The hardest lesson I’ve learned from my November 2017 concussion is how to forgive myself for failing. You might think that I should already be really good at this because I'm a graduate student and scientist- so I get rejections all the time! But it's different when you're failing yourself as opposed to some outside outcome that you have little to no control over.
I can barely count the target dates that I've missed for being unable to think straight. I drafted this piece in March as my brain was inching closer toward to nearly full operational capacity. Around that time, I also finally became able to focus on my “real” dissertation work at a semi-normal pace again. By then I was so behind (I’m still behind) that my triage list couldn’t possibly fit something as “silly” as attention to my blog. I have been feeling guilty for not having edited and posted it ever since. When I was finally ready to post, I hit an insurmountable wall of technical difficulties in the field (including Weebly not letting me edit my site from Uganda). Then, suddenly, it was conference time (more on that later). Pre-concussion Kris would have just given up and scrapped this whole piece. It’s so much later than my self-imposed deadline that I might as well chuck it out because no one will read it anyway. And then there is that other little nag that no one wants to read a downer blog focussed on the difficulties of my life.
But this weekend, as I bathe in a different forest, I’m forgiving myself and banishing imposter syndrome. This is my story and I feel better when I write it. Maybe someone will feel better when I share it. So I’m posting this piece late, at concussion pace.
03 Mar 2018
I realized just now, after starting this post and deleting it for the thousandth time, that today is just about the 10th anniversary of my first concussion. Ten years ago, about two weeks before spring break and my 21st birthday, I blocked a direct shot on goal with my face during an indoor soccer match. I don’t know if I lost consciousness, I don’t think I did, but I also can’t remember anyone no asking or checking. The situation was complicated by the fact that I was just playing with some people that I was friendly with, but not a close friend of. If I’m honest, they were a bunch of Cool Kids who recruited me mostly because they needed an extra girl to field their co-ed team and I knew one of the guys from high school. I’d embarrassed myself terribly in front of these guys before, and I was so concerned about whether I had embarrassed myself again that I couldn’t really cope with anything else.
So I limped away, got myself home, and convinced myself it was no big deal, I was just being a wuss and needed to shake it off. I was too ashamed to seek help at first. About three days later, I stared at my computer through tears in devastating frustration for the umpteenth hour trying to write a midterm essay for the toughest undergraduate course I ever took. Even though I had outlined the essay in detail, I couldn’t remember what the hell I was trying to say three words ago, let alone the points I had planned to make three days ago. I couldn’t finish any of the sentences. For the first time in this nerd’s life, my brain, the only thing I could always count on, had abandoned me. My tears were part confusion, part frustration, and part terror that my brain might never come back online.
When I finally got to student health the next day, they prescribed me rest and extensions on all my midterms. The latter part did nothing but increase my stress about them and, consequently, inhibit the resting bit. They told me no booze for at least two weeks and no soccer either. Then they sent me back up to my dorm to pack my bags for break. I don’t remember that they requested any follow-ups, but anyway there weren’t any.
Despite the direct hit to my face and the force that pulsed through my brain with it, that concussion was milder than this one. I was tired and my brain was muddled for the first week or so but I was back to normal by the end of the second week. I wrote my midterms while on spring break in Orlando between Jurassic Park and Animal Kingdom. I turned 21 and drank a bit earlier than I should have but it didn’t seem to have too bad an effect. At that age, it felt easy to bounce back from anything.
Back then, ten years ago, we knew surprisingly little about concussions, especially compared to what we’ve learned about them since. We’ve known that concussions have obvious detrimental short-term effects but we’ve learned that repeated(?) concussions have more confusing and difficult to recognize long-term effects. We’ve learned that concussions require multiple check-ins, follow-up appointments, continuous monitoring- at least for the professional male American football players and maybe for the younger men and boys who play football too. Non-professional athletes with subpar insurance, however, are far less likely to get such devoted treatment. Even this time, there wasn’t much professional help to be had. There weren’t any follow-ups to speak of. Almost everything that I learned about how sudden impacts move through our jelly-like brains, what your brain does immediately after such a blow, and how it continues to heal itself, was through independent research- including one very apropos alumni lecture in February.
