In this blog Prof Thalia Eley shares some reflections on the difficulties of balancing life and an academic career in the context of a chronic condition. We think much of what she has learned may apply to those finding themselves slow to recover from Covid.
In 2013 I developed a balance disorder. It’s called vestibular neuronitis and it’s similar to it’s better known cousin labyrinthitis. These disorders are reminiscent of a mental health condition in that diagnoses are generally made on the basis of individuals reporting their internal experience to a clinician. In my case, the onset was very dramatic with extreme vertigo, the room swinging wildly as I tried to get out of bed a few days after a heavy head cold. This settled down a little but was still present, and at a conference a week or two later I clearly recall standing in the poster area talking to several close colleagues and finding I could barely string a sentence together as the room swayed around me. In the following weeks, I no longer seemed to be able to think, focus or concentrate, making academic life difficult, and became very worried. I felt like the cogs in my brain had been jammed up with glue. My GP prescribed rest and suggested it would gradually improve, but however easily I took it my mental fog wouldn’t lift.
After a few months I managed to see a consultant who told me the words I have never forgotten “I promise you I will get you better, but it will take work and time”. What she explained was that the usual connections between the information from my eyes and ears had been disrupted by the cold that started the whole thing off, and I would now need to train “new” pathways. The key to this was to undertake a series of very unpleasant physiotherapy exercises involving rapid head and eye movements. Whilst I hated these, I could tell they worked and after a couple more months was slowly able to return to work.
One thing I really noticed was that there was a real case of one step forward, two steps back if I pushed too hard. I was describing it to a student the other day as a bit like recovering from an injury. If you strain your ankle on a run, then go home and ice it, stop running for a few days then slowly and carefully build back up again you’ll probably be fine. If instead you continue your usual running schedule, you’ll probably not only prevent it from healing but make it worse – meaning you have to take even more time off from running. Our brains are part of our bodies, and whilst they don’t include bones or muscles, they also need time for recovery sometimes. Pushing yourself too hard too quickly can seriously delay your recovery. When I get chronically overtired I simply can’t think of any more. I can’t process complex information, I can’t connect ideas, and as a result I’m not much use to my students or colleagues and have to stop until I’m better. I have learned that whilst it is hard, it is best just to give in and take the time to heal properly.
I also have to manage my own energy and stress levels more actively now than I used to. I take great care to go to bed early, ensuring I have enough time to read and fall asleep leaving at least 8 hours before the alarm goes off. I have become pretty rigid about this, and whilst the odd late night is ok, I now often ensure I leave a fun evening early (my students are all familiar with this from those distant days when we used to go to conferences). This is of course much easier than usual at present since there’s no going out anyway… I also plan regular breaks in my day, especially when I have had a patch of being too busy and getting overwhelmed. I use these to do something totally un work-related, reading a book, taking a quick walk, listening to the radio, chatting to someone. When I first went back to work after being ill, more of my day was breaks than work and I literally scheduled it to ensure I didn’t overdo things. I also find mindful meditation and mindful activities (my favourites are doing a jigsaw or going for a walk) useful ways of slowing down. Of course eating well and exercising regularly help too – they both contribute to feeling healthier, happier and more energetic, but for me the key is sleep and regular breaks.
I am aware of many colleagues and students who are dealing with post-covid fatigue so I thought I would share this story in the hope of helping others accept that at times, even if one looks totally well, there is a significant need for rest. Take the time to recover, slow right down and when ready, ease back in gently. In the long run, it will be quicker.