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.

Choosing to disclose

Toward the beginning of this blogging journey, I wrote a post about nailing an interview for an internship (and how that was the only thing I could stand to do that day). I am now around halfway through the internship, and throughout this time I have struggled over whether to disclose that I have fibromyalgia.

There are many considerations over whether to do it or not. They are, in no particular order:

  • I am only at this internship for 16 weeks, and only work there 10h/week
  • I can’t think of what accommodations they could give me to make my work easier
  • I don’t want to come across as though I am attention-seeking or seeking sympathy or special treatment
  • I am already exhausted thinking about having to explain to them what fibromyalgia is and how it affects me and my working abilities

On the other hand, telling them might provide some context as to why sometimes at the end of the day I am almost unable to hold a conversation (because my brain is foggy) and why I take many very short walking breaks (because I am in pain from sitting too long in the chairs they have).

I am leaning toward not disclosing in this situation, but I have similar thoughts when trying to figure out whether it is appropriate to disclose my disability in other situations. Do I need to mention it on job applications? What about academic conferences? Sometimes I need to walk with a cane because my hips are agony, and sometimes I am fine — do I disclose and then use accommodations I don’t need, and then am I stuck in having to “perform” a disability I don’t have? Do I not disclose and potentially needlessly suffer?

It was a straightforward decision with members of my PhD committee and with my work supervisors. I am around this group of people long-term so it makes sense to let them know how fibromyalgia affects my work, and to request workable accommodations from my job. But more the shorter-term things, I usually don’t have the emotional energy to advocate for myself. It doesn’t feel like a good trade-off if it’s only for a short while.

Thinking of my future self as sick

At this point, I am very good at understanding where my energy levels are at and at not overdoing work… in the present. I am not so good at remembering that in the future, I will still be sick. And that’s a problem because a lot of academic work involves looking far into the future.

For instance, call for abstracts for conferences go out months in advance. I need to attend conferences, so I submit something, but months later when it is time for the conference, I could be in the middle of a flare.

Or, a call for book reviewers goes out, and I indicate my interest, and by the time I receive the book and have to write the review, I have three other things going on (since I still work, and am still a PhD student) and, you’ve guessed it, a fibro flare.

This is where I am currently. In March I have two conferences and a research trip, and a book review to get out before then. I also have to work on the brunt of my PhD proposal before March, because I need to schedule my defense before the end of March (!) and I will be traveling so much.

I’m not sure how so many things suddenly piled up in this one month, and I think it is because while I can see myself, in the present, as chronically ill, I can’t do that for the future. I can try to manage my workload, but fibromyalgia is always going to throw a wrench in the plans. I haven’t quite figured out how to do this. I can’t really RSVP to a conference with a “depending on whether I am flaring” condition.

Surgery and fibromyalgia

There are many problems with having a chronic pain condition. The first one is that it’s hard to differentiate between regular pain and fibro pain. The second is that usual guidelines for things like recovery times are not written with you in mind.

On January 24 I had my first ever surgery to remove all four of my wisdom teeth. I was finally in a place where I could afford to see the dentist, and had known my wisdom teeth needed to come out for a while. I sought out a practice that was done for valuing patient comfort, and even though I was told my surgery would not be straightforward given the growth and position of my wisdom teeth, the dentist assured me that he was absolutely confident he could get it done and everything would be fine.

They told me patients usually can get back to work after three days, and let me tell you right now that if you have fibromyalgia, “usually” doesn’t apply to you. After a year of living with this diagnosis I was pretty confident that I would need more than just three days to recover. I talked to my doctor who confirmed that I should count on at least a week.

It was frustrating to have to try and plan my busy grad school life around a one week recovery, and I could only manage four days and then a day of working from home. What was more frustrating, though, were the myriad well-intentioned people who assured me that I would be back to normal within a few days. Drawing upon their own experiences, they knew that they hadn’t been out of commission for that long, so I shouldn’t be either. It was meant to be reassuring but it also made me angry. Assuming that my disabled body reacts the same way as your abled body just ends up putting a lot of pressure on me . Will you think I’m lazy, lying or not trying hard enough if I end up needing more time to recover?

The week following my surgery was very uncomfortable, sometimes spiking up into the agonizing… and I could not tell whether that was normal or not. Were people who had four teeth cut out of their gums (including sutures) supposed to be in this kind of pain, or was this fibromyalgia making the pain worse, or was the pain a symptom of something going terribly wrong? Did I have a dry socket necessitating a trip to the dentist for relief, or was this normal remodeling of the mouth, or was it just my body going haywire at the trauma and sending me into a severe flare?

It turned out that my healing was spectacular, to the point where the dentist appeared a little impressed at how good the incision sites looked. I told him I had been “in some bad pain” for a few days and he gently dismissed it as normal since the mouth was recovering. I don’t think he quite understood the kind of pain I was talking about, and I didn’t really see the point in explaining.

