Accounting for Happiness

Friday, 12 January 2018 16:53

Sometime in September 2017, I had a bad CFS crash. Throughout the summer, I had been doing really well in terms of energy—the best I had felt since I first became sick. So when this particular crash hit in the fall, I was completely surprised. I tried to ride it out, reducing my already light workload for a few weeks, but I wasn’t feeling any better. As it were, my energy levels became worse as whole host of attending health problems sprung up. It felt like I had lost several years’ worth of careful progress. I couldn’t keep working and so I organized a leave from work from October to at least mid-January (the time of this post).

I’m still not well enough to return to my normal editing work routine and won’t be for at least a few more months. This is frustrating, of course, but I’m also finding it hard to get properly upset about my health situation as I would have in the past. Because other than doing what I’m doing—which is getting a lot of rest while very, very slowly increasing my activity—I cannot change it. If anything, I’m more content with my life than I can ever remember. There is so much I want to do in terms of work, writing, and general life stuff, but I have made peace with the fact my timeline for achieving my goals is inherently uncertain and will require many long extensions. I never anticipated that I’d be feeling this exhausted and this fortunate at the same time. In many ways, this current state of overall contentment is a bigger surprise that the September health crash.

Originally, when I first thought about what I’d do during my “time off,” it was finally writing the book on disability and science fiction that I’ve been researching for the past six years. After all, the vast majority of my scholarly writing and editorial work has happened during the times I was too unwell to edit for paying clients. As it turns out, after prioritizing what energy I have had for dealing with my daily basic needs, there has been nearly nothing left over for luxuries like writing (this essay is a notable exception requiring several weeks in the planning and a day's worth of energy). The snail’s pace of my writing during the past year means a lack of publishable material for this one, which was a situation causing me stress.

Since the publishing of my edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction, I became attached to the idea that my only worthwhile accomplishments were those indexed by internet searches. Basically, if other people could read it and it had my name attached, then I could count it as an achievement. Now I’m pretty sure that this is just the independent scholar’s version of the academy’s “publish or perish” mindset. So what happens after a year, like 2017, where my publishing credits were few, or like the one I am facing now, where I might not have anything published—scholarly or creative—at all? I’m confident that I won’t suddenly wink out of existence. More importantly, as I have come to deeply realize during these past months of illness and recuperation, I have been doing my accounting all wrong.

After a day when my CFS and generalized anxiety were particularly bad, I wrote of list of all of the good things that happened in my life during 2017. The number of things I had published made up only a tiny fraction of the list, which was dominated by much more meaningful self-care work (ranging from successfully completing physiotherapy to re-learning what a proper meal size looks like) and social activities (such as going for long car drives with my partner and keeping in better contact with friends). I put in all of this positive effort into living my best life possible, and while I still crashed hard and long, I am actually happier. Not because of how many words I wrote or what I published, but because of the connections I have fostered and nurtured, with myself and with others, throughout the year. All of this self-realization discussion might come across as trite and plainly obvious but it still feels like a watershed moment for me.

I spend a lot of time alone and I’m inside my head a lot. I have a lot of childhood trauma to unpack, and I’m still figuring out how to live well with the constant companions of CFS and anxiety. For all of my adult life, whenever I’ve felt happy, I was also waiting for inevitable fall. Crisis was always around the corner so I best be prepared. Well, the crisis has come (and will come again), and I’m still chugging along, making the best of the hand I’ve been dealt (which is pretty damn good all things considered). I’ve low energy and I can’t do everything I want to do. I have had to reconceptualise my daily efforts from what “I want” to what “I need,” and then I ask for help to fill in the gap between what I can do and what I cannot. And that is exactly where the source of my happiness lies: in the space that requires me to seek assistance. Because I know that help is there when I need it (such fortune!) and I’m finally learning how to ask for it without shame or guilt.

Even though I am still finding it difficult to get through a regular day without having to lie down and rest every few hours, I am getting through. I’m letting my partner help me more. I’m finding moments to send an email or write a postcard to a friend. I’m still writing when I can. It is all enough for now and for the future too if that’s how things play out. I still don’t feel comfortable with uncertainty and bad habits and routines are hard to break but I’m feeling optimistic today. 2018 is going to be good year as long as I remember to practice patience and gratitude. I am shifting my measures of productive efforts and valued achievements to fit the reality of my lived experience: slow progress to create a deep accounting of care, love, and happiness.


  • Comment Link Kathryn Friday, 09 February 2018 22:20 posted by Kathryn

    Thank you for your comment, Chris! I appreciate your kind words. If you ever have any questions about my work in disability studies and science fiction, or just want to share some of what you've been learning and reading in SF with this new framing in mind, please feel free to email me:
    If your friend with CFS likes reading non-fiction, they might enjoy The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey--an excellent book about chronic illness and the importance of taking care of the little things.

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
  • Comment Link chris cavanagh Saturday, 03 February 2018 16:53 posted by chris cavanagh

    Hi, Kathryn, i've just learned of your work and wanted to send a word of support and thanks. A former student asked me last night over beers if i knew of disability in science fiction writing. Lifelong sci fi nerd that i am, a bunch of titles came to mind (Octavia Butler right off, for instance) but i drew a blank in my knowledge of disability as a theme. A quick search of ye ole interwebs and voila. Found your site, thesis (which i look forward to reading), your co-edited collection Accessing the Future (bought it), found your Disability in Science Fiction (at the Merrill Collection in Toronto, which i'm guessing you know about), and i already know tons more than i did last night. I also have a very close friend who is severely disabled with CFS. My heart goes out to all of you who suffer with this pernicious and under-recognized disease. I appreciate this blog post a great deal and take particular note of your point about "connection." I do hope that 2018 is a good year for you. And, again, i send thanks and gratitude.

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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