Chronic Pain – My Achy (not so little) Secret

This year, I was fortunate enough to advance my health to the point that I was able to move away for university. This has been an incredible accomplishment, as through most of high school I was effectively house, and occasionally bed-bound by pain. As an individual who has been fascinated by the minute details of the inner workings of the world for as long as they can remember, I elected to study the physical sciences, more specifically Materials and Nanoscience at the University of Waterloo.

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Stillness on campus

Waterloo is regarded as one of the leading institutions for STEM education in the country, frequently topping the rankings in engineering, and the only university to offer my specific program. Upon acceptance, despite trepidation at the intensity of the nature of the school, there was little deliberation on my part: deep down, I wanted to have the opportunity to learn from the best in the country, and finally move forward with my life; pursue my dreams and take life off of pause.

Admittedly, while I have made great strides health-wise in the past 6 months or so, my conditions still greatly affect my life. I struggle academically far more than I used to. It has taken a lot of humility, and most of my first term here, to admit that I need help and that it is okay to ask for that assistance when needed.

Physical sciences is a traditionally male-dominated field, and, while the female presence is growing, we are still few, and disabled women even more so. Almost immediately upon my arrival here, as I started to talk with my peers, I was met with comments of “oh how many girls are there in THAT program?” and “there’s what, like three of you?”, highlighting my minority position. There is an unspoken pressure to “keep up” here,  to prove that I can keep pace with the men, that I belong too, that I deserve my place, that I have earned this. Show no weakness, don’t let them see that you struggle. Keep up the facade of the “smart kid”, do what the boys do, do it better if you can. Provide an air of competence, even if it’s only an illusion. They can’t talk down to you if you can show them up, right? If only they knew. If only they could see all of the effort that it takes to present that.

They don’t see me groan and struggle to leave my bed some mornings, the narcotics and heating pads that it takes to ease my twitching muscles so that I can show up to half of a lecture. They don’t see the nights that I spend vomiting and curled up in pain due to my paralyzed digestive tract. They don’t realize that some days, my misfiring autonomic nervous system forces me to wear leggings because my skin feels severely frostbitten. They don’t realize that I am occasionally late for lectures because I have to mix the formula that keeps me alive. They don’t realize that I cannot complete all of my homework; some days I am simply far too exhausted.

If only they could see. But they can’t see. I cannot let the cracks in my armor show. Show no weakness. Keep up with the men. Keep up with the others. Keep up. Always. Don’t let them see you fail. Don’t let them see that not only are you a woman, you’re weak. Only let them see your strength and intelligence, even when it’s the last thing you feel. The struggle is not celebrated; success is.

It’s time that we made space for everyone in STEM. This is no longer only a man’s game; it hasn’t been for some time. We have made space for women, we can make disability and illness acceptable as well. Science is not only for the strongest and smartest, it is for the intellectually curious and hardworking, regardless of final result or time spent on the process. There is strength in diversity, in varying perspectives. Those who have struggled with their health bring with them an incredible work ethic and a passion for a second chance at their dreams – this ought to be celebrated instead of silenced. Let struggles become the strengths of those who have faced them. Let people break their silences. Let the world see what they face. So that maybe, one day, they can know. And nobody will have to fear that their reputation will be lost.

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