It has been 11 days since the surgery and I am still recovering. As I predicted, I did end up flaring on the Tuesday following the surgery, and still had to power through it to get myself to work on Wednesday and Thursday (Friday was a work from home day, thankfully). I am recovering from both the surgery, since my lower jaw and teeth still hurt from time to time, as well as a flare, and because I took some time off for the surgery I have work to catch up on.

The bottom line is this: if you have fibromyalgia, any kind of trauma to your body (and surgery IS a trauma) is going to be harder on you than on abled-bodied persons. You probably won’t have the luxury to take off all the time that you need. It is going to suck. Plan accordingly.

My emergency fibro kit

This is a collection of things that I keep together so that I can easily bring it with me anywhere I go. It’s very small which makes it a lot more portable, but obviously does not include bigger items like my cane (which I usually still have in my bag just in case I need it).

The contents of my kit are:

  • Compression gloves [for when my hands start hurting, or when I get too cold in the office but still need to type]
  • Elbow compression sleeve [because working at a desk with a painful elbow is terrible]
  • CBD balm, lavender scented [the lavender helps with stress; at this point I’m unsure if the CBD balm helps with pain]
  • CBD vape, lavender [lavender again helps with stress; vaping CBD does seem to help with my fatigue levels]
  • Medication spares [sometimes I forget to take my medication in the morning. Having spares means I don’t have to go without for the day.]

Publish or Perish – How Academia perpetuates that your worth is your productivity

If you’ve spent time in academia, you’ve probably heard the phrase “publish or perish.” This refers to the idea that, as an academic, if you do not publish research regularly, your career will die. Academic publishing is supposed to be the gold standard of science: you conduct research, you submit it to a journal, your work gets reviewed by other scientists who critique it, you make the changes they require to bring it up to the required standard, and you have a publication.

Publications build your CVs, which in turn builds your career. Advice I have received as a grad student invariably contain “have 2-3 publications before you get your PhD if you want to stay in academia,” and one of the more useful classes I have taken had a professor emphasizing that you need to think of the publishing potential of all the research you undertake prior to even starting the research.


“Publish or perish” neatly exemplifies the idea that if you’re not doing work, you’re just not doing enough.

Beyond being competitive for the job market at graduation, what you publish and how often also determines your chances at getting tenure, that is a job for life at a university. Tenure is highly sought after, even if studies show that the number of tenured jobs available is decreasing while the number of PhD holders is increasing.

“Publish or perish” neatly exemplifies the idea that if you’re not doing work, you’re just not doing enough. This is so ingrained in academic culture that a slew of memes exist revolving around the idea that “you should be writing.” Even though publishing is supposed to be “good” research, and certainly that is still important, publishing is slowly turning into a quantity-over-quality game. There are so many journals that it is difficult to know which have high standards and which do not without spending time researching them. In theory, again, they should all be going through the same peer-review process, but academic publishing is a business, and papers make money. The recent story about three academics managing to get papers published and accepted for publication, even though they were either made up or preposterous, illustrates that there is something broken about academic publishing.

Even for academics without a disability, this expectation of producing work is brutal. There is a lot of guilt that comes with not doing enough, to the point where it even changes what “free time” entails. There is an expectation, especially as a graduate student, that you simply should not have free time. Every moment of your waking day should be spent in pursuit of your degree.

When you have a disability that affects your ability to think, process information, and get things done, this unattainable standard is even further away. I posted earlier about feeling that I could not use fibromyalgia as an “excuse” because I wanted to be held to the same standard as my peers, and that means producing research at the same pace as they are. And yet, if I produce good research but need slightly more time to produce it, I am not as competitive as others in the field. It doesn’t matter if my research is sound or good; if I am not publishing regularly, I am at a disadvantage. 

Currently, I am working on two manuscripts (research papers to be submitted to a journal for publication). One of them is part of my work, while the other is research from my Masters degree that I am finally getting around to turning into publication format. I am trying to churn them out before the year is over because I want to be able to tell my committee that I am finally on the way to getting something published, after three and a half year as a graduate student. I have accomplished many other things this year, and yet it feels that if I don’t manage to submit something for publication, I won’t have quite done enough.

The pernicious thing, too, is that there really isn’t an “enough.” There are lower limits that you should be hitting, but really no upper limits. Even with no disability, this is not a healthy model.

My diagnosis journey

I was officially diagnosed with fibromyalgia on November 27, 2017. It was the culmination of a long semester full of frustration and self-loathing. In many ways getting the diagnosis was just the start of the journey, since now that I knew what I had, I had to figure out how to manage it. I feel that I am finally making headway on that, over a year later.

Image may contain: Rachel Luchmun, glasses and close-up

This picture was taken on the day of my diagnosis at the doctor’s office while waiting for the rheumatologist to come in. I was wearing a full face of make up and a professional-looking dress. I look at that picture and I try to find evidence of how incredibly exhausted I felt. Of course there’s really nothing there, because fibromyalgia is an invisible illness. There was really nothing wrong with me except an unrelenting fatigue, a fatigue that no amount of sleep would conquer, a fatigue that usually put me out of commission by mid-morning every day. My mind was foggy and I could hardly comprehend the work that was in front of me. The field work I had to do sapped all the energy out of me and my brain felt like it was filled with thick cotton. But there was nothing wrong with me, so I pushed and pushed and pushed through until something had to give.

