Counting Sheep in the Academy

(September 26th, 2017) Despite suffering from the consequences of a childhood brain injury, Donald Nicolson still made a career in science. Here's his story.

The brain haemorrhage that left me in coma as a teenager did not stop me getting the holy trinity of Academic awards, BA (Hons), MSc and then PhD. I carved out a career in research, going from contract to contract; gaining many publications and working on projects that had notable impact. But the brain is a delicate thing, and any insult has consequences. Over time this has impacted on my work and my research career.

As a result of the bleed, I suffered paralysis to the eye muscles, which left me with squint eyes that cannot converge, leaving me seeing double. I have long since learned to live and cope with that, and it does not directly hamper my life or work. Indeed, I have the feeling of seeing single, from wearing a deliberately occluding glasses lens. Overtime the brain has done the rest, and I tend not to notice that I actually see double. I can read and write just like anyone else, which does not present a problem in work. However, the impact is subtler, and has had far reaching consequences on my career development by precluding me from driving. Because I am dependent on public transport, this impacts on where I can work. In my current post, I have a near 6-hour round trip on bus and train, when it would be only two hours round trip if I drove.

People who suffer a head injury often endure sleep problems. This has direct impact on my work as test showed that I do not get enough restorative sleep. Because I have ‘sleep debt’, where I owe my body more sleep than I get; I suffer sleep attacks during the day, whereby I cannot help but fall asleep.

The build up to the attack is worse than falling asleep. My concentration slows down, I feel drowsy, as if I am losing alertness, and I struggle to stay awake. This goes on for 40 minutes or so, and often occurs twice or more per week. The attacks are debilitating, reducing my alertness and I am unable to focus on my work. And all that before I suddenly fall asleep. This leaves me paralysed because my research work revolves around writing. I make many simple mistakes, e.g. writing ungrammatical sentences; which requires me to later go back and check my work. As a consequence of the poor-quality work, I take longer to submit to the expected standard than others.

The only remedy for a sleep attack is to sleep it off; which is easier when I work from home than office. This need only last two minutes, but afterwards I have a headache and work at a slower pace. Taking a nap mid-afternoon, even if only for two minutes, carries for me a stigma. The idea of sleeping on the job is alien to my work ethos; yet the only remedy I have to counter the sleep attacks is to count sheep.

I am fortunate that I have had sympathetic line managers flexible with my, even by University standards, unusual working hours. When possible, (more often at home), I begin work between 6am and 7am, because I feel at my most alert early morning. Working seemingly anti-social hours is a challenge when other people cannot accommodate meetings early to mid-morning.

It is important to consider the impact of my insult on Me. A person’s character, head injured or not, is crucial to their being in the (academic or not) workplace; and probably helps when coping with stressful jobs. There is that old cliché; ‘Take care of your character, and your reputation will take care of itself’. Reputation is everything, and stands a lot when going for a job, either through references, or being known before the interview. The person living with a traumatic brain injury often endures a personality deficit after an insult, and this makes me wonder if this is a barrier for me. Academic work is often based on teamwork, and with head hung I recognise that I may have rubbed some people up the wrong way, by chance and not design.

There are a lot of characters in academia, and mine might be a couple of standard deviations from the mean. I am cognisant that my character might have held me back with others who could have helped my career development. Words carry weight and are an essential tool in communicating work/ideas, and more so just getting by with colleagues. This ‘soft skill’ does not come so easily for me, a person with a brain injury. It does not help that my joking is done with a straight face, and so leaves people all the more confused as to when I am joking or not.

I hope that this account can help others understand what work is like for an academic with a disability. My story is my own and so not generalisable, but this hopefully adds to the emerging research that maps challenges faced by academics with disabilities.

Donald J Nicolson

Photo: Pixabay/geralt

Last Changes: 10.19.2017