Confessions of a (chronically ill) graduate student*

Level up! You have won the achievement award: being able to tell whether Advil is round or oval just by the sound of the bottle being shaken over a phone.

#gamesgraduatestudentsplay #summerresearch #maymester #grading #finals



A Snarky Guide to Surviving the Holidays

The holidays are upon us. Filled with long shopping sprees, holiday parties, religious festivities, travel, the works. Basically, it’s a Nightmare Before and After Christmas for anyone with chronic conditions. So here is a snarky guide to surviving the holiday season. (Warning: any resulting aggravation of medical conditions, unemployment, and familial estrangement are not the fault of the author. Chronic conditions may range from anxiety to Zanaflex reaction, not excluding being chronically enrolled in school or parental status.)

  • For every piece of unsolicited medical advice you receive at the family Christmas party, take a shot of your favorite beverage. Note: may need to join AA before attempting.
  • Gather fellow friends with families. Make a bingo card out of the most commonly asked questions you and your friends with children are asked. The first to get Bingo gets their car detailed by the others.
  • Bring along a marker and a stack of gift tags. Each time you are asked why you aren’t over your long-standing chronic illness, replace a tag on one of the presents under the tree with a different name.
  • For every time you are asked what you will do with your degree, eat one of those little holiday chocolates. No response can possibly be expected while gagging on cheap holiday candy.
  • Use your fellow traveler’s self-preservation instincts to help get luggage into overhead bins. Say “oh, you might want to move a bit, I don’t want to drop this on your head” and see if that person doesn’t – for lack of anywhere safe to move – jump up and help you load your luggage. If not, say “my bad, no room here” and go find a spot over someone with better survival skills.
  • For every piece of unsolicited baby care advice you receive, swipe a cheese ball. When the party runs out of cheese balls, claim a diaper disaster and flee.
  • Every time you’re asked if you really need (X medical treatment that qualified medical professionals and yourself have determined you totally need) swipe a nut from a bowl. The total number of nuts you have at the end of the event correlates nicely to the total number of nuts at the party.
  • Get a group of fellow graduate students together. For every time you’re asked when you’re going to be done with your degree, gain a point. The loser has to proofread the winner’s bibliography.
  • When receiving a gift that you’re allergic to, just smile and make a special little note to send that person a thank-you card coated with very loosely glued glitter.
  • Every time someone comments on how much stuff you carry now that you’re a mom and how strong your arms must be, smile and hand them something heavy to hold “just while I go do this.” Small children, a stroller, and the complete Oxford English Dictionary should be about right. Come back in a half-hour, when their arms are nice and jelly-like, to retrieve it.
  • It’s not crazy to consider renting a small semi-truck to transport your PT equipment, medical gear, hot pads, ice packs, special furniture, medicines, and clothes for a four day vacation. 
  • If you are working on a research project over break, be sure to set a page goal for each day. Burn at least that many pages of hideous reports, student papers, bad research, or committee minutes each day to get that warm holiday glow.
  • When strong-armed into doing a lengthy craft project , carefully place plastic wrap under the lids of all the glues and glitters. Claim they’re dried out or empty, then go take a nap instead.


Little Words

I’m a PHD student. I can be sensitive about words. Words, after all, make up a big part of my life right now. We graduate students are especially trained to watch what we say and how we say it, because words convey thoughts, thoughts influence actions, and by actions the world is changed. (In particular, it can change whether or not your dissertation committee says the all-important little four-letter word, “pass.”)

Thanks to this sensitivity, I can’t help but notice the language used by myself and others talking about illness. Of whatever type. They’re Little Words. Here are a few favorites:

  • “Only.” For example, you only needed 6 bags of fluid and glucose and a blood transfusion before you stopped fainting.
  • “Just.” As in, Just needed to lie down.
  • “Little,” or worse still, “little bit.” She is a little bit nauseated.
  • “Wonky.” Her balance is a bit wonky.
  • “Tiny.” There is a tiny problem with your immune system.
  • “Ticker” or the like. “How’s the old ticker?”
  • “Sorry.” A personal favorite; I’ve practically substituted it in for the word “hello.”

