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Back to school... back to reality

Leslie returns to class and struggles with exhaustion.

My life has experienced a lot of flux lately.  I finished my PhD in sociology, moved from Michigan to New York, and started an MA program in health advocacy. 

Higher education, in my experience, can present a lot of problems for students that are chronically ill.  For me, evening classes in graduate school are an especially difficult thing.  Once 4:30 hits, I start going downhill and fading fast.  But most people don’t understand what that kind of exhaustion is like. 

Certainly that was the case in my PhD program, and that also seems to be the case in the program that I now find myself in. 

Right now, I find myself really struggling with fatigue.  I have over an hour commute each way to school, and this is something that I am not used to at all. This means that when I come home, all I want to do is sleep, rather than work.

Being in school and having a chronic illness causes you to be very aware of time, and the delicate balance that is required to get your work done and stay as healthy as possible.  Reading at the graduate level is a time suck, and honestly, so is dealing with illness.  If you let everything become bigger than it is and take over, you’ll never get anything done on any front.  You’ll sit and stare at the wall, feeling like doing nothing is better than feeling completely overwhelmed by everything.

If you’re someone whose life operates on an academic calendar, in theory, the summer should bring a much needed respite.  For me, this past summer was spent finishing writing and defending my dissertation.  I defended my dissertation a month to the day before orientation for my new program started.  So when people at orientation were talking about already having started reading assignments, I was struck by the fact that I had managed to get my dissertation revisions in, and therefore truly be finished, before I left Michigan for New York.  And inside I was celebrating the fact that the dissertation defense and move hadn’t caused me to have a major flare.

As much as school isn’t the real world, the requirements of school really serve as a reminder of the requirements of illness. 

This is to say that even if you are chronically ill and a student, these two identities aren’t mutually exclusive.  You can do and be both.  Unfortunately, though, for many, either the particulars of their illnesses or lack of support from their academic programs and universities make it difficult, if not impossible, for chronically ill students to finish.  This is not acceptable. 

I have had many conversations over the summer where I heard heartbreaking tails of amazingly intelligent women who could not finish their academic pursuits because of their illnesses.  To be clear, this isn’t just an effect of the severity of their illnesses.  It’s because there are no supports in place to help chronically ill students with their unique needs.

That’s why I have made this issue my life’s passion.  I am sick of hearing stories of competent people being held back because they are sick.  And I wonder what makes me different than those other people.  And I’m not really sure what it is.  But I do know that because I’ve been there, I’m in a unique position to help others. 

One day, I won’t be in school anymore, and I’ll be operating in the real world.  But for now, I’m in my school bubble, which surprisingly, more rather than less, makes me look at my illnesses and all that they cause me to do or not be able to do, under a microscope.

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