To Anyone Whose Illness or Disability Makes School a Struggle…

It was two weeks until the start of middle school when my mom and I walked into the building and knew right away that something wasn’t right.  The walls were freshly painted, the windows cleaned, and the floors polished, but something neither of us could put a finger on said to look a little closer.  With inexplicable conviction, as soon as we’d dropped off my paperwork and gotten back into the car, we reached the same conclusion: I couldn’t go there.

Two weeks later, I began my first day of homeschool. 

Watching the bus drive by my house without me was a strange feeling.  I was sad to no longer see my best friend every day, and I wondered if I was making a huge mistake after all.  But thinking about impossibly long school days spent with my bullies and long homework assignments every evening at home made me grateful for the choice my family had made. 

Thanks to homeschool, I’d be able to get a solid education without being overlooked or bullied, and I’d have more time to continue my training schedule as a competitive athlete.  I had always enjoyed learning, and I couldn’t wait to get started with homeschool—I was so pleased to be skipping an entire grade.

Little did I know, I had (most likely) contracted Lyme and/or had a bout of Strep that summer.  I soon traded sports for doctor appointments.  The infections not only led to profound exhaustion and swollen joints a few weeks into the school year, but months later, I suddenly developed multiple mental illnesses and learning disabilities that had never affected me before.  And it would be eight years before we figured out what happened.

“Mommy, I can’t read this,” I said one day early on, pushing my history textbook away from me.  I—the one who blasted through the entire Harry Potter series within a few months and once plowed through astronomy texts for fun—I suddenly felt like books were in a foreign language I barely knew.

“What do you mean?” She came and sat next to me as my eyes began to tear up.

“It’s taking too long.  Look, I’ve only read a page the whole time you were downstairs.”

“Would it help if we read this together?”

“Shouldn’t I do this by myself?”

“It’s okay,” she said, patting my back.  “I know you’ve been feeling poorly lately,” She picked up the textbook and began to read it out-loud.

Indeed, for much of my homeschool journey, I had to have all of my textbooks read aloud (or in audio book format), and someone had to sit near me all day to keep me on task.  And ironically, anytime my homeschool curriculum called for an essay assignment, I would have a meltdown because I couldn’t focus my thoughts and put them onto paper.  Plus, every day it had already taken me two or three hours to get up and walk into the “school room” next to my bedroom due to fatigue, OCD, and ADD. 

Suffice it to say that college seemed utterly unattainable when I was in middle school and so sick with PANS and Lyme and all the resulting mental health problems.

But eleven years later, somehow, I graduated from college with a Bachelor’s of Science and a 3.95 GPA.  I turned what I once considered my weaknesses into my strengths, and I earned recognition in my field during my undergraduate career.

With a new school year upon us, there’s something I want to tell anyone whose illness or disability has made you pursue an education in a non-traditional way:

You’re not inferior just because you have to do school differently from an arbitrary norm. 

Just because you have to take a road less-traveled doesn’t mean you won’t get to your educational destination.

Before college, I spent too much of my adolescence feeling less-than because I couldn’t get on the bus and go to a full day of school like everyone else.  I felt like I was defective because I struggled with everyday tasks that others took for granted.  I was in awe of my friends who took multiple AP and Honor’s classes at the same time in high school—why was it so hard for me to take only two easy classes at community college with almost no other schoolwork?

Indeed, eight and a half years passed from the time I took my first class at that junior college to the time I had my bachelor’s degree.  But guess what?  I got the same degree as everyone else in my program, and no one cares that it took me longer to get it.

So how did I do it?

People often ask how in the world I did college with the challenges I’ve faced, and a huge part of it was transferring those credits from community college, which meant I could take fewer classes at once at my university than the typical student. Also important was having supportive parents and friends who were there for me, and having professors who believed in me and worked with me in the tough times.

Another part was finding strategies that let me learn material quickly and spend minimal time studying—strategies that came from years of experience and experimentation to get around brain fog and other cognitive problemsAlso critical was learning the fine art of giving professors exactly what they asked for on assignments and papers and nothing the slightest bit more. 

There’s so much to say about how I did it that I’m writing a guidebook/memoir on doing college with chronic illness and disability, which covers everything I figured out, from studying through brain fog, to managing symptom flare-ups away from home, to having a social life with chronic illness, to not being “that roommate.”

