Finishing a PhD while suffering from chronic migraines is not easy. Unfortunately, I made it even harder on myself by not reevaluating my plan and priorities on a regular basis.
I had suffered from occasional migraines since my teens, but they had never been majorly disruptive. All that changed in the fall of 2009. I had ABD (All But Dissertation) status in my doctoral program, and I was finishing my thesis while working as a post-doctoral researcher. When my migraines started getting bad, I put the thesis on the back-burner, choosing to focus my limited energy and time on my new position. When they got even worse, I left my post-doc and channeled all my energies into getting better. My plan was to eliminate much of my daily stressors, get my headaches under control, finish my thesis, and get another academic position, in that order. I figured this would take six to nine months, maybe a year if I was unlucky. During that time, I thought of curing my migraines as my full-time job, my only job.
I suffered through some unpleasant and ineffective treatments. Then I suffered through some more. I tried a bunch of different diets. I moved to another city for a few months, to see if maybe my location was playing a role. I saw more and more specialists, and ran through nearly the entire set of known pharmaceutical migraine treatments. A few things helped a bit, but overall I made little progress. And in all this time I never re-evaluated my plan to keep my thesis near the bottom of my priority list: my job was to get healthy, and my thesis could wait.
But my thesis didn’t just wait – it hung over my head. The fact that I wasn’t done with my degree became a bigger and bigger source of stress, and probably contributed to my migraines. And yet I remained doggedly committed to my plan: get better first, get my life back on track second.
Some part of me certainly knew all along that this was not the right approach, but it took a wake-up call from a friend for me to recognize that my priorities and my plan were out of whack: it was unhealthy to put my entire life on hold, indefinitely, for my illness. I needed to find a way to keep moving forward (academically, professionally, and personally) despite my migraines. So I did. I didn’t stop working on my migraines, but I started working on my thesis again. I worked on it when I was feeling well, or mostly well, or just well enough. I finished my degree last year, while still suffering from migraines.
In retrospect, I made two major mistakes. The first was stopping important elements of my life, when I should have slowed them down, instead. And the second was failing to reexamine my decisions, even as more and more time passed. If I had taken some time every few months to figure out whether my plan was working for me, I wouldn’t have followed the wrong one for so long.