Last week as I ate each meal, sat at my desk or in a conference room, talked to friends, went to bed, my mouth ached. Not my teeth exactly, but every other part of my mouth: gums, inner cheeks, tongue. One morning I brushed my teeth and spat blood into the sink, a splash of red that filled me with dismay: external proof of what is going on inside my body.
I was experiencing a fairly common side effect – that has, thankfully, for the time being passed – of blood thinners. Two weeks ago yesterday, after a trip to A&E, a night in the AMU, and a battery of tests, I was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism. Two words that together sound terrifyingly life-threatening. “Blood clot in the lung” meanwhile has a more prosaic, though grotesque, sort of ring to it.
My blood clot is very small. A tiny place of darkness found by a machine that scanned me as I lay very still, inhaling krypton gas, waiting for my superpowers to kick in. I expected telekenesis and all I got was this lousy pulmonary embolism! I’m fortunate, both that it’s very small and also that I listened to my instincts and decided that what was going on in my body felt urgent enough to benefit from urgent medical help. Women in particular often won’t make this kind of fuss, will ignore all kinds of symptoms in the face of being too busy to take time off sick. And of course, I benefit from a free national health service. It’s a lot easier to make the choice to go to a hospital if it won’t cost you a thing. There are a lot of things that have worked in my favour, and I am glad of that.
While all the hospital drama was unfolding, I was sending emails from my iPhone to get in touch with the Faculty about the pile of exams marking (yes, Oxford’s marking season carries on into July) I was unlikely now to be able to do. I read an email thread of a colleague desperately searching for replacement markers, and felt guilty. I got a draft of a masters student’s dissertation to comment on, and told her it might take me a few days as I was off sick. On the Wednesday night, after a day and a half of being resilient and jokey, my husband and I ate lasagne and cried together. Not because my prognosis was bleak – it’s not at all – but because the weight of the last 36 hours had felt like so much.
The next day I started my period. Because of the thinners – life-preserving, mouth-aching thinners – there was a lot of blood. For days and nights.
That’s a lot of personal information for an academic blog, isn’t it? But you know that I think an artificial distinction between the personal and professional damages us, makes us seem less human to one another, makes us less kind. The week after my hospital visit I was at Leeds International Medieval Congress, where I gave a paper (to some very kind feedback) and caught up with colleagues, ate sushi with friends: and bled and bled, thinking about the small dark speck in my lung, wondering what it was doing. But for all this, each day I woke up feeling lighter: exhausted, yes, but with a dull fog around my brain and pressure in my chest that I think had actually been there for weeks gone already.
In the aftermath of Leeds IMC, there has been a huge amount of discussion about the “othering” effect of having an Otherness theme, of the ways in which much of the conference replicated racist, misogynistic, ableist norms within medieval studies as a whole. As I’ve said on this blog before, a problem within academia in general is that its essential expectation that the “norm” of an academic professional is a white cis het man effectively makes the embodied nature of our work invisible: and so makes it seem like for those of us whose bodies impact on our working lives (because we’re pregnant, or black, or in a wheelchair, or have clothes or body language that code us as not-straight, etc) seem “unprofessional”.
After the IMC there has been much productive conversation, and some great initiatives such as a network for medievalists with disabilities being set up. We all need to play our part in making “otherness” not “normal” – that to me sounds like smoothing out our rough, abnormal edges until we click into the hegemonic order without fuss – but an expected, a desirable, part of who we are as an academic community.
This blog is part of that. So too is an article the Times Higher Education published today – which I wrote before my hospital trip but feels even more relevant now, especially with the recent furore surrounding Andrew Adonis’s calculatedly ignorant remarks about academics’ summer “break”. The final piece is shorter than the one I submitted, and I’m aware that it skates over all sorts of important issues I wasn’t able to address – precarious jobs, roles that don’t pay over the summer, other reasons besides parenting that academics might not have “free” time in the long vacation – but I do think the last part matters.
A summer vacation should surely count as productive if it leaves you full of creative new ideas about how to approach your scholarship. It should count as a success if it leaves you feeling healthy and relaxed, ready to face the new academic year with enthusiasm rather than dread. And it should count as a triumph if it infuses you with the energy and impetus to keep writing even once the undergraduates return.
We grant ourselves so little room to breathe. We are not machines; our hearts pump on blood. Too much stress, anxiety, and yes, unkindness – from others, and self-inflicted – is like a blood clot in a lung. Not usually fatal, unless it grows too big: but it makes each day slower, harder, lonelier, until it feels difficult to breathe. Each of us is worth more than that.