Writing My Way Through

I’m still uncomfortable being so public about this stuff, even with a nameless blog and a locked Twitter account. I certainly am not this open in everyday life.

But it’s helpful for me, and I know is useful to at least some people. And I guess I’m still in the IDGAF phase: I’m doing the best that I can, and until I find a therapist who really clicks, this is the closest thing I’ve got.

Anyway, after an evening spent binge-watching Junior Bake Off (kids baking! somehow even more soothing than the original!), things have notched back to unpleasant but tolerable this morning. I’m in the office and ready to prep class.

Why am I writing, then? I guess I’m trying to work out the practicalities of what being an academic looks like in the face of what may be — I hate to face this — permanent, if also intermittent, cognitive challenges.

The thing is, there are times (last Wednesday!) when I feel like 90% of my old self. There are specific issues that never go away. My short term memory is sort of shot. Sorry, students whose names I don’t remember. But that’s a problem I can compensate for. It doesn’t threaten my underlying identity.

And as long as I feel like my underlying capacities are somehow intact, but buried beneath this fog — as long as I can see them there during the moments when it clears — I have hope that I can do the work that I care about. And I don’t feel like a complete fraud continuing in the job that I have.

But it is a very hard thing to work around. Part of the fog issue is a sort of mental post-exertional malaise. The more mental effort I exert, the foggier I get. And there’s no quick reset; improvement takes hours, or overnight.

There are days when I can exert quite a bit before this becomes a problem, and days where it starts bad and gets worse. But what’s interesting is both how much of my job doesn’t require much mental exertion, and which tasks now “cost” more than they used to.

For example. I currently have an administrative role. This actually is working out surprisingly well so far. Meetings and emails and writing memos are pretty light on the cognitive front. Teaching is more taxing. I’m definitely an introvert, and teaching has always taken an energy toll for me, as it does for many people. But now it takes a brain toll as well, from the 80 minutes of intense focus.

Real writing, as opposed to blog post writing, is unsurprisingly a high-mental-exertion activity. But, it turns out, so is reviewing. If I “waste” my brain energy on reviewing someone else’s paper, I now lose, from my limited quantity of best-brain-function time, both the time it takes to do the review, and the time it takes to recover from doing it. On the flip side, there are many research-associated activities that don’t seem to run down my reserves as quickly as writing, or, alas, reading challenging texts.

Of course I am enormously lucky to have an incredibly flexible job. I can say no to things, and choose to do more of the work that works for me. Will the world be okay if I stop reviewing, and direct my energies elsewhere instead? Yes, it will. But it is not very easy to do in an economy of favors, and there’s no short way to explain that the cost of an activity is just too high to say yes to — at least not without spending down my credit. I guess I’m still struggling to get the mix right.

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