#RealTimeChem week: New chemistry circumstances

This post is written for the #RealTimeChem week blog carnival, themed “New elements in chemistry” in celebration of the naming of elements 113, 115, 117 and 118. 

At the time of writing, I’ve been back to research for two solid months, following an interruption to my studies due to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). I have previously written about my experience with this illness – a tale of woe that began over a year ago already. How time flies when you’re desperate not to waste a moment of your precious PhD scholarship!

I digress. In my previous post, I wrote about my experience with CFS and its impact on the quality of my life. It is one thing, however, to live with a chronic condition, and another entirely to return to research while still battling it. I’ve been steering clear of this blog out of the desire to conserve my energy reserves, but the #RealTimeChem week blog carnival theme is just too perfectly suited to my situation to ignore. “Are you adapting to a new life situation that’s affecting your chemistry?” asks the prompt. Yes! Yes I am!

There is a fundamental disconnect between the approach to chronic illness and to research. When doing research, your work and thoughts are rarely focused on the short-term, but instead looking into the future: at the big picture you will paint using your individual pieces of data. More practically, there are always more people who want to use an analytical instrument than there are time for in one day, so early sample preparation and pre-booking your time slot is important. On the other hand, the best-laid plans of mice and people with CFS often go awry. You can’t control when the illness raises its ugly head, so you can’t plan any days you might need to take off. You need to take things day by day, listening to the demands of your body. Moreover, as I talked about in my previous post, I have had a slew of neurological symptoms related to CFS that have tangibly impaired my ability to plan ahead. It’s an unfortunate double-whammy of short-sightedness. Thankfully, my supervisor has lost none of his foresight and from the moment of my return, suggested weekly meetings to discuss my progress. I take notes at these meetings so that plans or ideas we’ve had don’t go forgotten, even when my brain is at its worst. Additionally, I have taken to occasionally taking some time off simply to sit down, think about the experiments I’m running that day or week, and really ask myself why I’m doing them.

I do have days when I’m so confused about what I’m supposed to be doing and what I’m trying to achieve that I feel like bursting into helpless tears. Amusingly, it has become difficult to draw a line between “I’m doing research and I have no idea what I’m doing” and “my brain is foggy from CFS and I have no idea what I’m doing.” As the latter kind of confusion is alleviated by my recovery, the former grows; when CFS fogs up my mind, I don’t have the foresight to worry about the future of my project. In some ways, too, these new circumstances feel very familiar. This research-related helpless confusion is one I have felt, without fail, at the beginning of each research project in the past.

The second major limitation of chronic illness is also related to time, but in a more physical sense. As soon as I returned from sick leave, I successfully applied to change my candidature from full-time to part-time. Even so, I am only gradually becoming capable of meeting these reduced contact hours. In a positive aside, through sheer desensitisation, I’m learning to let go of the guilt that I used to feel on sick days. If I need to take a day off, I need to take a day off. Besides, guilt is an incredibly energy-consuming process, and I have come to accept that there is nothing to be achieved by maintaining it.

From my reduced working hours arises another ugly feeling that feels so much like deja-vu: frustration. Research chemistry is slow and labour-intensive. This is best summarised by words that aren’t mine:


Borrowed with love from   slideshare.net/freerudite

This is, of course, an entirely universal experience in research. I’m simply feeling it more strongly now, perhaps, that I can feel weeks slipping by so quickly without much to show for them at all. The rate of trials has been reduced, so the errors simply feel more prevalent. This frustration is managed best by the company of my favourite coworkers, a glass of wine and sunny weekend days spent far from the lab.

On some days, I already feel like my old self: juggling obligations, pondering on ideas and constructing elaborate plans. I wake up tired, but it doesn’t feel like a life-sapping exhaustion, but more like a tiredness can be cured by some cups of coffee. I still regularly have to remind myself to slow down, because I’m prone to enthusiasm resulting in great bursts of effort that can burn through my energy reserves in a few measly hours. As a whole, I’m learning to manage my situation as it slowly, but surely improves.

At this point, I can cautiously permit myself this: I think I’m going to be alright.

As always, I thank the gorgeous community on Twitter for their support. If you haven’t found me yet, I tweet as @Lady_Beaker. I can also be reached via the comments, or by e-mail at chemistryintersection@gmail.com.


Chemistry picture of the year: Burden

The Ring

This replica One Ring I’ve been carrying around for a better part of this year is symbolic of two things: the first is my undying love for the works of Tolkien, and the second is the different kind of burden I’ve been carrying. The fact that this is genuinely symbolic for me is, in itself, emblematic of my geekiness, but that’s beside the point.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know what this post is about, while those of you who have been following my blog since last year will be feeling a sense of déjà vu. I’m frustrated to report that these two periods of absence are related. Let me start at the beginning.

