Dealing with Illness and Loss Early in One’s Mathematical Career

Hello again folks! It’s nice to be writing again. I’ve been on a partial medical leave of absence since last June. This isn’t the first time that I’ve had to deal with longterm illness. And I have many friends, as I’m sure you do, that have had to deal with personal loss and tragedy early in their careers — by which I mean pre-tenure.

Since we early-career mathematicians must be concerned about current and future career instability, illness and loss take on extra dimensions of complexity. In this post, I reflect on my own experiences and the lessons I’ve learned from those around me.

I have ulcerative colitis (UC). This is chronic inflammatory bowel disease, so I’ll have it for life. I was diagnosed back in 1999, so I’ve been dealing with it since my first days in graduate school. This is a disease that no one likes to talk about — the primary symptom is frequent, uncontrollable bloody diarrhea.

UC goes through periods of remission and flare up (it’s an autoimmune disease). In the first few years after my diagnosis, my UC was mild enough to keep private. I didn’t tell my fellow graduate students, my instructors or even my thesis advisor. Roughly once or twice per year, I would experience a few weeks or a month of bleeding, and then induce remission with increased or varied medication.

Things changed in 2007. I was a postdoc at Berkeley, and a flare-up started, as usual, with mild bleeding. This time, I was unable to control it as easily as before. My bleeding increased and eventually became constant, anemia set in, and I was unable to function. I developed an extra-intestinal manifestation of UC called pyoderma gangrenosum, wherein your immune system eats your skin, and creates open wounds.¬†Even if you’re wearing adult diapers, it’s impossible to give a lecture while having bloody diarrhea! And you can’t function well at all with a bunch of open wounds!

For the first time in my life, I had to walk away from professional responsibilities. I couldn’t teach my classes. I couldn’t give seminar lectures. I couldn’t travel to talk or even participate in conferences. I was bedridden, and couldn’t even stay on top of my email. As an ambitious young mathematician, what was I to do? How was I to establish my reputation? Find and prove theorems? Develop outreach programs? Secure a tenure track job?

I have gone through severe flare ups several times now, the most recent of which is just ending. And I have known others forced cope with loss and tragedy as well. Two friends in particular come to mind; one lost a relative to suicide, another lost a friend to murder. Here are five lessons I’ve learned.

  1. Your health must come first.

    Career? Whatever. You can’t have a career from the grave. No job is worth risking serious injury or exacerbating illness. Think of your mother (or someone else you love dearly). Would you want her to risk her health for career advancement? Try to apply the same standard to yourself.

    What’s more, you won’t be able to prove theorems from the sickbed. Your mental and physical health is correlated to your productivity. So, even from the perspective of career advancement, it’s important to make your health a priority.

    Get yourself healthy first, and only then get back to work.

  2. Your theorems will wait for you.

    As a wise senior professor once said to a friend in need, your theorems will wait for you. Yes, of course, mathematicians are at times political, dishonest and capable of scooping each other. But the theorems that are truly yours are yours alone. They will be there for you.

    Or, as a senior rock star once said, you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes, you’ll find, you get what you need. Perhaps, after your illness, you will find different theorems to prove. Evidently, those were the theorems the universe intended for you to prove.

    You should allow yourself to focus on your healing. Deal with your loss. Rebuild your health. Focus on your recovery completely. Your theorems will be there for you when you get back on your feet.

  3. Ask, and be grateful, for help.

    This piece of advice is much easier for me to give than receive. My natural inclination is to turn inward. I want to find a solution to my problem without relying on the support of those around me. I want to keep my problems private. I don’t want to ask for help.

    But to recover, I have needed large amounts of help and support from others. And help has come from unexpected places.

    You might find staff members at your institution that have dealt with similar issues. Your colleagues may help in ways unimagined. People will surprise you with their generosity. This can be really affirming.

    As a postdoc and a professor, I’ve been lucky to have tremendous support from my colleagues. (Not to mention my family and friends!) I wouldn’t have been able to make it without them.

    And remember to let those you help you know that you are grateful for your help. This is important for your colleagues (and your marriage) — it’s not easy to take care of others!

  4. It’s OK to have an identity crisis.

    The periods of child development are well known: the terrible two’s, the pre-teen years, etc. We expect children to go through these periods as part of a healthy progression of development.

    Although it is less discussed in the general public, adults also have periods of development. Unfortunately these are usually characterized as identity crises, seen as negative, and expected to only happen as we enter our middle years.

    These periods of adult development, or identity crises, are times in our adult lives when we grow, come to understand ourselves better or more deeply, or take time for serious self-reflection. They can be brought on through natural development, or through significant experiences. Often times crises occur when we face our own mortality or that of a loved one.

    If you find yourself feeling in such a crisis as a result of illness or loss, don’t worry about it. Don’t criticize yourself. Forgive yourself. Allow yourself to be reflective. Allow yourself to grow. Allow yourself to change.

    You may become a new or different person as a result of your experience, and this can be quite positive.

  5. Learn from your experience.

    You will suffer as a result of your illness or loss. Learn from that suffering.

    In addition to learning about yourself, as above, learn as much and as widely as possible. You are a mathematician, so you’re capable and inquisitive. You’re forced to focus on recovery. Learn about your disease or circumstance. Read up on suicide prevention, gun control, autoimmune disease or whatever your situation dictates. Study the impact of your illness on others including those close to you. Learn about the various ways that people deal with suffering. This is such a large subject, it’s difficult to even touch on. There is just so much to learn from illness and loss.

    In the end, you may find yourself renewed, with a new sense of purpose, more informed, more able to help others, and more sympathetic to people experiencing various forms of suffering around you.

In short, I hope that the reader will remain infinitely happy and healthy. But should illness or loss come your way in your pre-tenure years, I hope these reflections will help. It is not the end of your career, only the beginning!!

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2 Responses to Dealing with Illness and Loss Early in One’s Mathematical Career

  1. Mike says:

    Valuable advice, Dagan. Good luck to you. Who knew Mick and Keith were such great philosophers?

  2. Robert says:

    Lots of wisdom in your remarks, Dagan, and I identified with them all. Thanks for your courage in sharing this. I had a very rough start to my academic career which, while very unpleasant and even painful at times, gave me the gift of realizing that it’s OK to limit the amount of time I devote to my role in academia (really, my role in anything). The world does indeed keep on spinning whether or not I’m there to personally help push it along.

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