Originally published in the Scotsman.

Nobody likes being ill, but I assumed that catching the flu while doing a PhD wouldn’t be so bad. There are no clocks to punch, nobody checking timesheets. My student loan pays my living expenses, so losing a few days won’t hurt my finances. I set my own schedule, so if I need to lie in bed for a week, doing nothing but shivering and coughing and drinking chicken broth, no problem. Right?

That’s how I approached illness during my undergrad years, and it suited me just fine. Lecturers were always willing to forgive a few absences, grant a few extentions on assignments. It was just part of the student experience, getting pathetically ill and wanting nothing more than to crawl home to our mothers.

Crawling 3,000 miles home wasn’t really an option for me, but a sympathetic ear was only a phone call away. At seventeen, I didn’t quite know how to take care of myself, and Mom’s solid advice kept me going. Grudgingly – I’ve never been one to sit still for long – I would rest, drink the required amounts of tea and orange juice, go through the rituals of head-steaming and pill-swallowing, and eventually get back to work.

It seems different now. Losing a week in undergrad meant missing a few lectures, a bit of a delay on assignments that might not have been interesting to begin with. An e-mail to the tutor, and all was forgiven. Now that it’s my own project that’s delayed, a week seems unacceptable. I’m accountable to supervisors who I like and respect, and losing a week feels like letting them down.

At first I thought all those hours in bed would be a good opportunity to think. I’m still trying to develop a precise focus for my project, but have been neglecting essential thinking time lately. With all distractions removed, it seemed the perfect chance to finally figure out what I’m doing. But as time wore on, I realised that with an unhealthy body, my brain was not going to cooperate.

My own work aside, I had to withdraw from several commitments I was really looking forward to – including giving an informal talk with a few other PhD students, and attending a conference organised by my previous coursemates. Missing these kinds of relevant, stimulating events seems much worse than missing obligatory lectures where I was an anonymous face in a sea of undergrads.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, a week isn’t a big deal at all, but I never expected to feel this guilty about it. It’s a guilt mingled with frustration – I’ve been trusted with the responsibility to get on with my work, and just as I was finding a rhythm, this illness knocked me out of commission for a week. Perhaps I’m meant to learn to avoid procrastination, to not take anything for granted, to use every moment wisely. Or maybe it’s just an annoying coincidence.

One thing I’m thankful for is the NHS. Back home, I didn’t have health insurance, and it was sheer good luck that my illnesses were never serious. But paranoia can be a powerful force when you can’t afford a GP’s reassurance that it’s just a cold – or the medicine to treat something worse. It’s an issue that most American students and young people grapple with, and I’m enormously grateful that I don’t have to choose between groceries and healthcare in this country.

At the end of the day, being ill is no fun, whether someone’s counting your hours or not. I’m just happy to be on the mend again.

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