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When is enough enough? dyslexia, writing and PhD's.

This blog post is about two things that are interlinked. Mainly it's about the impact of dyslexia on the PhD but also by default it's an update about where the PhD is (or is not)

I had a PhD meeting the other day that opened with what boiled down to 'this isn't good enough. And you haven't proof read at all'

Now leaving behind the fact that professional pride would never let me hand in something not to the best of my ability. Nor, even without dyslexia would any self-respecting PhD student hand in something not proof read. Also leaving behind that I followed the edits and re-writes given on the previous draft to the letter. Leaving behind all of that, opening a meeting with that, to a dyslexic person is about as soul destroying as it gets. It also flies in the face of any kind of guidance for working with disabilities.

Let me use an analogy. I've worked supporting students with disabilities in HE for three years. I would never open a discussion with a student with, say a physical disability, by listing all the things they were going to do badly because of their disability. It's common sense right? I'd start by saying 'right lets to x and y and z and then lets think about those things that are more challenging because of your disability.' I'd follow that by asking what I could do to help. If the student told me 'x or y isn't really a help' I'd accept that and find alternatives, because they are the one dealing with the disability, not me. They know their personal situation, I am there to respond and support as best I can.

Now let me explain how this approach made me feel this week (with the caveat that this is far from the first time this has happened). It was like saying "It doesn't look like you've worked at all on this. And here are a list of things wrong with it' and that list of things being something you knew with the best will in the world you weren't going to be able to fix. Because you've already done the absolute best you can do. And I try to understand that a person who doesn't have this condition can never really understand, in the same way that I can never understand a physical disability. But we can all try. By leading with the thing most out of my control, and most hurtful, most damaging to my confidence every other discussion was coloured. All I can now hear is 'what does it matter what I do to the content, no matter how hard I work I will never, ever be 'PhD standard' whatever that means' or 'what does it matter, nobody believes I put the work in or have the ability to do this'. Because intended or not, what I heard is 'you are not and we think cannot produce work to the standard needed.' And maybe in part I am just not capable, but I know a good deal of the reasons at this point were to do with issues that I cannot help, and need not so much support but understanding to overcome.

I felt like I was then criticized for not getting myself adequate support for the disability that nobody was really speaking of. Like it was a dirty word, that somehow a PhD student with such an issue had slipped through the cracks. This world isn't for you unless you get "help" but the "help" like a stigma for mental health was a thing we shouldn't really be speaking of. When I explained the "help" available wasn't really able to help in this situation (support for dyslexia at PhD level is really difficult to manage, as its so specialist) This is nobody's fault, support is difficult particularly at this level. What was difficult was although I try again and again to explain how my dyslexia affects me and what kind of support does or doesn't work for me, it feels like nobody is listening. It's like it's a dirty word in this world. The way the world shies away from mental illness, we don't want to discuss the idea that the 'dirty dyslexic' still has a place at the table if only someone would try to understand and to understand how support can work, and sometimes how it doesn't.

Most of all this hit me where it really hurts. My writing ability. All my life some variation of 'writing for a living' is all I've wanted to do. I've always been honest with myself it will probably be a 'sideline' to another job/career because that is the nature of the beast. However, even as a hobby it's what I've loved to do. And I flattered myself I was if not brilliant at it, then alright-bordering-on-good-sometimes at it. Having clawed my way into academia and PhD life, having convinced journals and books my work was worth publishing, I thought I was finally on to something. And that feels like the floor has opened up underneath me. The one thing I had confidence in has been taken away from me and I'm not sure where I go from here.

I know my other shortcomings in my PhD, and I had already planned my future career around them. I'm not a theorist. I recognise and respect the place of theory in academia but I have no desire to spend my life dwelling on it. I'm also not a natural at literary analysis, it's not where I come from it's not where I want to be. I am a good historical researcher. I'm also good at media and meta analysis in that context, all of these are areas I saw myself working in. Because the beauty of post-doctoral work is directing the foundation of what you have done into what you then want to do. But if I can't write, then what's the point?

I was also left with the feeling that the whole thing is no longer fixable. Which leads me to the general 'state of the nation' in PhD land. When is the point at which you give up? I'm loath to give up. Not even any more due to the amount of work, but due to the fact I've paid out £11, 000 in tuition and sacrificed nearly 4 years of 'real' income. Because at this point it comes down to a financial decision. Do I give up, find a full time job and maybe (maybe) finish it around that. Do I keep plodding on, in the vain hope it will come together?

Because I'll be honest: I am exhausted. I'm exhausted physically, literally from working evenings and scarping together maybe 20 hours work at minimum wage a week. And getting up, sitting at my desk by 8am to work again on the PhD. I'm exhausted emotionally from worrying about scarping together a living, and scraping together a PhD. And I'm exhausted from feeling worthless. I feel worthless in my customer service minimum wage job. I feel worthless in my PhD. Surely that's the point at which you draw a line? But it's sad. Because I've finally got a taste of what fulfilling work can be. I've finally got if not a foot, then a toe, in the door of several jobs I'd like to do. But I'm also acutely aware that door could be slammed shut any time. So as I near 30, and near the point at which it may be useless to continue, maybe it is time to shut the door myself.

I worked, and I fought to get this far but maybe this is as far as I can go. I never thought dyslexia would be the undoing of me. For me, yes I can't add up and I can't spell for toffee. Yes the dyspraxic arm of me means I fall over and into things and am constantly bruised....and that I can't dance. But I never until now believed it was something that would stop me. And maybe it isn't that, maybe the PhD is just a disaster regardless. But when conversations and criticism start with the things you can't control it's harder and harder to see the difference.



As a p.s to this blog post, if I'm still being 'spied' on here, I maintain as ever there is nothing in this blog I would not say directly to those involved (in fact I would welcome it).


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