The Scientiae Carnival theme this month is Balance. I’ve been meaning to write something for the carnival all of this month but somehow, the time slipped away from me and now here it is, the night before the carnival is to be published and I think I may have I missed it again. Which is really too bad because there’s a lot to say about balance in life.

Balance is not the sort of thing I have a good working knowledge of. Literally. I’ve always been a bit of a klutz. Growing up, nobody would ever have accused me of having terrific balance. When I was 16, I started waitressing and developed a fairly good sense of balance, at least when it came to putting things on a tray and carrying it to a table and taking them off again. I only once dropped a tray and that was because I had worked for 12 hours and was dead tired. And it only had two meals on it so it wasn’t so bad, really.

But, having become an adult (nominally) balance has taken on a completely different meaning in my life (in part because I no longer have to take PE classes). And, I’ve come to realize that you really don’t pay much attention to balance until you no longer have it. And getting it back is a lot harder than losing it in the first place. Not that long ago (when I first started grad school, actually), this became incredibly apparent to me because instead of losing my physical balance, I lost my mental balance.

There are many, many euphemisms for the onset of mental illness, and not coincidentally there are a few that refer to balance. You might call someone “unstable” or even “unbalanced” (or, you know, “off her rocker”). And really, the description is apt, because it does feel a bit like someone has reached inside your head and shook up a few things and now everything is mixed up, upside down, twisting, turning, and, well, unbalanced.

And then, you fall.

But unlike when you lose your physical balance, you can’t really just stand up again, and brush yourself off because you’ve lost your ability to stand up at all. And that’s what happened to me. I became more and more unbalanced and then one day, I was on the ground and I had no idea how to get back up again.

And that’s when I became aware of how balanced everything had been. That there had once been beautiful and perfect balance that required no effort whatsoever and now, if I wanted to ever be balanced again, it was going to take a lot of effort and a lot of thinking about what being balanced is in the first place. That’s when I started thinking about balance all.the.time. Balance between therapy and medication. Balance among medications. Balance between side effects and therapeutic effects (Do I really need to be able to sleep? Can I live with shaking hands? Do I even like how I feel on this medication?). Balance between school and life. Between lab and family. Between getting a PhD and (quite literally) keeping my sanity.

And while thinking about balance and achieving balance have helped me enormously, I had to make a lot of difficult decisions based on what balance means to me. I had to think about what that means for the kind of career I want to have and ask questions like, how much failure can I take before I fall over? How much can I sacrifice and still feel stable?

And that’s when I realized that bench science isn’t for me. Day in and day out 80% of what I do simply does not work. For no good reason. The PCR reaction that worked perfectly well yesterday may stop working tomorrow and not work for weeks and then, for no apparent reason start working again. Some cloning project may go horribly, horribly awry through no fault of my own and this may cost me months of time and that’s just the way it is. Can I live with this? No. I cannot.

I thought I could. Really. I thought I had stopped taking failure so personally, but try as I might (and believe me I have tried) failing constantly just depresses me. No amount of therapy is going to change that. You can pump me full of SSRIs and I will still be heartbroken everytime something goes wrong. This might not be so bad if the things that went well gave me enough warm fuzzies to make it through the failures. But they don’t. The scale is permanently weighted down on the fail side and that is never, ever going to change.

Part of becoming more balanced has been coming to terms with the revelation. And I have. I am happy with my decision to focus on science education and leave bench science behind. Of course, a career in education will have its own issues and I may find that I don’t like it any more than I did bench science. But, I’m prepared for that possibility and I think that makes it a little less precarious. After everything I’ve been through, I think it’s going to be harder to pull me off balance.


2 thoughts on “Balance

  1. My spouse has a theory that for most people, the random disappointments are less devastating IF they are in supportive labs. I’m in a lab where if it didn’t work, you’re a stupid incompetent scientist, and like you, I want to go to science education instead, because at least I’ll know I’m doing something useful.

    I wonder, if I’d joined a better lab, if I would hate my work so very much. That is, I wonder how much of a difference support makes. Mr. S is also relentlessly cheerful- the only times I’ve seen him truly upset were at funerals, and once about some really dreadful scientific misadventure. How much support does he need? Some, but not as much as I do.

    (And SSRIs and no sleep… oy. If I don’t take a strong sedative every night, I don’t sleep. It’s a rock and a hard place.)

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