self-care

Saying No in Academia

I can’t tell you how many times I have started my day thinking that if someone were to ask me to be part of a new project or to join a committee I would (and should) say “no.” And usually, that very same day (there must be some cosmic thing going on), someone asks me these exact things. And how do I respond? You guessed it: “Yes”.

So why can’t I say “no”? I say “no” all the time in my personal life and I have no problem with that. But when it comes to my job, several things fight in my head. First, I am convinced that if I don’t join the committee on reevaluating the color of a particular flyer (I am making that one up by the way) or if I am not part of this new project that looks at rebuilding our library underground (again, making it up), then I will be missing out on something great, on networking possibilities, but perhaps more importantly, that I will be denied tenure.

Yes, in my head, I somehow convince myself that saying “no” to yet another thing when I am already burning out from all the work I have will somehow be the reason why I will be denied tenure. Nevermind the fact that I am a hardworking woman who excels at her job (yes, totally flattering myself here) and that being granted tenure depends on so much more than one extra project or committee. Because in my head, I worry that saying “no” might mean passing on a great opportunity and destroy my dreams of being tenured.

But that’s not all. Another reason why I can’t seem to say “no” is because I feel that I am never doing enough. Yes, I am overwhelmed. Yes, I am currently reaching the maximum of my multi-tasking abilities. Yes, I am working on several articles, book chapters, projects, and even a book! But I always feel like I am never doing enough, like my colleagues do so much more than me and therefore that I should do more. This is so unhealthy and so untrue. But it does not matter because the little voice in my head tells me I need to do more, more, more!

I guess the first step is to recognize and admit the problem. The second step will be to learn how to say “no” and not immediately regret it or worry that it might affect my career. This is yet another way in which I am learning to care for myself and my well-being. It won’t be easy but I already feel slightly better writing about this.

 

Self-Care in Academia: A Follow-Up

I wrote my post, Living with Alopecia: On Self-Care in Academia, because I felt it was important for me to share my story. Academia can make you feel so lonely and insecure, to the point that you try to hide your mental and physical issues from everyone for fear of appearing weak. But you know what? Sharing openly what you are going through, well that’s being strong and powerful.

I received so many messages of friends, colleagues, people I had never met, who are going through similar issues, sharing with me how stress has affected their lives, and thanking me for writing my post. You are welcome and thanks to everyone for being so open as well. I am not alone, you are not alone, and together we can strive to take better care of ourselves.

I also received a few suggestions on how to deal with stress-related issues. For instance, some make sure to sleep for 8-9 hours a night while others focus on having hard limits to their work day and leaving work out the door once home. Some don’t work on the weekends and instead focus on their families, outside activities, activism, etc… Others practice yoga or meditate every night before going to bed. Personally, I went back to working out a few times a week (I really like the free videos at Popsugar) and to cooking. I have also started this membership at a spa where I can either get a massage or a facial every month. I LOVE this. And my cat is the queen of being relaxed so I try to follow her example! Everyone is different so find something that works for YOU.

Am I cured all of a sudden? No. I have not become the least stressed person in the universe. And my hair has not regrown magically yet either. But I do enjoy my work and my life more. I am less bothered by the little things over which I have no control. I am happier. While I still suffer from the imposter syndrome and I am still a stressed-out person, I do find I am making progress towards a better work-life balance. So thanks “Alopecia on my head” because you helped me realize how important taking care of myself is.

Living with Alopecia: On Self-Care in Academia

I have debated about writing this blog post. But as many articles have been published of late on self-care in academia (see Raul Pacheco-Vega’s article or Eva Lantsoght’s piece ), I thought it was time for me to share my story. Why now? Because last night, as I was pulling my hair into a ponytail, I realized one of my holes was back.

But first, let’s go back to December 2014, as I am getting ready for my defense and chatting with my hairdresser. See, I wanted to look pretty for my defense, or at least have pretty hair because frankly, I looked like a hot mess. I was having trouble sleeping, I had big stomach aches, and I was highly irritable. I am a naturally stressed person but combining finishing the dissertation while being on the job market, that was more than I could handle. Going to the hairdresser was usually a very relaxing moment. What’s better than being pampered? But that day, my hairdresser looked at my hair and had a concerned look on her face. She asked me if I had seen any changes with my hair. I had not. She then told me, as delicately as possible, that I had two holes in my scalp, two big areas that were completely naked, smooth, no hair at all. Luckily, she said immediately, they are hidden by my hair so you can’t see them. Yes, I guess I am lucky!

I tried not to think about these holes during my defense but as soon as this was over, I went to the doctor. The verdict was clear: I was suffering from alopecia areata. Alopecia areata is a type of hair loss that happens when your immune system attacks hair follicles by mistake, clumps of hair fall out and you usually end up with smooth, round hairless patches on the scalp or other areas of the body.  This can be caused by stress and there is no treatment. All you can do is wait until the hair grows back. It usually does, but it may take months.

That diagnosis was like a shock to me. Yes, I could not see the holes, but I could feel them. I knew they were there. I could not attach my hair because people would notice them. I could not stand to touch my scalp while washing my hair because I hated feeling the smooth, hairless spots. But most importantly, I realized that these past few months, these past few years, I had not taken care of myself. I had let stress take over my life. It was a wake up call. I needed to change. I had to, if I did not want to lose more hair.

Now, I wish it were that simple. Change does not happen overnight, and it was hard for me to take care of myself while actively looking for a job. But I started working out more, which helped a little bit with my sleeping issues, and I started sharing more of my fears with my family and my husband. Talking helped as well. Nevertheless, more holes appeared. It took me a while, but I learned to live with them.

As the first two holes started to disappear, two new appeared but about a year and a half in, all seemed ok again. My hair was growing back, I had found a a great job with amazing supportive colleagues, I was happy.  Until yesterday.

I called my husband and asked him to look at my scalp. I knew there was a new hole but I could not see it. I needed him to look and take a picture. I had to see. And there it was, a big hairless, smooth circle, at the exact same place it was back in December 2014. My husband also found another one but told me hair was starting to grow back there.  But it did not matter. I started crying. I thought I was doing good. Yes, I have been very stressed these past weeks but I go to yoga once a week and I got a massage last weekend, isn’t that enough? Well, my body is sending me a clear message: no that’s not enough.

So here I am, back to square one.  I was not taking good care of my body and my mind and I was trying to ignore it. But once again, my body is here to remind me that self-care is important. While publishing articles, working on a book, submitting grant applications are important in academia (and for my job), I am more important than that.

That’s why this post is more a way for me to hold myself accountable. I know that I will live with alopecia all my life, until maybe someone finds a cure.  I also know that I can’t let stress rule my life. I can’t let anxiety rule my nights. I can’t keep on having to ask my husband, tears in my eyes, to check how many hairless patches I have on my scalp. It’s time for a change, it’s time for self-care, it’s time to put myself first. I am not exactly sure how to do that, but I’ll figure it out. I have the support of my husband, my family, my friends, and that’s what matters. Until then, I guess I won’t put my hair into a ponytail.