So I guess the goals of these three posts (third post forthcoming) are twofold. First, writing anything at all and especially something with a little less pressure than my dissertation chapters, is helping me work figure out my current linguistic roadblocks (My partner disagrees, but I swear my vocabulary is still not up to scratch). Second, maybe weaving the stories my two concussions together with as much of what I learned about concussions generally will help someone else get through a similar situation. I’m sure I’ll repeat bits and pieces of the stories and the information, but I hear learning is all about repetition so that’s probably alright.
One more note, for all of you out there struggling with work-life balance. Though I’m getting much better working a flexible and responsive work schedule, working as hard as I can whenever I can until I can’t anymore, I’m still struggling a little to keep to my self-care manifesto. I still find myself trying to bend my brain to a different work ethic and it’s had some bad consequences. And I still haven’t been able to get myself back into a good exercise habit. Now that I’m in the forest, it’s a bit easier to run into the woods when I need a break and I’ve been capitalizing on the opportunity whenever I can. I still do my best thinking on the trail- which is great motivation. I’m committed to keeping at it. Just keep swimming, right? Or, if you're a tiny chimpfant, just keep climbing.
Let’s call this like it is: the Beginning of the End of my dissertation time in the field. Ten more weeks until I have to wrap this shoot and get down to the nitty gritty: finishing data entry and clean-up, coding video, lab work, running more stats then you can shake a stick at, and so much science writing!!
…I see an uptick in non-vocal displays at my laptop over the next months.
But I also see an uptick in hurrah moments when things are finally coming together into a real, whole picture. Speaking of which, I recently experienced such a moment before coming back to the forest to start the end.
Gola giving her best impression of "Kris versus the Computer" for the next few years...
I took an American break from the field during the rainy season this year to take care of some home things, crunch a few numbers, march for science, and present some preliminary results from my dissertation work at an annual big fancy science meeting in New Orleans.
It’s the meetings- for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists- that I want to tell you about.
Mostly, I’m just so excited about this set of preliminary results. For this talk, I analyzed a subset of my 2015 video data and it seems like my predictions about social attention- namely that the more time a little chimp spends watching and the more closely it watches, the more likely it is to engage in the behavior it’s been watching AND that males are somehow more responsive to social exposure than females- might pan out! Like I said, the results are preliminary, but it still feels really hopeful- which is fantastic! I promise I’ll will share the results with anyone and everyone interested just as soon as the paper comes out over the next year.
This year I also entered in a student contest…and that ALSO panned out! I’ve been a little bit nervous writing about it because I don’t want to come off as bragging or arrogant- but its true that I’ve worked my hardest to plan this project, get that funding, collect and analyze that data, and write that talk as best I could! So here I go…
Every year at this conference there are several awards granted to the top student talks and posters. A few of them are specific to separate disciplines like, best talk in dental morphology, and some of them are across all sub-fields. This year, I won the Ales Hrdlicka Prize for “excellence in student research.” I know it this might “just” be a student award, but science communication and dissemination is so important to me! What’s the point of taking the data if you can’t explain it to everyone? To win a prize for giving a talk in any capacity- I cannot describe what an honor it was to receive. I’m still in a state of slight disbelief.
Every time I remember it, I get all filled up with warm and happy satisfaction. It makes me feel like maybe I really am doing to right thing with my life. At this point in the dissertation process I cannot overstate the importance of such a rooting reminder. We all know that graduate school is hard. And, let’s be honest, there are too few of these sort of victory moments. I think we should celebrate and be proud of all of the little victories- and let them steel us against too many academic struggles, and grant rejections, and all-out data failures. The project certainly isn’t at it’s end yet, but I am so excited about how far it’s come along. So I am taking this win and celebrating it! I am proud. And inspired. And happily steeled against the inevitable future failures!
And now I’m back here! Back in my house at the edge of the forest. Back with my Ugandan friends- human and non-human alike. Ready, and rarin’ to go. I’ve finally got my eyes on the first of so many incremental finish lines between me and my dissertation defense, and I’m ready.
So here we go.
Well. That escalated quickly. Wasn’t I just writing “Exhilaration" from the runway at Dulles yesterday?
The writer in me wanted to pen this post as I was touching back down on the same runway, but there were unforeseen oh-you’re-leaving-Africa-here’s-a-parting-gift circumstances that prevented me from doing much of anything really. As a result, the goals of this first post-field piece have shifted a bit. The flight experience tied together so many facets of what it feels like to leave the forest: the transition to “normal” society, walking away from your happy place, shifting from one sphere of your life to another, shifting from develop-ING to develop-ED nation, and so on and so on. It was such an excellent metaphor, but I’m not sure how to tell you why.