Continue reading “My diagnosis journey”

On Appreciation

This Thanksgiving, social media lit up with a wide variety of gratitude posts. Our celebrations here took a slightly different angle though, focusing on appreciation instead of gratitude.

On Wednesday, Marc came home with a bouquet of flowers to show that he appreciates me. That night, we made an effort to acknowledge each others’ efforts in our relationship and reflect on what we could improve on. It was lovely to feel seen and heard.

In academia, we often must work alongside other academics for periods of time, be they through the long years of the PhD program as your committee members become the gatekeepers of your entire career, or through shorter collaborative research projects. These are all professional relationships, but when you throw something as personal as a chronic illness in the mix, it’s hard to find where the boundaries are.

Clearly, I want to communicate with my supervisors and collaborators that any delays or changes of plans are not due to a personal failing, but are because of an illness I am still trying to grapple with. However, I also acknowledge that they don’t need to be privy to the whirlwind of doctor appointments, new medications and their attending side effects, days of fatigue where even getting out of bed feels like too much, or even days when I have the energy to do work OR to come to work, but not both.

I don’t know that I feel comfortable expressing gratitude to the academic people in my life because of their understanding and patience when it comes to my illness. I mean, should I really be grateful that they are willing to work with me for not being a perfectly healthy human being all the time? Do people experience deep gratitude when they are laid up with the flu and have to delay some things or adapt to do others? Or do they just expect that the other people will be understanding?

So instead of gratitude I want to show appreciation to my collaborators and supervisors who have worked with me in changing things around because of fibromyalgia. It still takes the form of a “thank you” but it changes me from viewing fibro as something that is getting in everyone’s way, to something that gets in my way sometimes but which can be worked with.

I appreciate my academic colleagues for working with me, I appreciate my supervisors for their flexibility, and I appreciate my collaborators for their trust that I will not let them down, even if I have to work in an unorthodox way (such as by taking advantage of insomnia.)

Learning about withdrawal

Long-suffering people with fibromyalgia probably know that there are only three FDA-approved drugs to treat it, and the cheapest one is Cymbalta/duloxetine.

They may also know that Cymbalta is really terrible to come off of, and its parent company has actually been sued by patients for not properly disclosing the risks and difficulties of Cymbalta withdrawal.

The symptoms match some of what I went through when I reduced my dosage in half a month ago, and are matching what I’m going through today on Day 1 of no Cymbalta for a year.

We’ll see how this goes!

Hiking with Fibro

On Saturday, I went hiking, and I survived. It was a nice morning hike of about 4.5 miles.

I’ve always loved hiking and the outdoors, but finding time and energy to venture there definitely takes a back seat to finishing all necessary graduate school activities, making sure everything is taken care of for work, and of course the unrelenting Arizona heat when you DO end up having some free time in the summer. And that’s before you have to factor in the limitations imposed by fibromyalgia.
Despite worrying that I would not be able to finish the hike or that the exercise would trigger a flare, it was a wonderful experience, helped by the following:
  • Travel as light as you can. My wonderful boyfriend Marc suggested we take only one bag with water and snacks for the both of us, and it made a big difference not to have to carry extra weight. Especially when going uphill.
  • Get a good night’s rest prior. Make the odds in your favor by having a quiet evening and an early night before heading out to hike. Since having a good night’s sleep is hit or miss with fibromyalgia, consider rescheduling your hike if it’s a day where you just couldn’t get enough sleep.
  • Take as many breaks as you need. I was worried that Marc would get frustrated if I stopped too often, but taking breaks to catch my breath and gently stretched allowed me to go further than I thought I would be able to.
  • Listen to your body. If after catching your breath you feel you are starting to get worn out, turn back! Pushing through an upcoming bout of fibro-related tiredness is one of the best way to trigger a flare. Although, that said…
  • There is some pain you’ll just have to push through. This may be an unpopular piece of advice but hear me out. There is some underlying fibro pain that just is going to be there regardless. When we started hiking my knees started aching within half a mile, and for some reason my wrists (???) started aching too. However they were the kind of dull, fibro-just-hates-me pains, so I decided to push through and enjoy my hike anyway. And I did.
  • Enjoy the achievement. 4.5 miles is not that long for me compared to what I used to be able to do, but I managed it; I told fibro to go eff itself and had a wonderful time with Marc, enjoying the beauty of the Arizona desert. And it felt GOOD.
  • Take the rest of the day off. I had grand plans of doing grad school work in the afternoon but my brain just wasn’t into it. Running errands (groceries) for the week was almost more than I could handle. It’s best to think of hiking as something that will take your whole day or even your whole weekend, that way, you don’t end up panicking because you’ve fallen behind for school or work.
  • I want to go for another hike soon, and perhaps go longer. This particular hike was a little challenging because there was quite a bit of climbing up and down and scrambling over rocks, but it makes the achievement even better! With fibromyalgia, it’s important to make all the little victories count.