Conferencing while Chronically Ill

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Katie Quirin Manwiller, Evening Public Services and Assessment Librarian at DeSales University, Center Valley, PA.

Travel time, packed schedules, and constant networking can make conferences exhausting for even the most outgoing librarians. For those of us who face mental and physical exhaustion as part of daily life, attending conferences can be a battle. I’m a spoonie librarian who deeply enjoys meeting and sharing with fellow LIS folks, but it takes a lot of extra effort for me to manage my health during professional events. Through navigating various national and regional conferences, I’ve developed a few tricks to help me make conferencing while chronically ill possible.

Some background: I work primarily in reference and instruction at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. I’m interested in assessment, student engagement, professional service, and accessibility in librarianship. I also have a handful of chronic illnesses you probably have never heard of: Hypermobility Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS). I manage an array of symptoms on a daily basis, such as chronic muscle pain, acute joint pain from dislocations, migraines, chronic fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, depression, nausea/GI upset, dizziness, and exercise intolerance. Sounds fun, right?

Like most chronically ill people, I will struggle with my health for the rest of my life, but the difficulty of that struggle varies greatly from year to year. After my initial hEDS diagnosis in 2013, my symptoms and pain management slowly improved for three years, only to go tumbling backwards in 2017. My health has been largely at a low point since then, which brings me to April 2019, and the inspiration for this post.

I attended ACRL 2019 in Cleveland and as an early-career instruction librarian, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to learn from my peers and be fully immersed in academic librarianship. Unfortunately, my body was not so thrilled. The travel sent me into a POTS flare and I was dizzy with a skyrocketing heart rate every day of the conference. I had a panic attack when someone in a session seemingly subtweeted me after I asked a question and I needed to leave the conference center for a break. ACRL had some helpful services for attendees, like a quiet room, but when my pain was high and my brain fogged I couldn’t even find the room to rest. Long story short, it was hard. Harder than any professional experience of my life.

Since ACRL, I’ve successfully presented at a conference for the first time. And best of all, my experience at ACRL led me to a community of other librarians with illness and disability for which I am deeply grateful (#SpoonieLibrarian or #CripLib on Twitter). I hope to support this community and want to begin by addressing one of my biggest challenges as a professionally-engaged spoonie. Here’s my advice for fellow librarians who conference while chronically ill:

1. Have a buddy. I was able to learn at and enjoy ACRL largely because I had a close friend also attending the conference who has known about my health issues for years. She went to restaurants with me when I was too dizzy to stand in the food truck lines, found a place for me to sit down in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when my heart rate was going crazy, and generally provided emotional support. If you don’t know someone else attending who you feel comfortable disclosing to, let someone in your support network know you will be having a challenging few days and reach out via text, call, whatever when you need to. Bonus tip: share this blog post with that buddy, so they can learn more about what you might be going through and how they can support you.

2. Plan rest time in advance. I do better when I plan rest into my schedule before I arrive at the conference. Plan for a quiet dinner in your hotel instead of attending the dine-out on the same day you traveled seven hours. Schedule time off for the day after the conference to rest and recover. If financially able, stay in the hotel adjacent to the conference center so it’s easier to get to your room if you need a break. If not, scope out the conference map beforehand and figure out where you can rest without having to go all the way back to your hotel.

3. Set reminders for your meds. I easily forget my medicine when I break from my regular schedule, which always happens at conferences. I got a daily pill organizer to keep track of what I have/have not taken, and set reminders in my phone to make sure I take them before heading to a session. Also, bring extra meds and make sure you have some with you so you don’t have to return to your room if symptoms come up.

4. Plan your outfits in advance. This may seem like a basic one but chronic illness makes it trickier. My MCAS flares if clothing is too tight on my abdomen, and my POTS makes it hard to regulate my body temperature. Bring clothes that you feel confident in but that are also comfortable enough to not increase symptoms. Add in a few options in case the conference center is colder or hotter than you expected. And plan outfits a few days in advance – a 10 pm Target run the night before you leave does not do your anxiety any favors (speaking from experience).

5. Skip sessions. The FOMO at conferences is real, especially when it costs $1000+ to attend. Try not to feel guilty about skipping sessions or events when your health won’t permit it. Prioritize certain sessions that you definitely want to attend, and determine what you can skip if necessary. Follow the conference hashtag on twitter to get a recap of the keynote you didn’t feel up to attending. Unless you actually need to meet with a vendor, consider skipping the exhibitor hall. You will probably spend an hour and a fair bit of energy collecting unnecessary freebies to carry around for the rest of the day. Plan to review the conference materials that go online afterward. Take advantage of the online options when you need to stay in your room.

6. Make your session work for you. If you’re presenting, do what you can to make the session cost the fewest spoons. Present with a colleague if possible to delegate responsibilities. Skip a meal out to practice and rest the night before. Arrive in the room early to set up and mentally prepare. Ask for a chair so don’t have to stand the whole time (this is totally fine! Your content is still excellent whether you present it standing or sitting). Incorporate small group discussion to give yourself a break. Plan extra rest before or after your session if you need to. Overall…

7. Be gentle with yourself. This goes along with skipping sessions, but be mindful of your limits. It can be easy to push yourself because you don’t want to miss anything, but in the long run you’ll end up missing more if you completely exhaust yourself. Stop before you get exhausted and before the pain is too much to keep going. That way you’ll not only be able to attend the sessions you want but actually focus on them and not your symptoms. Take a few minutes at the end of each session to check in with yourself, see how you’re feeling, and determine if a preventative break is the best option. You can also take that time to check in with your buddy, grab a cup of coffee, and discuss what you’ve learned so far.

Chronic illness and disability are experienced differently by each individual, so these tips will not work perfectly for everyone. They have made attending conferences easier for me, and I hope they will help other spoonie librarians successfully engage in LIS events. If you have any tricks or tips that have worked for you, please feel free to add them in the comments below.


2 thoughts on “Conferencing while Chronically Ill”

  1. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for writing this. I also have hEDS, POTS, and MCAS (among other things) and have long-struggled with balancing work and chronic illness…which is only amplified in a conference setting. Thank you for sharing tips which can help others, acknowledging that conference life for us spoonies is different than for others, and acknowledging that it’s healthy to set limits and boundaries. Keep going, day by day, and thank you for making our profession a more inclusive space.

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