At the weekend I presented a paper at a conference. I’ve presented three times before in various universities but this was the first time I presented at home. I was incredibly nervous. Already, relationships with other PhD students in my department were…strained. I didn’t want to live up to the stereotype people have of me as a blonde bimbo. I wanted them to respect my research and maybe accept me as an equal.
I think (hope) I succeeded.
Mine was the first paper of the whole conference and as such, the room was packed. There were over 20 people, which in academic terms is practically Wembley. Best Friend and I were in the same panel and had practised together earlier that morning in our office. I wore a pink dress which helped my confidence a little and was easily the brightest in the room, fashion-wise. My hands were shaking but I made it through my 20 minute presentation and then sat anxiously awaiting the dreaded questions. Presenting is fine, you can practise, you have a script, maybe a colourful powerpoint. But the questions….could be absolutely anything. I got five, the first was one I was hoping to get as I knew I could expand on something I had briefly mentioned in the paper. One was a little tough, not unanswerable, just a bit of a curveball. But all in all, I think it went okay and I was more than relieved to go off and sit down once it was over.
The rest of the conference I was able to actually enjoy as I didn’t have any worries about my turn. I got great feedback from other students and members of staff. I survived the conference dinner with my toddler-like meal of plain chicken and mashed potato and had a great laugh with a girl who has decided to adopt me (even though she’s only four years older). Upon returning from the bathroom, she asked me if I had noticed what was for sale in the machine in there. You could actually purchase a jewelled G-string in either black or pink. She spent the rest o the next day calling me pink string.
Friday was fine and I woke up on Saturday raring to go. I stocked up on coffee and fruit juice whenever there was a break but by lunchtime I was flailing. My back was not amused at being forced to sit still in very uncomfortable chairs, my tummy was protesting against the small portion of pasta salad I had for lunch and my whole body was crying out with exhaustion. I honestly don’t remember much of the panel after lunch, during which I fidgeted and squirmed in pain. Popping pills and trying not to cry. Best Friend told me to go home before the last panel but by this point, there were very few people left and I wanted to prove to myself and everyone that I could last.
It was just sheer stubbornness (and tramadol) that kept me going to the bitter end. Best Friend and others commented on how they could actually see me physically weakening as the day went on. I often think about whether I can really keep up with academics when I’m in such a sorry state and have such a heavy burden. Some days it is a struggle to get out of bed and get dressed, let alone drive into the office and study. It is well known that I need advance warning about things to alter my time accordingly. I booked myself off Sunday and Monday because I knew it would take me a while to recover. It’s now Wednesday and I’m just about feeling myself. In a weird way, I’m proud of myself for getting through it and while I’m not exactly over the moon that everyone knows how ill I am just by watching me, maybe it’ll help them appreciate how much of an effort things are for me. Life with a chronic condition can sometimes be like climbing up a mountain. It’s not necessarily about making it to the summit, just picking a point and working to get yourself there, no matter how tough it is. Once you’re there, you stop and make camp for a while before trying to make it to the next point.