Getting an Advanced Degree While Chronically Ill

Getting an Advanced Degree While Chronically Ill

On May 14th, I received a Master of Arts degree in health communication from Emerson College.

Kit stands facing the camera smiling, wearing her cap and gown, with a white academic hood.I got my degree over the course of two years by attending classes from 6:00 pm-9:45 pm twice a week, while working full-time. I balanced a work life, a personal life, and an academic life all at the same time, while managing chronic illnesses. My normal days contain physical discomfort, fatigue, and brain fog. My bad days include panic attacks or generalized anxiety that, for me, usually manifests as derealization.

Absorbing a lecture and participating in discussions while convincing yourself that your surrounding environment is, in fact, real and monitoring your breathing is…challenging. Earning my degree brought up specific challenges related to my illnesses that I had to find solutions to. It’s my hope that sharing my experience can bring courage to someone else with a chronic illness who is thinking of pursuing any kind of degree or goal.

1. Planning (and also flexibility)

In order to stay on task and still have a manageable schedule, it was essential that I plan my days and my work in ways that would allow me time to rest and time to do what needed to be done. Planning has never come naturally to me, so I really struggled to master it. My first semester was mostly a blur of exhaustion because I would try to cram all my work together at once, inevitably get tired, and then rest too much, which trapped me in a vicious cycle of working late at night, oversleeping, and being late for work. Wash, rinse, repeat. 

My second semester I was ready with a planner, and I really scheduled out my days. I arranged with work to come in later on the days that I didn’t have class, which ensured that I would be able to get enough sleep on the nights that I was getting home at 11:00pm. I transferred the bulk of my written work (papers, presentations) to weekends, but made sure that before the weekends arrived I had solid outlines in place so I could get right down to business. I did no more than two readings a night because fatigue and brain fog make it difficult for me to readily understand what I’m reading.

My planning worked most of the time, but I still needed to maintain flexibility in order to accommodate unexpected difficulties. If there were times I couldn’t push through my fatigue and really needed to sleep, I did. I just had to shift things around and do some rearranging.

2. Being open

It can be scary to put your personal life out there, but it can also be helpful and rewarding. I talked often in classes about my experiences with chronic illness. This served a couple of purposes: both professors and classmates had some sense that I had struggles that weren’t readily apparent on the surface, and it allowed me to offer the unique perspective of “professional patient” in class discussions.

Of course, each person is comfortable sharing health information to different degrees, and some people are afraid they might experience discrimination or ableism. However, if you are in a supportive environment, I think it can really help enhance other people’s understanding.

3. Using medication

Medication. Medication, medication, medication. I can’t stress enough how important my anxiety medications were to my education. If I was anxious before walking into a classroom, I had two choices. I could either force my way through it alone, and have difficulty concentrating on anything but passing out, or I could take a little bit of klonopin and be able to feel present and alert. Guess which once I usually chose.

I’ve often questioned whether or not I really needed to take klonopin at any given time, or berated myself for not being able to “power through it” or just use “mindfulness” to stop a panic attack in its tracks. The stigma that having a mental illness and needing help makes a person weaker definitely influenced this thought, as well as the general stigma that any medication is “bad” and that we should all just get by on our heaping daily dose of turmeric. But medications are an important part of my chronic illness toolkit and I could not function without them.

You should feel comfortable using any and all resources that work for you. And yes, that might include benzodiazepines for anxiety or opioids for chronic pain patients.

4. Using other resources

I didn’t request accommodations for my classes, but it can be helpful to know what is available to you. If you suspect you might need accommodations from your program, I encourage you to speak with the disability services office or department at the beginning of the semester. I’d also encourage you to speak privately with your professor if issues arise (as we all know they can unexpectedly with chronic illnesses). During my undergraduate years, I found that my professors were more than willing to help me create a plan that would allow me to complete their class successfully.

5. Make friends

7 women sitting on a couch in a variety of poses with outstretched arms, smiling.

This isn’t specific to dealing with challenges related to chronic illness, but I think it’s pretty solid advice in general. You can share notes with friends. You can review readings together. You can proof one another’s work. You can complain and commiserate, talk about how your personal lives are falling apart because of homework, and talk about your favorite TV shows that you use to procrastinate. This goes back to being open, and learning from different perspectives. On top of anxiety, I’m naturally shy, so I’ve always had a hard time making friends, but I found the more open I was about myself, the easier it was to connect and forge bonds with others.

Achieving a goal while chronically ill will look different for every person, and it likely won’t be perfect, because that is the nature of life. But with some tweaks, I was able to achieve my goal, and you can, too.

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