8 tips for surviving academic conferences with fibromyalgia

In November, I attended two academic conferences. The first was the meeting of the Association for the Study of the Worldwide African Diaspora (in Williamsburg, Virginia), and the second was the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (in Vancouver, British Columbia). Here is what worked for me to navigate the situation.

1.Look at the schedule ahead of time

This is something you should do anyway, but especially if you have a chronic illness. Be strategic in how you will expend your energy, because it is a limited resource. Identify sessions and workshops you absolutely do not want to miss, and then identify some that you would like to go to if your energy and pain levels allow. If there is an afternoon session you really want to go to, take it easy in the morning, so that you don’t burn out early.

2.Plan around your own presentation

If you are presenting something at the conference (paper, poster, or other performance), chances are it’s going to be the most intellectually demanding part of the conference. You have to be “on,” paying attention to your topic, to what your co-presenters are saying, and you will be engaging in intellectual discussions. I personally think this is the best part of the conference but it also takes a lot of energy out of me. I never make concrete plans on the day I am presenting. I identify a few sessions I want to go to, but do not commit to a workshop or formal meeting for that day.

3.Early panels or late receptions – but not both

Conferences are usually jam-packed with activities. For example, the earliest AAA panel starts at 8 a.m., and receptions for various groups within the organization run until 11 p.m. or later. As someone with a chronic illness, I can do one or the other — but not both. Trying to do both means that I am in too much pain and brain fog the next day to do much of anything. So again, look through the schedule and at your presentation time, and decide which is better for you to attend — the early stuff or the late stuff.

4.Build in rest times throughout the day

When you are around other people in your field who are just as passionate as you are, it is tempting to try and see everything. Figuring out dedicated rest times ahead of time can remind you to slow down and stretch your energy. For example, you can identify a coffee place close to the conference venue to just sit down with a beverage and relax. Or you could take advantage of a dedicated quiet room, if the conference happens to have one. At the Society for Applied Anthropology meeting in Portland, Oregon earlier this year, I was lucky to have a room at the conference venue itself, so I could simply go back to my room for a quick nap if I needed it. That was by far the best conference experience for me.

5.Be strategic in your networking and note-taking

Sometimes you go to a talk and really want to further connect with the speaker/author, but your brain is fried and you don’t think you could put together a coherent sentence. Jotting down the person’s name and why their work is relevant allows you to look them up later when you are in a better mental space. While running very low on energy, I ended up just jotting down the time and the room I was in, as well as a few key words for the presentation’s title. This allows me to cross-reference with the conference program later, and helps me stay in the moment so I can listen and absorb the information.

6.Use your mobility aids if you need them

This one feels like a no brainer, but it needs to be said. I struggle with using my cane at conferences because I don’t want to deal with potential questions and stigma. Or I worry that I will not look “professional.” However, there was always a point in time where I wish I had my cane with me, where my pain got to the point where walking was difficult. So just do it, regardless of what internalized ableism tells you. Your comfort and ability to enjoy the conference is more important. I have a button that says “I have fibromyalgia” that I do wear if I have my cane, so that people don’t just keep asking. The choice to disclose is of course yours, and thinking about what you want to say in advance if someone asks you about your use of a mobility aid is helpful.

7.Be mindful of how travel affects you

Even if you have a pretty good idea of what your limitations are and how you can best stretch your energy, the stress of traveling to the conference can throw a wrench in the system. As graduate students, we often have to find the cheapest flights to conferences, and that can mean many layovers, departures in the middle of the night, and the most undesirable seats. Allowing yourself time to recover from your travel before hitting the conference will help.

8.And of course, listen to your body

If you feel you need to rest, rest. That may mean changing your plans or canceling on some activities, but in the long run that is what your body needs. This is where looking ahead at the schedule helps, since you can have an idea of what you can cut out and what you really want to attend.

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