Critically endangered co-dependence

This week has been a fairly rough one for this normally optimistic person. I had an attack of the ‘what ifs’ (generally a sign of imminent over thinking, in my case).

I was having a typical grief reaction (which have become common enough in my life in the past few years, for me to recognise the process) but strangely enough, I wasn’t grieving for the future loss of my faculties, due to my recent MS diagnosis…I was grieving for the future I had expected to have…up until that fateful day, just before Christmas.

Now, as most regular readers are aware, I identify very strongly as an active scientific researcher. And my grief reaction was triggered when I started to consider the current ‘fight’ I’ve been engaged in as an EMCR for the past few years (common to many of my peers, like the wonderful Nikola Bowden ) and whether I could continue, in light of my recent diagnosis.

As outlined in the previous post ‘Know your enemy’, many people have extolled me to keep up the ‘fight’. Some are referring to my health ‘battles’ but some are referring to my current EMCR struggle. I also get the standard advice (sometimes from the same people) that I ‘need to look after yourself as a priority’.

Now, I was already juggling a young family (including a disabled son), heavy teaching/service requirements as well as trying to eek out a semblance of a research career, in the absence of big grants that would allow me to employ staff (even part time) to help me wrangle my growing gaggle of PhD students.

As I think of these students, I now find myself making decisions that could be construed as ‘leaning out’ (in the Sandberg sense) as the result of my diagnosis. I have started making alternative ‘plan B’ for their future supervision, in case I find myself unable to stomach the continuing ‘fight’.

Now, engaging in this process led me to the slippery ‘what if’ slope of calculating the amount of resources allocated to me, to conduct research. Expensive labs (including the shiny new one I helped design…under construction as I type) and small (but cumulative) amounts of money for consumables for my students.

I began to realise the seeming futility of it all and the waste of research resources I would represent, currently…as an EMCR dabbler and most certainly in the future, if I did what is best (for my health) and I should extricate myself from the research component of my tenure. This dawning horror was almost too awful for me to contemplate…but I was considering it…even though the very thought, was causing a lump in my throat (I am welling up as I type…and I am not one prone to such histrionics, normally).

On the way home from work that day, I was able to blink back the tears long enough to reach a deserted beach. As I walked towards the water’s edge, the dam of grief broke and waves of sobs poured out of me, to be heard only by the hooded plovers (who’ve got their own problems).

I must have stood on the beach, body wracked with grief spasms, for a full 20 mins. Then my habit of reflection started to break through my visceral reaction. I began to ask myself: What are you grieving exactly? Are you grieving for your lost future self, snatched away by the shock of the MS diagnosis? Or are you grieving the loss of your expected future, which contained some delusion of a glittering research career?

Then I realised, that for me…these two things fairly much equate to the same thing. Almost immediately, I acknowledged that this is not a healthy mentality and perhaps has hallmarks of the mindset of an addict, or someone co-dependent on the validation given by an abusive relationship.

I arrived home later that evening, with eyes still raw from crying, though dry enough to pass muster from both husband and kids. As I sank onto the couch…my husband asked me what drink I wanted. ‘Gin’ was my one word reply. He was perplexed (as I am currently on Febfast and not supposed to fall off the wagon….particularly to use alcohol as an emotional crutch) so asked he again. My reply was ‘Gin’ once more.




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10 responses to “Critically endangered co-dependence

  1. Are you feeling any better now? I’m not going to let MS define me, I’m going to fight it and not have it take over my life. I imagine life with a disabled son is terribly demanding, perhaps you need a time out for a day or two from parenting. Just to take a breath and for some thinking time?


  2. Yes, a bit better. But this post is more about the grind of trying to be an Early Career Researcher…MS is just a straw that may break the camel’s back? It’s about my identity as a science researcher…and how clinging to that identity is unhealthy, from a mental health perspective. Science is the *only* thing I have ever let define me. Marriage, motherhood, miscarriage, MS…all could have (and certainly motherhood does for many women) but I chose research science. And the thought of perhaps selecting ‘the quite life’ of the Alt Academic track now (desk job, same pay, less responsibility?) …is filling me with grief and dread. Due to my addiction to being seen as a ‘scientist’. I need to learn to let go of the dream…Reality bites.


