand? How was I going to keep medications close by and manage to take them at the right time when I was running back and forth to jobs and class and meetings? When would I get a chance to rest? Would there be someplace private at school I could rest, if I had to?
Still, most of those thoughts, such as they were, were about details. Minutiae. I’d get it figured out in the first few weeks, I told myself. There was no reason to think that I and school wouldn’t eventually join up like two drops of water.
Instead, I sank like a stone. It wasn’t two drops of water, seamlessly blending together. It was like being underwater and staring at pool toys on the surface, all bright colors and cheerfulness bobbing away out of arm’s reach. The other students all have lives, problems, and dreams, the same as I do, but college convention dictates you discuss the trivial.
“Why didn’t they give me a fork with the salad?” “I don’t think the professor will like my title.” “I have to prepare for a meeting with my advisor! I’m so nervous!” “It’s such a long walk over to the big library, so maybe I’ll order the book and have it delivered…”
It wasn’t that I didn’t care about those people, and by extension (some of) their problems. Especially since I knew a couple of my fellow students well enough to know that actually there were other bigger, much more terrible things going on in their lives, too. But at school that wasn’t part of the picture, and everything became just so terribly remote. I floated in the darkness below the flotsam of normal life. Sometimes it was peaceful, realizing that I didn’t really care that much anymore what a professor thought of my paper title, or if my notes were perfectly in order before a meeting. Other times I felt like I was drowning, trapped below the surface and riding much colder currents of terror and pain while the top at least looked comparatively placid. While the others wondered about forks for their lunch, I wondered if I’d go into anaphylaxis as my skin began to burn and my throat itch. They thought about the inconvenience of a long walk to the library, and I thought about joint hypermobility and if I’d be able to walk at all. I felt fresh out of trivial.
The adrenaline-fueled race to grab knowledge, keeping so busy that I danced on the edge of losing it – well, that joy feels a bit more fleeting and muted. The joy of being able to keep breathing or to eat without being sick feels much more immediate in comparison. When it’s not my body that’s pulling me apart, it’s my mind. The research I was doing before would enrich human lives, reclaim a lost part of history, and help explain how a part of society functioned. The medical research I do now, wading through dozens of scholarly articles while simultaneously playing catch-up from an education designed to prepare me for the performing arts instead of science, might save my life tomorrow, or someone else’s in a week. They’re both exciting in their own way, and I love both. And right now, my body still doesn’t have the capability to allow me to thoroughly dive into either.
I know because I tried to do both, sort of … to be the old graduate student me. I told myself that if I wanted to slip back into this world, I just needed to do what I did before. Fake it until you make it, right? I faked it for a week. I didn’t know that old habits would be so destructive, though, perhaps because they weren’t before. I went into anaphylaxis, fought off a cold, got physically ill, locked myself out of my apartment and my car, and slept for 12 hours straight when I made it to the weekend. I still missed 3 deadlines although they weren’t critical. Clearly I still have much to learn at college … and it looks like one of the biggest lessons of the term is going to be how to listen to my body but still keep my mind alive and my program’s requirements met.