Don’t worry- I’m not going to tell you the harrowing tale of how I violently vomited every half hour for 8 hours until we touched down in Brussels. I won’t describe the way that such a vicious departure was so ridiculous, and so appropriate to my emotional state, that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing- out loud- between puking bouts. Or mention the details of how I completely forgot the rules of normal public behavior and talked myself through the hilarious misery- out loud. It’s too graphic. If you had been on this plane beside me, like the model-gorgeous Danish dental hygienist who really was stuck beside me, you might have thought I was completely crazy. Ok, like, almost definitely thought I was bat-shit crazy.
It all came down to a false sense of security and a rookie mistake.
After so many months frequenting the same local haunts in Ft. Portal, I forgot that most Entebbe and Kampala restaurants do not take the sort of precautions that a small restaurant that caters to mzungu tourists will. So when I saw iced tea on the menu, my brain said “Ooh! It’s so hot out and that sounds delicious!” instead of “…Do they make their ice from filtered or bottled water?”
I’ve barely stopped moving since I landed, and, as such, have found neither the time nor the energy to focus all these feelings floating around into some sort of coherent framework. But don’t worry, it’s coming. Tomorrow I start the long drive to Albuquerque and always do my best thinking on the road.
For now, some teasers. I’ve got quite a few blogger-balls in the air and I’m working on some interesting pieces. To start with, there are a few more stories to wrap up my field season- my trip to Ngongo, in particular, will include some fabulous photos and (spoiler alert) a short update on a certain Kanyawara female that emigrated some time ago…
And after that, let’s get heavy. Let’s get into some contemporary controversies in science, conservation, social justice, all kinds of stuff. For instance, many of you have asked me about my opinion Cecil the lion and I’ve been fleshing out a proper response to those inquiries.
My friend, K, is a marine biologist on Turks and Caicos and she recently posted a story on Facebook about a sea turtle that was discovered with a plastic drinking straw lodged in its nose. So I’m working on a piece about wasteful, harmful plastics. The kinds we don’t even think about. And I’m going to try not to use a single straw on my entire cross-country drive. I’m not sure how the experiment is going to hash out- but I am sure that I (and consequently you) will be very surprised to see how ubiquitous and unavoidable dangerous disposables are.
The point is- stay tuned! I might be out of the forest, but there will be plenty of interesting writing to keep us occupied till I head back.
More to come….
20 Jan 2015
To me, exhilaration is the marriage of deepest fear and purest excitement. As we hit cruising altitude on this first flight leg- Dulles to Brussels- I am suddenly stuck by it. It isn’t the same as the eager anticipation that I experience when I’m wheels up for a holiday adventure. Nor the equal-parts-nervous-and-delighted butterflies that take flight in my stomach when I’m about to see my boyfriend after a long separation. This time it was some inseparable mixture of fight-or-flight level terror and the feeling of scoring the winning goal of your soccer match.
Because, let’s be honest, this suddenly got real. Like, really real. I’m not a first year anymore. I can’t just tool around and have fun. I’m not a research assistant or meeting the chimps for the first time or even piloting random methods to see what’s what.
I am a Master of something. And THIS is my dissertation work. (That’s the completely scary part.)
And now I remember that the hardest part of travel like this is leaving your loved ones and your home behind so many months. You can never know how much things will change while you’re away. And then there’s Marlee. I feel like I’ve abandoned my poor lil pup- who knows if she’ll even recognize me when I get back, smelling like the forest and looking like it too.
On the other hand- I have a proposal and a data protocol and a decent little pile of pilot data to build on. I know the forest and the station and chimps (and where the elephants are easily surprised…). For the first time, I’m returning to a field site instead of starting fresh! Not to mention all the babies! We have so many chimp babies! Possibly more little chimp babies than ever- I almost hesitate to write it down for fear of putting a jinx on the whole operation- but I can’t hold it in I’m elated! It feels like every time we had a lab meeting last semester there was a new baby! On top of all that- the icing on the cake, one might say- is that my best friend will finally overlap with me at Kibale!
So here’s to 2015! The year that I begin my dissertation.
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.