capable

This is a guest post by Ryan Bramley, a PhD Researcher in the School of Education and a member of the Disabled & Ill Researchers’ Network (community space locked to University of Sheffield members).

There’s that old saying in football, “Form is temporary; class is permanent”, that reminds me of times when I know I’m capable of taking on a challenge, but not able to take it on in the present moment.

I guess it’s one way that footballers come to terms with a particularly barren spell. I’m not performing well right now, but I’ve done well before, and I know I’m capable of doing well again. And that’s fair enough for footballers: many of them will earn more in twenty years of kicking a ball around than any of us will earn in our lifetimes.

When Liverpool were persistently disappointing the Anfield faithful a few years ago, the team brought in Professor Steve Peters, renowned sports psychiatrist (and coincidentally, former Undergraduate Dean of our very own Sheffield Medical School). Sure enough, last season, Liverpool made it all the way to the Champions League Final for the first time since 2007 – only to be beaten by a sensational Real Madrid side (and/or two awful mistakes by ‘keeper Loris Karius) in Kiev.

Granted, having millions of pounds to spend on new players every year, definitely helps. The point is, not everybody can bring in world class psychiatrists when things aren’t going so well – not least, researchers like us. As lovely as a bloke Steve Peters seems to be, I very much doubt he’d be willing to spend his working hours helping a postgraduate student with their mental health, pro-bono. (Back in football land, I’m sure psychiatrists have been able to help Karius come to terms with those howlers in Ukraine – after all, multi-million-pound footballer or not, he’s still a human being.)

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This park picnic bench is a 5 minute walk away from my house, and sitting there with my lunchbox and my green tea, and looking out at the greenness in front of me, really gives me calmness and clarity when I need it.

When we struggle to meet that deadline, to get to our lectures, or even to leave the house, we must often fight that battle alone. Regardless of how strong our social support systems are (I will always be indebted to those around me who’ve ever leant an ear, offered a shoulder, or made me laugh over a pint in the pub), those helping hands have their limits. Sadly, friends and family are of little help when we’re sat across an office desk from our supervisors, struggling to explain why that chapter isn’t ready on time.

As I’m sure many of you have found in your own battles, trying to explain something that is in your head, to someone on the outside who cannot see it, whilst your communicative abilities are severely hampered by the very condition you are trying helplessly to describe, is not exactly the easiest conversation to have. (Surprise surprise, the very attempt of it has often left me feeling more mentally ill than I was to begin with).

Fortunately, not long ago, I manage to find something that helps me out in situations like those: a Learning Support Plan (or LSP).

I’ve had my LSP for almost a year now, and I could not recommend it enough. I made an appointment with the Disability and Dyslexia Support Service (DDSS – aren’t acronyms great!) and had a tough, but helpful chat with one of their advisers – fortunately, one of my better attempts to describe my condition (although I largely thank the loveliness of the adviser for that one).

And so, my Learning Support Plan was drawn up by DDSS, and with my consent, circulated to everyone who needed to see it: colleagues I regularly work with; academic supervisors; departmental student support contacts; and so on. I’ve never felt that this information was provided to anybody I didn’t want to be able to access it. And for those who have read it, I’ve never felt like I’ve been treated differently when working with them.

Most significantly of all, the Learning Support Plan makes those tricky conversations about deadlines and so forth easier to have: if I’m struggling, I can point them towards the LSP, and the difficulty of going into distressing detail about what it is I’m going through is no longer a necessity. More than anything else, being able to do this reassures me that this thing that I live with isn’t just something I’ve made up. It’s there, in black and white. It’s real.

A Learning Support Plan isn’t for everyone. Admittedly, I’ve spoken to people who’ve had mixed experiences with it. But it’s certainly helped me out through a tough few months. It isn’t the only help I’ve had, of course, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have continued access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), counselling, and medication – as well as the support of the University’s Disabled and Ill Researchers Network, which I would certainly recommend.

None of these things are enough to help me through it all on their own. And all of them put together will almost certainly never ever ‘cure’ me, if such a thing is even possible (personally, I’m sceptical). But the help, the support, and the love I’ve received – from many different people, from many different corners – has kept me pushing on with this PhD, and I hope they’ll keep me pushing on for many more years to come.

After all, when all form has left us, class lives on, bubbling in our minds, and bursting at the seams.

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