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What I Offer to My Students as a Chronically Ill Professor

Faced with the skepticism, the baby talk, the jokes that aren’t funny, the implicit and explicit accusations of laziness and malingering, and the horrified stares and averted eyes as I shuffle by, surgical mask firmly in place, carrying a cane and clutching at the wall in order to keep from falling, I realized I needed to articulate my value to myself. This way, I wouldn’t absorb other people’s beliefs about my low worth. And I hope this essay can help others going through the same thing to understand that they, too, have something important and unique to offer to the world, as well as open the eyes of those who do not (yet) have limitations

One chilly morning in November, I got up feeling…odd. My hat seemed to press down strangely on my head, rendering me peculiarly dizzy, and by the time I set off for campus, little quasi-hallucinations were flashing in my peripheral vision.

Nonetheless, I made it safely to work and taught my first class, and even my second, despite throwing away my packed lunch mid-bite, when the carrot sticks suddenly struck me as unpleasantly warm, and the greasy pools floating on top of my hummus turned my stomach. I even got a surge of energy between my second and third classes, and buoyantly jogged back and forth between the classroom and the office.

But with 20 minutes left in my third class, a powerful wave of dizziness and nausea engulfed me. Somehow I made it to the 50 minute mark, and then raced to the restroom to be sick. Afterwards I made my shaky way home, took some Tylenol, and lay down, hoping to revive myself in time for the guest lecture and dinner the department was hosting that evening.

And I did. But when I stood up after the dinner was over, I had the powerful sensation that I was wearing the ceiling as a hat.
“Never mind,” I told myself as I drove home, alternately giddy and shaking with fever, “It’s just a touch of the flu. I’ll be over it in no time.”

What has followed has been a multi-year, and still ongoing, saga of slow improvement and sudden relapse, accompanied by medical mystification and well-meaning suggestions of snake oil of all stripes. I transformed from someone who did things like go backpacking in the Arctic, to someone who can “hit the wall” like a marathoner at mile 20 just from walking across a room. Carrying a single book from car to classroom can spell a multi-day disaster. (Granted, that book was War and Peace, but still.)

This leads me to ask myself: since I can no longer rush around frenetically like I used to, burning the candle at 16 different ends at once, what do I bring to the table for my students that other, healthier and more energetic professors, do not?

Of course, the other professors may not be much healthier or more energetic than I am: The CDC reports that almost 10 percent of adults have visual difficulties, almost 16 percent are hard of hearing, and over 32 percent “have at least one basic actions difficulty.” Meanwhile, in “Chronic Illness and the Academic Career,” Stephanie A. Goodwin and Susanne Morgan say that “more than half of Americans experience at least one chronic illness,” a situation that can only increase in severity on college campuses as women, who experience disproportionately from chronic illnesses, make up a larger and larger percentage of the professoriate.

And that’s just physical symptoms.

Katie Rose Guest Pryal, who regular writes about mental health and academia, estimates that 25 to 30 percent of academics have invisible psychiatric illnesses such as bipolar disorder. The normal, “healthy” academic may be the exception, not the rule. Which is why it’s not a bad thing to have some glaring examples of imperfect health front and center in campus life.

If you’re already ill, then you may be nodding your head in comprehension. But if you’re anything like I was before I became ill, at this point you have a little voice in your head screaming, “Not me! I watch my health! I live a life of irreproachable virtue. Other people might have these problems, but not me!”

Ah well. It’s a good thing that when I was thinking those thoughts, I nonetheless had examples of other people dealing with many of the same things I am now. Debilitating dizziness, extreme difficulty walking, and soul-sucking fatigue are even less fun than they sound. And that’s why it was an even better thing for me to see that when these other people who had plunged into the abyss of chronic illness before me couldn’t function “normally,” things still got done. It’s easy, especially for driven, disciplined people like me, to fall into the trap of thinking that things have to be “perfect,” that schedules must be kept and plans must be executed exactly as devised. But any plan, no matter how perfect, is just one way of achieving a goal. Being forced to deviate from it doesn’t necessarily mean failure, it just means you may have to be a little more flexible and creative in getting there, even if you have to operate in ways that aren’t quite “normal.”

I, in my vain and thoughtless youth, used to be astounded and even a little horrified whenever I would see sick or disabled people laugh and have fun like a “normal” person, let alone work. But it turns out they were “normal” people, and were living what in many ways were essentially “normal” lives, because everyone, no matter how different they might seem, lives the life that’s normal for them. This is why students (and colleagues need to have those of us who aren’t so healthy around. Not as a grim memento mori, but as a reminder that life goes on.

Because life does go on, even if it’s not how you thought it would go. Experiencing illness and injury brings home the fragility not only of plans, but of your very identity, and with that, the primacy of reality. Which is yet another reason why it’s good for students (and colleagues) to be exposed to disability: it’s another form of diversity, one that is unique. Most people will remain the same race and gender they were born with; many will never leave their nationality, sexuality, or socioeconomic class. But anyone who lives any amount of time at all is going to experience varying levels of physical and mental ability, and the status as a healthy and able person can change in a single heartbeat. When that happens, you discover that the outer trappings of the person you thought you were are gone, perhaps forever, and you may not be able to get them back, no matter how much you and everyone around you wants you to.

This is a hard lesson to learn, and one we instinctively shy away from. However, by being exposed to people with different conditions, sometimes ones that require them to deviate from the standard picture of what teaching looks like, students can learn that learning takes place under all sorts of conditions, especially less than favorable ones. They can prepare themselves for the time when they, too, will be the ones with the wheelchair, the crutches, the hearing aid, or the less visible but no less debilitating condition that can sap your energy and take away the things you thought made you “you.” And perhaps they can then come to understand that just because life as you know it has changed, it still goes on, sometimes with gifts of patience and compassion you would have never gained otherwise. And that may be a lesson that will stay with them far longer than any form of textbook knowledge.

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