When a Mystery Illness Threatens Your Identity
An archaeologist faces an uncertain future
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Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, we’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am (or was) an archaeologist. My partner is also an archaeologist—we met on a dig, were friends for six years, did our Ph.D.’s in archaeology together (he’s done, I’m not). As with many people who do outdoorsy things both for love and money, for both of us, being an archaeologist is very much a part of our identities.
I actually did not realize until fairly recently how much a part of my identity it was; in fact, I always found it a little annoying (and still do) whenever other archaeologists were unable to grasp the concept of how life might be if you weren’t leaving for fieldwork all the time, dating your partner long-distance, finding dust in all your stuff, and getting weird skin and stomach diseases—and then I came down with the mystery illness.
It’s probably something autoimmune. Sometimes I can hardly walk from the apartment to the car, let alone walk around a dig site in the sun hopping in and out of excavation pits, bent over in a crouch, lifting big rocks, and carrying buckets of dirt. Not to mention writing reports, publications, and the rest of my dissertation, since the illness has also come with brain fog and memory problems that make it very hard to understand my own notes or spreadsheets or diagrams, let alone herd all that data into something another person could make any sense of. (Plus, my academic program is nagging endlessly about why I’m not working faster, even though they’re well aware of my medical issues.)
I know you can still be outdoorsy with health issues, but here’s the thing—I never was outdoorsy, except for that one thing. The last time I did any fieldwork was almost five years ago, and it was so painful and discouraging that I can hardly even think about it without crying. Still, I never realized how much of my identity was caught up in being a girl who can carry heavy things, do math on the spot, MacGyver missing equipment, etc. I know there’s a grieving process, but it seems to be lasting such a long time.
Meanwhile my partner is slowly becoming more and more successful, and people are starting to want him to join project after project—and I’m so envious I can hardly stand it. I’ve never been jealous of his relationship with another person of any gender, but I’m so jealous of his relationship with archaeology that I don’t even know how to articulate it. He is supportive, but I know he also doesn’t entirely understand what it is to live in an unreliable body.
I see a therapist and a bunch of doctors and practitioners. I have a job. I have friends. I have a lot of “my own things”—since getting sick, I’ve taken up a number of new pursuits that I find fulfilling and that do things for me that, frankly, archaeology never could have done. But they also have not lessened the grief or sadness or longing. These negative emotions ebb and flow, but overall they’re poisoning my ability to move on with my work and finish grad school in archaeology, and I worry that they’re poisoning my relationship, too.
Intellectually, I know that people with disabilities can do all kinds of things, including archaeology, although it’s easier to fantasize about than to actually do it, especially in a very macho culture that views accommodations as anathema to the work hard, play hard ethic. It can be done, though—I know this. What I don’t know is how to keep myself from being overtaken and paralyzed by the rage, despair, jealousy, and grief, so that I can’t get on with literally anything at all.
It’s easy for people to fetishize discomfort—the good pain of hard work outdoors—when they don’t live with the chronic suffering and discouragement that comes from having a sick body. I’m not surprised that you find yourself longing for a time when the hardship you endured had a purpose and a camaraderie and an identity you loved. You used to be celebrated for enduring discomfort. Now you’re still enduring discomfort—far more of it—and instead of recognizing your strength, people are nagging you for your dissertation. As if you weren’t already swimming upstream with all your might.
It sucks that you’re sick, and it sucks that you don’t know why, and it sucks that—even as you’re happy for him—you’re watching your partner have the career that you desperately want. It is, of course, possible that your illness might go away, that you could recover completely and someday look back on this time as a difficult but temporary challenge. But it’s not always helpful to live in hopes of something that’s beyond your control, and even if your health does improve, you’ll be changed for good. There’s humility that comes from not taking your health for granted, from realizing that whatever gifts you’ve been given can be whisked away. And for now, you’re balancing the work it takes to care for yourself with an identity that no longer fits like it once did.
Meanwhile, your partner is living the life that could have been yours, the life that you worked and burned for. If you’ve been doing solo therapy, it’s time to bring him with you to talk with your therapist together. It’s difficult to understand the experience of disability if it’s not something you’ve dealt with yourself, and he’ll need to work hard to appreciate what you’re going through and how he can best support you. I suspect that, in order to reach a place where you can both feel good about his achievements, you’ll need to pass through a stage of shared mourning; he’s been supporting you while you grieve, but now he needs to grieve with you. He can also help you think seriously about what archaeology jobs you can do beyond fieldwork that will make use of your expertise. If you choose to stay in the field after grad school, you’ll have a better sense of your real options.
The silver lining here—if it can be called that—is that if you’ve found yourself grating against the macho, ableist culture of archaeology, it means that other people are, too. And you’re in a position to call it out. You can do this by standing up for yourself to your professors and advisers, by reaching out to friends who will help support you, and by starting conversations within your grad program, or even by writing an article about your experience, calling out the more ableist parts of this culture and how they could be improved.
Is it fair that you should have to bear the burden of illness and the burden of standing up to a closed-minded community? Of course not. It’s one of the great injustices of the world that people bearing the brunt of inequality are also the ones upon whom it falls to fight that inequality. But still. There are, and will be, more disabled archaeologists, and you can help them know that they’re not alone. What do you wish you’d known when you first started to get sick? What resources might have helped you? Without overstraining yourself, maybe there are small things you can do—a trail of bread crumbs you can leave—for the future archaeologists who will inevitably find themselves in similar situations. If you decide to stay in archaeology, you will have helped shape a healthier culture for yourself and your peers. And if you leave—if you move on to other passions, other identities, or simply another mode of survival—you’ll have left your field better than you found it.