From the Field: Fieldwork, Health, and Stress

Maybe I should have expected it. When I get stressed, I tend to get sick, and fieldwork is a stressful time. Don’t get me wrong, fieldwork is awesome! I’m positive it’s one of the strongest reasons why we all got interested in ethnomusicology in the first place. The chance to see how people make and use their music. And we get to talk, play, sing, and dance WITH them! Where is the downside? Despite its awesomeness, however, fieldwork is always stressful for me, both physically and emotionally. I miss my husband and my family. I worry about making cultural faux pas even as I recognize that it is inevitable that I will do so. All my fieldwork has taken place in big cities, and I’m very much a small town girl.

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Still, these are not insurmountable problems, and when I set out for my last fieldwork trip to Glasgow, Scotland, I didn’t think that the stress would be that severe. I’d been to Glasgow before and knew how to navigate the city. I’d already met and interviewed most of the people in my musical circle there. Heck, I’d already performed with them. I had packed the necessary medicine for any immediate problems: cold and sinus pills and my trusty Advil. I was going to a large city in a Western country where I spoke the language (basically). Anything I needed beyond that should be readily available. No problems at all. This trip should have been a snap.

About halfway into my two-month trip, I got up early one morning and fainted. I don’t know what fainting is like for anyone else, but for those of you who never have, it’s nothing like the movies. For one thing, I never fall backwards. I’ve fainted before and was always told that if I felt faint, I should put my head between my knees. So I sit down and put my head between my knees. Sometimes following this advice helps. When it doesn’t, I fall on my face. That morning in Glasgow, I came to with my face planted firmly between my suitcase and the dresser. I’d hit the corner of my suitcase on the way down, but I wasn’t aware of that at first.

Again, I don’t know what this is like for anyone else, but don’t believe the movies. Characters in movies either snap out of a faint, completely aware of their surroundings, or they awaken gently but with the same almost-instantaneous awareness. When I come to, I don’t know where I am. Ever. I don’t know what happened, or why I’m on my face. There’s usually a great deal of stomach pain that accompanies my fainting spells, but in that moment, I don’t know why I hurt. It’s bad in the dark but worse in the light. When it’s light, you can see and should be able to process your surroundings and know what has happened to you. When I faint, it’s like some fundamental connection has been unplugged, and my neurons are trying desperately to find the outlet.

And for me, fainting has never been something that I just shake off. I don’t get up, brush myself off, and continue with my day. I’m dizzy, shaky, and nauseous, sometimes for days. My fainting spells started in junior high and continued on and off through high school. There was never any one thing that triggered it; just every once in a while I’d come to on the floor. On my face. No doctor has ever really been able to explain why this happens or how to avoid it. But it hadn’t happened in years. When I fainted in Scotland, I was thousands of miles away from anything really familiar. There was nothing obvious that caused this fainting spell: I was eating regularly, drinking more water than I usually did, and I’d just finished a large chunk of writing that I was actually pleased with. If anything, I thought I was less stressed out than usual. But I was on the clock. I only had two months to complete this fieldwork for my dissertation. I couldn’t afford to be sick. I also felt at the time, rightly or wrongly, that I couldn’t afford to worry any of my friends and interlocutors there. So I didn’t tell anyone. And I didn’t tell anyone when I fainted the next day.

I think my experience brings up a lot of issues that might be relevant to current graduate students, not the least of which is the need to recognize a connection between mental and physical health. And the fact that something as wonderful as fieldwork is also very stressful. I think much of my (and potentially others’) anxieties come from the fact that, to those outside academia and even those just outside the field of ethnomusicology, it looks like I’ve got it made: I’ve stayed in school and therefore avoided the “real world” for as long as possible; my degree program requires that I listen to a ton of music and then travel the world learning about that music; and when I come home, all I have to do is write about what I learned. We all know there is so much more to it than that, but everything I’d read about ethnomusicological fieldwork told me that I should be having transcendental experiences that would change me as a person forever. When those experiences were slow in coming, I felt like a failure. None of my ethno heroes wrote about getting sick or having doubts or being bored. I thought I must be doing something wrong. As you can see, most of my stress comes from the mental side (anxiety, depression, etc.) but it manifests itself physically (fainting spells).

Fieldwork is utterly amazing, and I want to keep doing it for the rest of my life. I am so thankful for all the opportunities that I have had because of my chosen profession. Fieldwork is also very stressful, particularly when you’re on a time crunch which is a situation that more and more graduate students are facing these days. This can add unforeseen and unplanned for stressors that may affect us in various ways. And I honestly don’t know what I would have done differently to avoid those fainting spells. As much as I prepared, the floor still hit me in the face. But I still got up.

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-Heather

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