Something huge has happened guys. I graduated! Being in the class of 2020 means my physical graduation sadly wont take place for a few months but the diploma is in my (virtual) hands and I am officially free of organised education forever!!!!!
Now why am I making a huge deal out of it?
Studying with CFS
First of all anyone making it though uni- regardless of their grade- deserves a parade because we’ve all worked damn hard and deserve to celebrate.
However, for me personally, graduating has a much deeper meaning. This past year, my chronic fatigue syndrome had me thinking that maybe I wouldn’t be able to make it. Often I would have to miss lectures in the morning due to being left bed bound by it.
Focusing on lectures, essays, coursework and exams took a mental toll on my far more than it would for the average student. Often I could only work a couple of hours a day before my brain was so exhausted I couldn’t comprehend words on the page.
To be frank, being a student with CFS/ME was sh*t.
It wasn’t just lectures I was missing either. I barely went out drinking when my friends did because I either didn’t feel up to it, or I had things to do the next day and couldn’t afford to spend the day in recovery (not a hangover lol). Especially in Newcastle, there is a drinking culture so that ended up being a lot of nights out/parties missed.
There were times that I had a bad dip in front of people which, at the time, seemed really embarrassing. Lucking the majority of people around me were really nice and helpful and often helped me to the taxi that I had to get because I didn’t have the ability to walk home.
I remember at the start of my second year, when I first started to feel ill. I would miss lectures and see multiple different doctors and nurses to try and figure out what was wrong with me (who never took me seriously and just said well its another virus…)
Two and a half years later, I have my diagnosis and am starting to learn how to manage my life, but back then never even considered what my life now would be like.
Ok so I know it sounds all doom and gloom so far… but now here’s where it gets good.
I pushed through all of that.
Every. Single. Bit.
Every dip; every missed lecture; every missed party and nights out; every time I cried in my bedroom about what my illness was doing to me- all of it never stopped me. I did it. I graduated.
Life wasn’t always so bad
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the time sucked but overall, I had an incredible time at uni and will miss it like hell.
I am really lucky to have had such important friends and staff who helped me along the way.
Without these guys, I think the past year would have been much harder.
So a huge huge HUGE shoutout to my friends who have been there for me. The ones who have helped me when I’ve been down and lifted me up throughout uni. I love you guys.
The thing that probably got me through uni the most was my society. I was a proud member of NUGSS (Newcastle University Gilbert and Sullivan Society).
Every year NUGSS puts on two shows: one by G&S and the other is anything goes (well… as long as copyright allows it). Being a performer (Fun fact for those who don’t know me: I did a music degree! I am a vocalist who has trained in Jazz, Theatre and Opera), having a space to be creative and to sing was hugely important for my mental health. Having that fun, creative space was at times, a break from stress and a place where I could just have fun!
I often had dips here though. With dancing (is what we did classed as dancing? 😉 NUGSS members comment below) and projecting a singing voice with no mics, it took a lot out of me at times but everyone in NUGSS was incredible supportive and never treated me differently because of it. It could have been easy for the directors/ musical directors to say that they didn’t know if I could handle a role due to my condition but nope– I was treated the same as every other member and that meant a lot to me.
I had some great times socially too. NUGSS had awesome socials and weekly trips to the pub. I went to places like board game cafes and coffee shops, spending time with friends that I knew I could manage and yes, sometimes I did go out drinking.
Being a student with a chronic illness is possible. It is a struggle, but that struggle makes us stronger.
A couple of tips to get you through
Here are a couple of things you can do to make studying with a chronic illness a little bit easier.
1. Find a lecturer/ member of staff that you trust and let them know your situation.
Luckily for me, Music was a relatively small degree so I ended up getting to know quite a few of my lecturers who were all incredibly supportive. For a larger degree cohort, this might be more of a challenge, but the effort will be worth it.
These staff members can be a huge help in supporting you when it comes to trying to organise help from the uni.
2. Get Special Dispensation from the Uni
At Newcastle, this was called a Student Support Plan. After providing medical evidence, the uni gave me an SSP which meant that I was much more likely to have my extensions approved and I did not receive any consequences for missing lectures. I got all my extensions this past year and boy did I need them.
Having this SSP was essential.
3. Find a Supportive group of friends
This one is easier said than done but finding people who can trust and who will be a part of your support network is super important. They are the people you can turn to at your lowest moments, for things that you can’t really talk about with members of staff.
One way to make this a little easier on yourself is to join a society where you will meet people with similar interests- which is always helpful in starting off friendships.
4. Finally: Don’t be too hard on yourself
It can be so frustrating when you know you have the ability but your body won’t allow you to do things.
This is something I am still struggling with. For my degree classification I got a 2:1 which I am thrilled with but the only thing that is annoying is that I was one mark off a 1st.
That sent me onto a bad thought process. Could I have got a 1st if I didn’t have my CFS holding me back? To be so close to a better grade and the reason potentially being an illness I have no/little control over being the reason I didn’t get there is frustrating as hell.
But then I stopped to think.
Why am I letting myself be upset by this?
69 is a brilliant grade. A 2:1 is amazing! I got to that grade whilst still being held back.
To know that I was able to do well no matter the obstacles is such a positive feeling. So right now, whilst that 1 little mark is annoying, so what? I smashed it!!!!
Give yourself a break if you can’t do as much work as your peers. Don’t beat yourself up for saying no to going to a bar. You are allowed to put your health first. It is the most important thing.
“I am ready to face any challenge that might be foolish enough to face me.” — The Office
It’s time to go out into the real world. Working with CFS is already hard but knowing that I could make it to graduation means I have the confidence in myself to step out into the world with a smile on my face, ready to take on anything!