We need to be able to use funny words to make a stressful situation less intense. We need words to express a degree of something – “a lot,””a little” – and sometimes it is hard to be more specific than that. We need words to exclude things – “only that book,” and not all the others.

What I hear far more often, though, are words not being used to express whether something is “little” in size, but being used to belittle. Funny words used in decidedly non-funny ways. Intensifying words being used to minimize feelings. Adjectives somehow being used not to describe, but to distort what is really happening. Quaint euphemisms even for parts of the body that not only does everyone have, but aren’t even usually deemed socially unacceptable

Yes, my concern over these little words is pet peeve. But words have an odd way not just of conveying thoughts, but influencing how thoughts are formed as well. The language that people use, and become accustomed to, helps shape thoughts. Think about a person who has grown up hearing that menstrual pain is “just a little women’s problem.” How hard will it be to reshape that thinking to accept that, in some cases, it’s not “just a little” anything, and that this pain might be the symptom of a much more serious condition? How much longer will it take to get medical help? The little words we use shape how our bosses, teachers, friends, and relatives view us – and how we view our own experiences.

I use these words myself far more often than I should. I apologize constantly for being me, because being chronically ill means frequently having trouble with “normal” life and social expectations. I slip into saying “it’s just a bit worse.” I didn’t “just” need to lie down: I needed to lie down. Full stop, period, end of thought. I am working on changing how I use these little words, because in my position, the little words I use shape the much larger thoughts of my students.

Little words are important. Tomorrow a nation will vote, and in the USA the weight of little words is going to come to bear. All the past little words of candidates and little words of bills will translate into action. Have a care with the little words. They can mean big things.

Eastern Comma

dsc_0196Unexpectedly, magically, a piece of bark or a bit of dead brown leaf suddenly comes to life, brilliant orange soaring against the gentle breeze, and then just as suddenly disappears.


I casually squiggle behind a sign, army-crawl over dusty dirt, fold myself in a gap between two boulders, and angle my camera as the butterfly equally casually flits its wings twice, circles my head, and heads the opposite direction, up a 45-degree slope and back into the sun-dappled woods. More appear near the state park’s open lawn, though, sampling the dirt.


They’re the first commas I’ve taken a picture of, and unfortunately I was experimenting with a new lens filter. I didn’t realize until after I made it home and looked at the shots that one of the reasons I might have been fighting so hard to pull things into focus was more than just exhaustion and vertigo… the lens protector might just not be the best. A lot of my shots from that day have a very odd distortion pattern. Combine that with a tad too shallow depth of field, and some are really carnival-esque shots.


Yes, there is a butterfly in this photograph!

A fantastic butterfly day, a bad photography day — one of a long run for me! Anyone else have a hard time with UV filters or lens protectors? Any recommends?

Pieris rapae



Or your good ol’ cabbage white. 🙂 It is one of the first butterflies I snap in spring and one of the last in fall, so hardy it can survive a couple of cold nights, so bright among the greens, browns, golds, and reds of our late fall that it pops out nicely.


These were taken in a friend’s garden one windy afternoon. If I wasn’t being blown sideways, the butterflies or the plants were. Bad aperture control and focus on my part did the rest!

It was a good day to experiment, and as I’m still learning this art, I need a lot of “experiment” days. 🙂 The weather’s supposed to be nice for the next several days, with winds only in the 10-20 mph range. Wish me luck and send me tips. 😀


Confessions of a (chronic pain) graduate student

Friday evening. 5:05 pm. Leaving work!! Lit review done!! Passed a medical test with flying colors!! PARTY!!!!! Partypartypartyparty!!!!!!

Friday evening, 5:21 pm. Ok. How about something party-ish?!?! That will be wicked!

Friday evening, 5:30 pm. Almost home. Right, how about something calm and just a tad fun?

Friday evening, 5:57 pm. *Eats cereal on kitchen floor*

Friday evening, 6:11 pm. *ZZZZZZzzzzzzzzz*