In the past three years of running this blog, one of the most common questions I get asked is, How have you been able to do college when you’ve been so sick?
Truth be told, when I look back at the last four years, I’m surprised by it, too. And not only have I made it through eight semesters, but I’ve made good grades. This sounds like an impossible feat for someone fighting an illness that causes severe mental disorder and sometimes severely incapacitates my cognition, but over the next two posts, I’m going to show you how I did it.
These posts might be longer than usual, so I hope you’ll stick around! This week, I’m going to answer one part of the question…
Managing academics in college, while fighting PANS/Lyme…
I made college easier by starting in high school.
I transferred 40+ hours of college credit before I arrived at my four-year college. High schoolers, you will do yourself a huge favor by taking dual enrollment classes through a community college while in high school (not necessarily AP courses, since those won’t always transfer and often have more homework). It doesn’t have to be as many hours as I did—even doing one or two classes will go a long way towards lightening your course load later. Also, dual enrollment/community college tends to be far cheaper than taking extra semesters at university.
I tried to get the general education requirements like freshman english, introductory lab and social sciences, and basic humanities courses out of the way while I was still living at home with my support system. With my ADHD, I knew I’d have an easier time focusing on and completing classes in my major, which were highly interesting to me, so I wanted to do the “harder” classes while I was still at home.
You see, I was homeschooled since sixth grade (except for one semester in junior high school after I’d gone crazy, but that’s another story). Starting in high school, I began to substitute community college classes for the high school curriculum that I had been using. Moreover, I usually only took a couple college courses at a time while in high school, and some semesters, that was the only school work I could handle.
Laws in each state and county are different, but in my area, it was acceptable to submit a curriculum outline and/or take standardized tests to prove to the government that I’d made sufficient academic progress each year. So that meant that I could, for example, take sociology and PE at community college, watch documentaries for history class at home, and have my mom read aloud classic literature for english. I was too ill to handle public school, but I focused all my energy on dual-enrollment and made my time at my four-year college immeasurably easier. Consult an experienced homeschool organization in your state for more detailed advice on this.
I don’t take too many classes at once.
Thanks to the number of hours I transferred, I’ve rarely had to take the full 15-17 credit-hour course load while at university. Most semesters, I’ve taken 12-14 hours (or less), and I’ve chosen classes strategically so that I only have one difficult class at a time—or nothing too difficult, if it’s been one of my sicker semesters. I know for a fact that I would not have made the grades I have, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to stay in school, if I’d tried to take more classes. I’d highly recommend you do the same.
If you’re already in college, you can still take general education requirements at community college or online in the summer to lighten your load during the year, and though it can be a nuisance when you’d rather be relaxing, you’ll be glad you did it. Or, you can live at home and go to community college for the first two years of school, and then when you’re healthy again, you’ll be ready to enjoy a four-year college elsewhere.
I counteract cognitive difficulties by staying organized.
PANS/PANDAS and Lyme can seriously impact executive function/planning capabilities, but counter-intuitively, you combat this by planning everything. At the beginning of every semester, after I have the syllabus for each class, I write down all of the due dates for all assignments in one master planner. Each month, I then copy the assignments onto a monthly whiteboard calendar that I hang over my desk. That way, I have a constant reminder of what’s coming up, so I never forget anything.
However, I take planning to a whole other level, and I make a weekly schedule on my computer, scheduling my time on weekdays down to the hour. I allocate time-blocks for homework, socializing, meals, exercise, and downtime. If I’m really struggling to figure out how to manage my day, I break down every time-block and decide how much time to spend on each task I need to get done. It’s much easier for me if I have a checklist to follow, so I have to think less about what to do next when I’m in the moment.
Also, I set iPhone alerts for each class, 10-30 minutes before it starts, so that I know it’s time to leave—that way, I’m rarely late. And I always overestimate how much time it will take to do everything and get to places. With PANS, you never know how difficult things might be from day-to-day. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that my brain and body almost always move slower than I expect.
I follow two simple rules in every class I take.
First, I never skip class. Some courses have attendance as part of the grade, and even if I’m only mentally present enough to comprehend 20% of a lecture, that’s 20% more than I would have learned by staying home. Second, I hand in every assignment, no matter how poorly or hastily I completed it. It’s better for your grade average to have a 50 on a homework than a 0. In many classes, if you always show up and hand in something—anything—for each assignment, you’ll probably at least pass with a C or a D.
I utilize my school’s disability services and get to know my professors.
And lastly, the final piece in the puzzle is that I have had disability accommodations. My doctor wrote a letter to the Office of Disabilities that outlined the necessity of my academic accommodations. For me, I required double-time for all tests, quizzes, and timed assignments, and I had permission to take notes on a computer/tablet. At one point, I also used a service that read my textbooks out loud.
I should probably also say that I chose a school where the professors are very caring and invested in the students. I used to try to hide the extent of my illness—that my accommodations weren’t for some “simple” learning difficulty. But as I’ve necessarily had to open up to them more over time, they’ve been understanding and genuinely interested in helping me reach my goals, despite this illness. I hope you can find a school with professors like mine.
That’s all for now, but there’s still more…
Those are just a few of the ways I’ve managed to go to college while fighting PANS. Although my illness has been severe in many ways, I’m fortunate that I’ve usually had enough days when I was sufficiently functional for completing homework. However, during a lot of my college career, I was unable to do anything but go to class and do homework, and honestly, I was pretty miserable. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to accomplish everything I’ve wanted to accomplish, despite my poor mental and physical health, so I don’t complain.
I realize that there is much more to say about all of this, so next week I’ll be talking about the logistics of college life—how I’ve dealt with living independently and handling flares while away.
Considering how often I’m asked about managing college and PANS, I’m thinking about writing a short book about it before (or after) I publish my memoir. Would you like that? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to comment with any other questions!