It’s Meet My Peeps time again!
When I was at University, back in the Nineties, we used to say “Cs get degrees”. It was our way of reassuring ourselves that we didn’t have to ace everything to get the piece of paper we were working towards. It is a useful sentiment for socially distracted students, but quite a necessary mindset if you are ill. Julia lives in Melbourne. Her tenacious efforts mean that she is getting really close to finishing her degree; not long now! This is such a huge achievement because she has done it all juggling study with the daily challenges of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome.
These days, in Australia, the old fashioned C grade has been replaced with a more politically palatable ‘P’ for ‘pass’. Hence, ‘P’s Get Degrees. 🙂 Today she is sharing with us her story and her top tips for chronically ill High School and University students. Take it away Julia:
With chronic illness come many sacrifices. Many people have to give up the world of study, just like others would have to give up full time work. I am one of the lucky few who, although my methods may not be conventional, has been able to continue studying while sick.
It all began back in year nine with the onset of chronic and complex migraines. They started as a horrible one-sided headache once every few weeks and eventually became more and more frequent and complex. By the time I entered year 11 I was experiencing episodes of dizziness and paralysis with these weekly migraines. With my final year of school approaching I remembered thinking, ‘well, it can’t get any worse than this.’ Boy, was I wrong!
It was year 12 retreat, a 3 day trip to Toolangi with half the year level. I had been feeling a bit rubbish over the holidays leading up to the school year, but had put it down to jet lag after coming back from an overseas trip. It was the afternoon session and 36 degrees Celsius. There were no fans, no air con. All of a sudden, my head was in my friend’s lap. I have no memory of how it got there, only the clamminess, mild nausea, head feeling like my brain had been replaced with helium and that familiar feeling of a migraine creeping in.
Of course, being in the middle of nowhere, calling home and getting picked up because of a migraine was not an option, so instead I was directed to have a lie down in the teacher’s cabin. I remember taking my medication and being knocked out pretty soon after. I woke to a student teacher staring at me. This was not the end of my ‘adventures’ on retreat. The next day was just as hot and I passed out again. I was given permission to go and sit in another room with a few of my friends while they waited for my mum to drive up and pick me up. After passing out again while sitting on the ground and struggling to get back up, an ambulance was called.
This was the clearest beginning on my POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome), despite hints of it following through my life.
As you can imagine, fainting multiple times a day and feeling so unbelievably fatigued and dizzy doesn’t go to well with your final year of high school. My official attendance for that year ended up being about 50%, not to mention the classes I ended up leaving early.
My determination to finish high school was enough to keep me going. I was not going to spend another year there! I learnt early on, that teachers were always willing to help as long as you showed them you were willing to learn. Every class I missed or left early was followed up by a simple ‘copy and paste’ email asking for the stuff that I missed. Luckily mild insomnia came in handy allowing me the hours to remain mostly up to date. Most of my studying was done in bed with my laptop on my belly.
As term 3 crept up, I realised POTS was here to stay, and the difficult decision was made to drop one of my favourite (but worst) subjects, French. The head of VCE (Victorian Certificate of Education = High School Diploma equivalent) subjects was keen for me to keep the subject because of the mark up in score that came with it. The reality though was my concentration was completely shot so, concentrating in another language was never going to happen that would mean I wouldn’t even get a mark that would warrant any sort of a mark up.
It was a difficult decision, but I don’t regret it at all. My French teacher was amazing though, she understood my love for the subject and the limitations that came with being so unwell and went on to invite me back for the fun lessons like watching the Lion King in French. I never properly thanked her for everything she did for me.
Once I finally got through year 12 there was always the fear I wouldn’t get a mark that would get me into what I wanted. Luckily though, when university offers came out I got my second preference, which was a Bachelor of Science (my first preference being a Bachelor of Biomedicine). At the time I did not realise that this was a blessing in disguise. The biomedicine course was structured so much that it would actually have been quite difficult to do part time, as I have been able to do.
My first semester was a full 4-subject load and was indented by many trips to the hospital and constant rescheduling of assessments. It was from that that I learnt a full load was not for me. I began doing 2 or 3 subjects at a time, and in my worst semesters even just doing one subject.
I’m a perfectionist and wanted to get the best marks and subsequently, best average. I worked as hard as I could and quickly learnt that this was not going to happen with attendance just as bad as high school. I adapted my study skills and would only going to non-recorded classes and the ones that were recorded would be done in the comfort of my college room.
Living on campus was an absolute blessing! This allowed me to have some sort of a social life as well as maintain my study life. Friends that I met at my college have always been super understanding and I can never thank them enough for that. In fact, I would not be still studying if it wasn’t for all their support and help.
Of course, studying part time isn’t always ideal. There have been so many times where I’ve wanted to give up and just become a professional sleeper! The frustration of my situation really started to settle in when my friends started graduating. I felt like I was falling behind in life. The reality of a never seemingly ending degree would result in many tears, but eventually I’d get over it and just suck it up. Every semester I had to drop a subject would tear my heart apart, knowing that it was then going to be an extra semester, or even an extra year.
I’m now in my final semester, and even though I am going through another rough period, that drive to finally get that piece of paper is keeping me going.
This is my advice to those of you who are studying with a chronic illness:
Don’t feel you need to finish with the people you started with, through my epically long degree I have met so many amazing people that I wouldn’t have met if I hadn’t taken so long.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The number of teachers, lecturers and tutors that have gone out of their way to help me has been ridiculous. I can never thank these people enough.
If you’re at university, don’t allow your own stereotypes and judgements stop you from seeking help from student services. Register, because the people are there to help you get through and do everything possible to make your time through uni as seamless as possible,
Pace yourself. This is probably my most hypocritical advice, because I fail at this one on a daily basis. Take your time, don’t be afraid to say no to things and don’t listen to people who call you ‘lazy’ or ‘not a morning person’ when you reveal how long you’ve slept in. Those sleep-ins may be the difference between quitting or getting through!
Just remember, you don’t need to get 100% on every test, P’s get degrees!
And to those who have been there for me and helped me at any point through school or university, thank you! Thank you for absolutely everything you have done for me, whether it be sharing notes, driving me places to save my ‘spoons’ from public transport, dropping work off at home, keeping me included in social activities and understanding the weird things I’ve had to do to get myself through.