  3. Patrickc

    Mel, you are an inspiration to your students always remember that. Also please remember that even though your diagnosis is of a rare form of M.S. I have acquaintances who have M.S. and have been living with it close to 20 years. One is a teacher and has continued teaching all through the time. You are not to put yourself down, or put yourself out to pasture. Your mind is far to active and your sense of curiosity and your sense of justice will not allow it.

    Bugger the “Feb Fasts”, bugger what others expect. Do what you want to do, the way you want to do it, when you want to do it. The research work you do is one of the many parts that make up Mel Thomson. However those parts, be they wife, mother teacher researcher, shoe lover, foodie, enjoyer of alcoholic beverages, blog writer, reader and scientist do not individually define you. What defines you is your feisty indomitable spirit and your zest for life. Just grab it and squeeze each individual aspect of it to the maximum. When the M.S. interferes with that one aspect you are not diminished you just need to recognise that and let it go at that time. Not before. You will know when that time is right. Don’t allow your grief to play tricks upon you. To quote the great Dylan Thomas Do not go gentle into that Good Night, Old age should burn and rave at the close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light. (You Tube Sir Laurence Olivier reciting this it will raise the hair on your neck) So Mel Rage against the M.S. Acknowledge the grief but don’t let it dominate you.

    Take care,



  4. Hi Patrick…! I think I would rather ‘rage against the machine’ of EMCR funding and the general ignorance of the economic value of science, than MS. Fighting your own immune system is futility defined. You can keep a lid on the damage it does…and live ‘normally’ for 20 years or so…but thus far, MS is an incurable condition. And it is a chronic fatigue condition, ‘raging’ just adds to the problem, as it’s a waste of energy? I’d rather conserve my strength for a fight that I think I have a chance of winning…


    • Patrickc

      Ah yes Mel it is a chronic fatigue condition so like a good strategist you need to pick the day and the battle. By raging I mean that you never allow it to fully control you. You are a researcher, you are a teacher, mentor and role model. I hope that by your actions you will inspire a researcher to crack the code and find a solution and cure to M.S. Don’t fight your immune system fight the negative thoughts when they visit so that they never have a chance to become permanent residents.


  5. Thanks for writing about this. Something something, not alone, etc…

    I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with my life for about eight years now (I was diagnosed with MS during grad school, and am still currently a postdoc.) I have assorted spinal lesions that have stopped being asymptomatic in the last three years and a brain that is, to quote my neurologist, “full of lesions.”

    I also view myself as a scientist before all. At first, feeling relatively unchanged and willfully optimistic, I convinced myself I’d power through it. That was easy when I still felt healthy.

    That’s been slipping, slowly but inexorably over the last few years, right on statistical schedule. There’s no question I’m the weakest link in the lab in terms of productivity, and I know it and I hate it. I’m still trying to push forwards but now I run up against the new wall of ‘why?’ In a zero sum funding game, if I truly care about collective progress, is it really fair to try and compete when I’m never going to be able to catch up?

    As a scientist, I have to think the answer is no, but in thinking so I risk losing the core of my identity as a scientist.

    Gin really is sometimes the best answer.


    • I see you have grasped my point, almost immediately. I was already fighting the zero sum game for funding, and evening though have done some innovative things on this score (see posts on crowd funding), I just won’t ever have *time* now to ‘catch up’ enough on the research front…which was probably true before diagnosis anyways….in the current funding climate, with my teaching & service load. I seem to be more effective as an advocate for science related issues, but fear changing entirely to that track, as I would feel like a fraud. And may lose ‘clout’ on the topic, if not nominally research active. But I start on Tysabri tomorrow, which gives me the best prognosis for the next 2 years…then I start playing Russian Roulette with my sight. (Or my life, if I decided to risk staying on Tysabri). But thank you for your story, I’m glad I’m not alone.

      Mel xx

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Stewart Barker

    Reblogged this on Microbe Stew and commented:
    A stunningly written and very moving article, by a long distance friend of mine. Really worth a read


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