Following my confirmation in late February, I was preparing to present a colloquium (a short talk on a topic unrelated to my own research) to the School of Chemistry at the University of Melbourne. I also picked up a social media management job at the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, the role of president at a newly established cross-institution Young Chemists’ Group, increased my ballet dancing to two classes a week and adopted a cat. This seems like a lot to have had on my plate at once, but after recovering from my intense bout of glandular fever last year, I felt superhuman. My energy levels were through the roof, and I was determined to make up for those months spent juggling illness and PhD studies last year.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that I started slipping. At first, I started spending my weekends mostly asleep. I’d sleep 12-14 hours a night and often have up to a 3-hour nap during the day. I’d complain to my mother, a former nurse, about how I felt sick without having “any real symptoms.” I often felt disoriented during the day, and began struggling with word recollection — I even had trouble remembering names of people I’d encounter several times a week. I stopped dismissing these as side-effects of simple tiredness when, during a ballet class, I had to sway off the dance floor and lie down to avoid fainting. I went to see a doctor. Blood tests came back negative. He said to come back if I started feeling worse.

It became obvious to everyone that I was ill. I couldn’t go to the university on consecutive days: one day I would work, then sleep for two. I started feeling more lethargic, more confused, more dizzy. I stopped attending ballet, relinquished my presidency and had to return the cat to his foster carer. I missed meetings and appointments. I saw two other doctors. More blood tests and a chest X-ray came back negative. By this point, it was late April. My “diagnosis of exclusion,” as the third doctor put it, was chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). It’s common for it to follow from a viral infection like glandular fever, he said, but uncommon for it to skip a couple of months like mine did. My symptoms fit all the diagnostic criteria.

My extremely supportive supervisor and I decided that the best course of action for me would be to take sick leave from June to August, inclusive. I was prepared to live on my savings, but to my delight, the scholarship department approved paid sick leave for almost the entire duration. I’d like to use this space to thank the University of Melbourne for its support of the sufferer of a still poorly-understood condition.

Recovery has been frustratingly slow, not the least because there is no medication or readily available treatment. I’m not a patient person by nature, but this illness has forced patience upon me. CFS, in my experience, isn’t something you can fight; it fights back. You try to push through it, to expand your limits, and you suffer the payback — if not immediately, then the following day. Really, this illness feels almost like it was crafted to make me do the absolute opposite of what I instinctively want to do. It’s the anti-me.

This is accurate also because my experience of CFS is primarily neurological. I still maintain that I have never felt exhaustion like I did during my bout of glandular fever last year, and yet, I am now less equipped to deal with the lethargy that I do feel. I often feel defeated by my illness. I need someone to tear me out of bed in the morning, or I will sleep until I’m good and ready. I’m often irrationally emotional and disoriented. My writing might feel different to read because of my difficulty to concentrate and access my mental faculties; my word recollection is still impaired, alongside my general memory. I struggle to keep on top of plans for more than a day in advance.

I’ve caught myself wishing that instead of CFS, I had an “actual physical illness.” I would wish that there was a pill I could take, or a treatment I could attend. And then I’d just feel guilty, because I can’t imagine how many people would wish what they had was as relatively benign as CFS. I’d feel guilty, because my father, a stage 4 bowel cancer survivor (in remission for over four years), would pity me and tell me that he understands how chronic illness feels. He also seems to believe that I will be better and stronger for this experience.

I have not yet had and aren’t convinced I will have some sort of illness-related epiphany. I do acknowledge that thanks to CFS, for the first time since basically the beginning of high school, I’ve been able to focus solely on what I and my body need. I’ve been able to remember how much I love spending time outside, instead of simply using that space beyond my front door as a gateway from where I am to where I need to go. I remember that research is attractive to me because I love doing things with my hands, from knitting to gardening. I get to enjoy the numerous wonderful doggies that people in my area take out on walks in the afternoon and I am occasionally privileged enough to get to pet. Currently, I don’t view these things as an equal exchange for my suffering, but my perspective may change with time. I don’t know if I’ll now magically become a better-adjusted person with a more balanced view of work and life. I’m skeptical, but I guess we’ll see.

Without doubt, I’m doing much better than I was at the beginning of my sick leave. I’m starting to feel more like myself, and my endurance of physical and mental exertion is increasing. I’m optimistic that within a couple more months, I’ll be back to normal. My supervisor continues to be supportive and has approved my plan to return to my studies part-time until the end of the year. I am wary of stories that recount people with CFS relapsing as they return to their normal lives after the worst is over, so I’ll have to remain diligent about not over-exerting myself.

It’s been a rocky start to my PhD studies for sure. I’m glad I’m not particularly superstitious, because if I were, I might have already walked away. Even so, I fear there may be a limit to the hardship I’ll endure. Here is to hoping my limits aren’t tested.

Thank you for reading this post. I’d like to offer a special thanks to all of my wonderful Tweeps who have supported me this year. If you or someone you know are suffering from CFS, please feel free to contact me to exchange stories. I found sharing experiences extremely helpful, since finding medical support was such an uphill struggle. As always, I can be contacted in the comments, by e-mail at chemistryintersection@gmail.com, and on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker.