Chronic Illness: An Exceptional Graduate Student Experience

This post was written by Catherine Giroux, a second year full-time M.Ed student based out of the North Bay campus. We’d like to thank Catherine for her heartfelt and honest contribution to our community. 

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Original poem by Ruth Reardon (the word student is substituted for child in this revision)

Post-secondary education is a unique experience. For some students, the years spent at university can be affectionately called the best years of their lives. Major perks of university are making new friends, learning new things, and taking in all the new experiences associated with emerging adulthood.

In a way, graduate school is an extension of the university experience. You become incredibly engaged in your courses and immersed in your research. If you choose to pursue a thesis route, it essentially becomes your baby throughout the duration of your degree. Graduate school is not easy at the best of times; it presents new and difficult challenges, but even moreso when you have the challenge of a chronic illness.

First off, what do I mean when I discuss chronic illness? Is it like a recurring cold or flu that just won’t quit? Not exactly. Chronic illness has several definitions but here’s the one that I prefer:

Chronic illness is a medical condition, disease, or injury that has lasted more than three to six months and has caused an individual to significantly alter his or her day-to-day activities (Repetto, Horkey, Miney, Reiss, Saidi, Wolcott, Saldana, & Jaress, 2012).

Why is it difficult to be a student (especially a graduate student) with a chronic illness? Imagine every grad student has been hired to be a juggler. Your task is to keep all the balls in the air without dropping any (these represent your classes, readings, research, writing, and social expectations). Now imagine that you must keep juggling while more balls are being thrown at you. One is labelled chronic illness (you may have more than one depending on what you’ve been diagnosed with). You catch it and carry on. Out of nowhere, five more balls are added to your juggling attempts. These represent every specialist you see and how often you need to travel to see them (because of course they aren’t local). Throw in a couple balls to represent the medications you’re on, the potential daily procedures, and how much the potential side effects impact your ability to function normally. Now you’re looking at roughly 14 balls that you’ve got to keep juggling, without letting any of them drop. You’ve figured out a system and you’re making it work but you don’t know how much longer you can keep it up. Remember Zack in She’s All That? It’s a little bit like that!

Suddenly, you experience a flare up in your illness and you have to drop all the balls that you’re juggling. There’s no way that you can keep up with school and the social expectations that go along with school. The words leave of absence get thrown around but you don’t like them one bit; you’re too stubborn for that (which can be both a good and bad thing).

But you are resilient and determined to make it work. Slowly you recover and can pick up a few of the balls that you’re supposed to be juggling. You resolve to juggle fewer things this time around but you know that it won’t last. Eventually the cycle will repeat and you’ll be back to where you started. Nevertheless, you love what you’re doing in school and in life and the juggling is a small sacrifice that lets you have a normal experience, at least some of the time.

Living and studying with a chronic illness is about making choices. It might be fun to go to the pub with your friends after class but by choosing not to go home and go to bed at a reasonable time you might be sacrificing your ability to function tomorrow. There is an unbelievable amount of unpredictability with chronic illness. One day you might be feeling totally fine while the next, you can’t get out of bed or might even be in the hospital. We are fortunate that at Nipissing there is a great degree of flexibility because of the online courses. That flexibility allows for the frequent trips home for medical appointments and for schoolwork to even be completed from bed (or wherever else you might be). A word of advice though… make those deadlines and never put off until tomorrow what you can do today, especially if you’re feeling well.

Those of us with chronic illness look just like anybody else. We can often fake wellness so convincingly that others may not be able to tell just how much we are juggling at any given time. In some cases, this works to our advantage but in others it can be quite isolating because it feels like no one (peers, professors, etc.) truly understands how hard we work to be here.

So what helps?

Here are some strategies that I have found to help mitigate the stresses of chronic illness throughout my post-secondary experience:

  1. Introduce yourself to your professors early so that they are aware that chronic illness might influence your academic timeline. Only share as much with them as you are comfortable- it’s your health and wellness that is important.
  2. Register with Accessibility Services. They can help advocate for you and your needs (both learning and health).
  3. Find a network of friends (with or without similar chronic illnesses) who can support you when you need to vent and who will respect your limits and needs.
  4. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Do the best that you can and allow for the necessary time to take care of yourself. That is what is really important, after all.
  5. Do things when you can. You never know what’s around the corner so prioritize and get as much done in advance as you can while you’re able.
  6. Have your good days! If you are feeling well and physically able, go enjoy some of your favourite activities (e.g., snowshoeing, skiing, swimming, knitting, etc.). This goes a long way to helping your emotional state of being and stress levels too.
  7. Keep track of your spoons (this isn’t as random as it sounds. Please refer to Christine Miserandino’s The Spoon Theory. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety to understand life with a chronic illness). Remember to keep one spoon in your back pocket for emergencies.
  8. It is absolutely possible to complete graduate school with a chronic illness. It is a matter of tuning in to your health, your capabilities, and your goals. It isn’t always easy but it is often fulfilling and worthwhile.

If you are a graduate student with a chronic illness (or are interested in the topic), please check out these blogs/forums!

One thought on “Chronic Illness: An Exceptional Graduate Student Experience

  1. Pingback: Summary and Notes – EGS Meeting (Feb 12th) | Education Graduate Students at Nipissing University

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