I’ve done something scary: I re-applied to grad school.
Two years ago, I left grad school not completely by choice, but out of necessity when I was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. I’d spent that year in grad school living in a completely new part of the country by myself. I’d had a great assistantship. It was all very hard at times, but I learned so much in that year.
So that summer, to become so ill was shocking and devastating. It didn’t compute that I could no longer drive, put away groceries, walk to the mailbox, or even load the dishwasher by myself anymore. There are no words to describe how devastating it feels to become fully dependent on your family at age 24, after having lived by yourself for five years.
In the physical and emotional state M.E. put me in, there was absolutely no way I could have safely resumed school.
While in the thick of PANS, I had always pushed myself to go back to college every semester even in the worst of times, even when a lot of me thought I couldn’t possibly make it. I had always powered through, consoling myself by knowing that staying in school meant I was still moving forward in life. College had been my anchor to reality and normalcy when I couldn’t otherwise recognize myself or my life due to the brain inflammation. The structured nature of college kept me going.
But this time, it was different.
While in the worst of PANS in college (except when it showed up as anorexia), I had retained my physical stamina. In fact, I could run ten miles at times when I struggled to put together a sentence. But now that I had Myalgic E. instead, I was so frail that I couldn’t even do five sit-ups without getting ill for a week afterwards.
My doctor warned that I would permanently worsen my condition if I tried to go back to grad school. I hadn’t wanted to hear it because I thought I could hang onto grad school the way I hung onto college.
But one morning, it finally all came to a head when it took me four hours to get out of bed because all I could think about was how overwhelming and impossible it seemed to go back to grad school in three weeks. My mom finally came and dragged me downstairs, but I just started sobbing.
“I can’t go back,” I moaned. “I don’t think I can do it.”
I paused, contemplating such a profound statement. But how could I not go back after I’d aced college even with brain inflammation? How could I give up now? And yet I knew she was right, and I knew how relieved I was to think about not going back.
“Maybe I should just transfer to [state university] next semester so I can keep living here,” I said, almost joking.
“That’s actually a good idea.”
I paused, realizing that transferring in grad school, though unorthodox, was a real possibility. “But how could I go there after I’ve gone to [first grad school]?” I countered. “It won’t be the same.”
“Do you want it to be the same? Do you want to be so depressed about going back that it takes you four hours to get out of bed?”
“But,” I started, staring at the floor. “I worked so hard to get there. For years, I tried to do everything right so I could get in.”
“I know, and you earned it. But [state university] is a great school, too,” Mom reminded me. “I think you know you’d have a great experience there––after you’re well enough.”
That afternoon, I finally accepted my circumstances and informed my university that I would not be returning due to my illness.
The thought of transferring to the state school someday and having more family support during school buoyed me. The idea helped me see that my original grad school didn’t hold the only keys to my future.
After I left grad school, I learned that sometimes the thing you fear and dread the most is exactly what you need to do.
Over the last two years, there have definitely been plenty of times when I’ve felt sad about leaving grad school unexpectedly and not finishing my degree. However, not being in school opened up lots of professional opportunities I would have had to turn down if I had stayed in grad school. In my time away from school, I feel like I’ve found myself like never before. I work with a start-up part-time and freelance on the side as well, and I love being in industry as opposed to academia.
So why go back?
The way I see it, if I want to make the year of grad school I already did count the most, then I need to finish the master’s degree. I worked my butt off that year, so I want to earn that degree.
Half a master’s degree doesn’t earn you much. I happened to be in the right place at the right time (and with the right expertise due to undergrad) to get in with this company, but usually, the top people in my field have graduate degrees. Every day, I’m working with people who all have more degrees than I do. I have wonderful colleagues who value me despite my lack of graduate degrees, but down the road, I will have more options with at least a master’s degree.
Moreover, there are some additional training and research opportunities that are unique to academia. It will be great to have the chance to learn more and get even better at what I do.
Why do I think I’m well enough for grad school?
I decided against applying for 2020-21 because I felt like my health wasn’t where I wanted it to be yet. But I’m optimistic about 2021-22 (and beyond).
Recently, I’ve made a lot of progress in my health. My resting heart rate has dropped to the low 70s compared to the 100s a year ago. The other day, I walked a quarter mile and didn’t crash, whereas the same walk a year ago caused a crash for three weeks. Mentally, I’m 70-100% every day. I regularly work for three or four hours without triggering a flare up. I’ve even been able to dramatically reduce two of my three psychotropic medications!
I am feeling hopeful and starting to dare to imagine being able to do things like go for a walk every day or do my own housework. I believe I can go to grad school part-time without causing harm.
This time will also be different because I can keep living at home. Continuing to have my family’s support will make a huge difference.
Taking my own advice to heart…
Something I advise in my upcoming self-help memoir on college and chronic illness is that there’s no such thing as the best school in the country. The best school is where you can thrive both as a person and academically. And for any given person, that usually won’t be whatever school U.S. News has ranked the highest this year.
So now I’m practicing what I preach in realizing that this school really is a better place for me to be at this time.
I struggled at my old school sometimes because everyone was just as good or better than me. On the one hand, it was stimulating to be surrounded by such smart people, but on the other, I would often compare myself and beat myself up for not being the best—and I never was the best.
But this new school has great faculty and is well-respected within my field, even though the name is not as flashy as where I was before. I will always be taken seriously with a degree from there, and I think I may get more attention in the new program.
Final words of wisdom
April is often when people find out which colleges or grad schools they were accepted to. If you read my blog, you probably have a chronic illness or know someone who does. So I would like to encourage all of you to not be afraid to choose the school where you can be your best self, including health-wise and as a whole person. And also don’t be afraid to go to community college for a year or two so you can have some support from your family and minimize debt (I went myself!).
Don’t go somewhere only because it seems impressive if there’s somewhere else that will be a better fit for you. School is what you make out of it––the opportunities you find and create, the people you meet, and how you spend your time at school. What others think about the name of the school is far less important.
It might seem really scary to take some time off school to work on your health or turn down admission to a particular school, but sometimes it really is the scariest thing that ends up being the right decision…