My first year as an assistant professor was hard. This did not come as a surprise to me, because I did not fall off the proverbial turnip truck last week. I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this job. During graduate school, I attained completely unsustainable-but-glorious levels of productivity, and by the end, I was exhausted. I submitted grant applications during my postdoc that had me burning the candle from both ends, and when I was finished, I knew what it was to feel tired in my very bones. Those feast-and-famine cycles of productivity can wreak havoc in the long-term. I had my 3rd-year PhD slump, and my post-PhD postdoc slump. I’ve recognized that slumps come, and they can be a natural part of the creative process, and I try not to be too hard on myself when I’m in one.
But last spring, I was tired all the time. By late spring, I was spacing out, losing focus, dropping balls. I was late — really late — on a couple of projects. I was falling asleep at 2pm at my desk. I blamed it on not going to the gym, not being hydrated enough, or not eating whatever magical combination of foods was what I needed to feel well and be healthy. I blamed it on depression and anxiety, and thought that maybe what I needed was to go back to a therapist and work through whatever it was that was that was keeping me from getting work done.
I thought it was in my head. It’s so easy to internalize feeling like total crap all the time, as a consequence of working hard. It’s easy to forget what feeling good actually feels like when it’s been a long time.
And then I had a period for 72 days straight. I went to a doctor, and was diagnosed with severe anemia, brought on by the menorrhagia I’ve been struggling with since going off hormonal birth control a few years ago. I’ve written previously about birth control, health issues, and my tenure-track uterus and the problems it’s caused me. It turns out that the body just isn’t designed to bleed as hard or as much I as do, and that has consequences.
I went on iron (plus C!) and a B-complex, and started feeling more human within a couple of weeks. I’ve been slowly getting back into physical activity, after months away from the gym. I soon realized that the anemia was the reason my legs had felt like they were full of lead and my lungs were on fire. I was able to work past 2 pm (and actually get things done!). I started making breakthroughs on my projects once I stopped having afternoon brain fogs or found myself spacing out at my desk for ten minutes without realizing it.
I did end up telling some colleagues that I’d had a health problem that was contributing to my being late on projects. They were all very sympathetic and supportive, though I still feel awful. For this to have happened in my first year was both good and bad; good, because people are very forgiving, and no matter what you do I think the first year is going to feel rough. Bad, because I’m behind on things that should have been done a long time ago, to set me up for success in years 2 and 3.
What amazes me, though, is how much I thought it was me — not me as in my body, but me as in my mind. I really beat myself up over feeling badly, thinking I was brooding, or depressed (which doesn’t make it okay, either, by the way). I’d give myself half pep-talks, half lectures, trying to shake off the chronic exhaustion, only to feel like I was letting myself down, over and over. It became a total snowball of self-directed negativity, when all I really needed was some iron.
My health issues aren’t over (we still need to figure out why my tenure-track uterus is misbehaving), but at least I know why I feel badly and what I can do, in the short-term, to mitigate that. Some people don’t even get that — they might struggle with chronic pain or fatigue or mental illness without ever learning the what or the why. But when we’re in a position where we normalize feeling drained, tired, unhappy, anxious, or stressed as the cost of doing business, that’s not okay. My body was telling me something was wrong for months; rather than listen, I berated myself for feeling badly.
I love Meghan Duffy’s post arguing that you don’t need to work 80 hours a week to be a successful academic, and I think that there’s a mental and physical component to that, too. The mind and the body aren’t separate entities; the health of one affects the well-being of the other. There will be weeks where things are rough, absolutely. I don’t expect every day to be cupcakes and butterflies. But we need to tune into our mental and physical health as much as our productivity, and give ourselves permission to figure out what’s wrong, seek treatment, rest, and heal.
In the meantime, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, and I’m reframing my thinking about working smart, versus working hard.