I was supposed to give a major presentation to the entire English Department at my school recently. I cancelled it. I am trying to think of things to say to all the grad students, lecturers, and professors who will want to know why I am the only Ph.D. candidate who cancelled her presentation (all the candidates are required to make individual presentations). Here are some of the things I might say:
Grad School Nemesis #1: Why didn't you do your presentation? Where were you that day?
Me: I don't know. Why don't you ask your boyfriend?
Grad School Nemesis #2: Why did you cancel your presentation? I know you were nervous, but that's really not an excuse to cancel something like this.
Me: I'm not nervous at all. I just earned a black belt in karate. Allow me to demonstrate some of my moves on you.
Professor who once referred to my work as a "disappointment": You do realize how important these presentations are, right?
Me: Are they as important as the days when Garrett gives out free popcorn?
I didn't want to cancel this presentation. I felt nervous, scared, and stressed out about it, as everyone else did when they presented their work. But I was anxious to prove that I WASN'T a mediocre scholar. For years, I've been told that my academic work was not good enough, which made me feel like I was not good enough.
I always envied and resented the other grad students for their academic accomplishments, especially because some (though not all) made me feel bad about my lack of awards, fellowships, and publications. I remember confiding in one classmate about how awful I felt after our professor and the entire class tore apart my paper. She responded, "Well, the professor really liked my paper. You should see all the great comments she wrote on it."
I was an A student from the first grade through the master's program. Everyone always told me that I was smart. But once I enrolled in the Ph.D. program, I didn't feel smart anymore. I just felt tired, stressed, and stupid.
Since this is supposed to be my last year in the program, this presentation was my last chance to prove to the entire department that my work really is good enough and that I really am smart. In academia, reputation is very important, especially when you are networking.
But I had to cancel it. Ever since my doctor increased my medication, the side effects have gotten worse. It affected my appetite, and I lost nearly ten pounds. I still feel tired all the time, and I get sick on a regular basis. One of the other side effects is that it makes my feet feel like they're falling asleep, and I often wake up in pain in the middle of the night. I'm not able to exercise as much as I used to. I still hear that whooshing sound in my ear. I'll ask my doctor to reduce my medication, but I'm scared that she'll tell me that a) I'm still not getting better; b) I'm getting worse; c) I'll have to stay on this medication indefinitely; d) I'll have to get surgery.
I have managed to get some work done. For example, I've applied to teach at more than two dozen schools around the country. I still have my website job, which I need to pay for these medical bills (my insurance doesn't cover all of them). And of course, I still have to work on my dissertation. So even though I don't have a lot of energy, I can't stay in bed all day.
As a workaholic, I always kept working, even if I got a cold or felt tired. But this is different. I don't feel like I can tell the other people about what I'm going through. My dissertation committee knows, and they understood when I told them I had to cancel my presentation. But I don't know what to say to the other graduate students, and I don't think they'd understand anyway. Even though I am very sick, I don't look sick or act sick. If any of them tries to criticize me or question me too much about why I cancelled, I just might scream at them.
What about you? Have you ever had to cancel something that was important to you? How do you answer questions about private issues like health problems when you don't want everyone to know?
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