Why I can’t write a good personal essay

I haven’t gotten a pay check since my fellowship ran out in 2017. Funding is scarce for students in the end of their PhDs and scarcer still for international students with disabilities, so it’s not too surprising that I’ve been turned down for everything I’ve applied for.

Almost 5 years ago, I wrote with regard to applications for funding and otherwise:

Use your story and the survival skills you’ve gained to succeed. I use my escape from rural poverty in personal statements to show that I have incredible drive, creativity, and independence.

But I just can’t do it any more. I can’t make my life a funny, moving, educational story for someone else to judge.

I used to follow my own advice. I turned the ways in which I don’t fit neatly into the world into pat inspiration porn. I talked about disability, adverse childhood experiences, being queer in a culture of religious fundamentalism, childhood poverty, and sexism as obstacles for me to overcome in a story to inspire funders. And I received fellowships that helped me make it through several years of my PhD, a year and a half of unpaid medical leave and many uncovered medical expenses.

But now I’m too tired, too sad, too angry to twist my life into those kinds of narratives. Those things are structural problems reflecting deep prejudices, oppression, & exploitation. I can’t wrap up the things that hurt me the most in a cute package to make someone feel good about giving me money. Funders seem to want to a story where where cleverness and elbow grease make light work of disability and other “obstacles.” Ultimately, telling those stories was personally destructive because I kind of came to believe those stories over time. And they aren’t true.

A little smarts and hard work and luck can’t make my chronically ill body “productive.” Even if they did, it would only make it alright for me – and that’s not good or fair. Telling those stories for so long made dealing with the reality of living-with-chronic-illness-under-capitalism/being disabled and past traumas really difficult.

As soon as I decided the problem wasn’t me, but the response of people and systems to me, I stopped getting funding. As Dr. Sara Ahmed says, “when you expose a problem, you pose a problem.”

Chronic migraine isn’t an obstacle for me to overcome. It is an illness that I live with. It hurts, it’s unpredictable, and the symptoms are strange and varied. But most of my difficulties would not exist in a less ableist, racist, sexist, and capitalist society – the poor care, the financial anxiety, the relationship power dynamics.

  • Migraine would have proper research and maybe even treatment – it wouldn’t be ignored, dismissed, and underfunded in large part because it predominantly affects women (and especially poor women).
  • My disease wouldn’t be stigmatized and belittled in popular culture, despite severe migraine being categorized by the WHO in its most severe disability class along with such diseases and conditions as active psychosis, severe depression, quadriplegia, and terminal stage cancer
  • My disease would be less common – I might not even have developed it – if we had the political will to eliminate poverty and abuse and other such negative “social determinants of health.”
  • Properly funded health care would ensure I received proper disease and pain management, saving me time, money, and suffering. I wouldn’t waste hours every week on insurance paperwork and scheduling with doctors, commuting and waiting at appointments, coordinating my medical care and researching treatments. I would have access to specialists for my disease. My medications would be covered along with physiotherapy and massage. I’d have funded access to therapy to deal with pain that cannot be treated.
  • My PhD wouldn’t have such a short time limit on medical leaves. I wouldn’t lose my income when I am too sick to work. The number of hours I’m able to work wouldn’t determine whether or not I’m allowed to participate in science and research.
  • My ability to financially support myself wouldn’t be tied to the number of hours I’m able to work or widgets I’m able to produce.
  • My immigration status wouldn’t be dependent on my relationship status.
  • I wouldn’t be financially dependent on my partner because I could receive disability benefits while in a relationship with someone who had income. Or I would just get paid for working on my PhD.
  • Disability support would be enough to live on instead of less than the median rent and I’d be eligible for it regardless of my work history and immigration status.
  • I wouldn’t have to rely on friends and family when I’m too sick to care for myself, making it impossible or difficult for me to move or travel – I’d receive funding to employ people (or there would be government aid workers) to help me cook and clean and go about my daily activities.

When I stopped writing narratives that recapitulated ideas about “hard work” and gumption and began talking about structural challenges, about integrating dismantling those structures into my work (or at least getting support to deal with them), I stopped getting funding.

And it didn’t just hurt my funding – my relationship with colleagues has suffered as my attitude has shifted. They like to say things like “you’re so brave” or “it’s so great you always have such a positive attitude” – but when it gets inconvenient or slows me down, if I ask for help advocating for accommodations, or get frustrated with the endless structural barriers my university throws up, they disappear or make excuses or defend those barriers. If I let my good-disabled-person facade drop and express anything but unrelenting cheerfulness, they start pushing me towards the door. It’s not everyone of course, but it’s enough, and it’s people with power, so it matters.

Being “successful” in academia when I’ve faced discrimination and structural barriers has meant parroting oppressive beliefs and mythologies, and I can’t do it any more.

63 thoughts on “Why I can’t write a good personal essay

  1. Thank you. For sharing your experience, and your truth. I too suffer from chronic migraine in Canada. Unlike you I have medical funding… but interestingly only have support because I am so “pro-active” with my own treatment, maintenance and ongoing support systems in a very specific and generic way. Only now am I finding that a path of clarity and “rightfull” frustration is shared with so many others. Thank you for being a pilgrim in lands so seldom travelled through thoughts and speech… may The changes you seek be made manifest. Your truth is valid, and a light in the darkness of our communal soul growth and change. I would like to know if anyone has supported you on foot fighting for equality now that you have shifted your view? Stand! And intention.

  2. Great article.
    I have live with migraine for 60 years trying everything from breathing exercises to yoga (including massage, assorted pain killers and now triptans). Sometimes I get relief, others times, not so much
    I did manage to get through school, college and university and worked until I was able to retire even through many days off work or times I’d have to leave early and get someone to drive me home,
    Five years ago, while in hospital for a different condition, I had severe migraines and finally got proper pain medication, that I can’t afford.

    The worst part is having ***a disability that is invisible***. Everyone just thinks you are slacking off and do not want to share the workload. NOT SO! I am seeing double, the lights are creating more pain and every sound is amplified a hundredfold but no-one can see/feel what I am going though so and I’m expected to work
    I’ve kept diaries (even an app) but there is little I can do. I know some triggers, but some migraines just come out thin air.

    Again, Thanks for pointing out just how debilitating migraines can be.

  3. It’s wrong how universities accept and fund people who can talk about their problems- who can exploit themselves to receive compensation for it. It’s not fair. We shouldn’t have to share our traumatic history to be seen, and we shouldn’t have to share it only in a way that makes it just another obstacle to overcome

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s