If I keep writing at my current pace, my manuscript should be finished by this Christmas.  (Some of this post may or may not have been lifted from it. 😁)

But there’s one big lesson I’ve learned the hard way:  Don’t sacrifice your health in order to do an education in a certain way—and don’t sacrifice it in order to get straight A’s like I sometimes did. (As the saying goes, C’s and D’s make degrees!) It’s good to stay as engaged with life as possible while sick, but it’s not good to overdo it.  I say all of this not as flippant platitudes, but as products of a lot of self-reflection and my recent decision:

I’ve dropped out of grad school.

Just like watching the bus leave without me on my first day of homeschool, it’s an unnerving feeling seeing all my friends posting back-to-school pictures on social media right now.  There are moments when I wonder if I’ve made a mistake, and moments when I chide myself for leaving without at least the master’s degree to show.

But what good is a degree if pursuing it will make you too sick to use it? 

PANS mostly seems like a thing of the past by now, but unfortunately, this summer, I relapsed terribly with my ME/CFS (or is it Lyme?).  My doctors said if I tried to push through another year of school right now, I’d prolong my recovery, if not get permanently worse.  I’ve improved an unbelievable amount from a month ago, but it’s not worth risking my entire future just to finish my degree “on-time.”

To be honest, I’m so incredibly relieved and maybe even happy about my decision to take some time off from grad school.  I hope all of you can give yourselves permission to do what’s best for your health this school year.

As it is, my college degree has helped me obtain a remote job in my field, so master’s degree or no master’s, I consider where I am a victory—while in the thick of PANS and my various psychiatric issues, it wasn’t always clear something like this would be possible. I plan to resume grad school when I get a little stronger, but just like middle school, high school, and college, it’s going to be on my own timetable in my own way.  No one will care if I finish this degree a year or two later because I got sick.

So readers, I hope that by sharing about my unconventional educational journey, any one of you in similar circumstances will realize there’s no shame in doing school in your own way at your own pace.  Lots of people (not just people with illnesses or disabilities) are up against various obstacles that impact their education—we’re far from the only ones who have to take our time or forge our own paths to reach our destinations.

So to anyone feeling bad about taking a break from school or doing it differently from others, you are not a failure.  You are not broken.  You are not incapable.  You are wise and brave for putting your wellbeing above others’ expectations. 

Hang in there.

My 5-Year Blogversary… And What Might Be Next

Five years ago today, I made a decision that would change my life: I published my first post on this blog.

I didn’t tell anyone—not even my best friend or my family.  It was my little secret project that I never intended to keep up for more than a few months—and yet, here we are in 2019.

Back then, I was a castaway on a desert island of illness, tossing out that first post like a message in a bottle—I didn’t know if anyone would ever see it, but nonetheless I felt compelled to write.  After all, it was one of the few things that brought me peace from the depression that was engulfing me.

Continue reading “My 5-Year Blogversary… And What Might Be Next”

Facing The What-If’s of Chronic Illness: Why Do Grad School While Sick?

Last month, after finishing my first semester of grad school, the dread of having to come back in January to do it all over again drowned out any sense of accomplishment.  Although I liked my colleagues, the truth is that I was miserable so much of that fall.  And until now, I didn’t know why.

Continue reading “Facing The What-If’s of Chronic Illness: Why Do Grad School While Sick?”

How I Tackle Grad School with Cognitive Problems from PANS

“How’s grad school going?” my friend from home asked.

“I mean—I’m glad I’m trying it,” I stammered, going on about a few highlights.

“But do you like it?” she pressed.

The truth is that I’d been afraid to ask myself this very question, because I was afraid to learn the answer….

But first, how is grad school going?

Continue reading “How I Tackle Grad School with Cognitive Problems from PANS”

Why Failing in Grad School Proves I’m Doing Great

“You need to get yourself together,” my professor warned, staring at me with utmost concern.  “You have to do better than this if you want a career.”

The words stung and burned into the darkest recesses of my mind, not because I was taken aback, but because I knew on some level they were true.  They were the doubts that nearly kept me from applying to grad school in the first place, and the soundtrack to every moment when I’ve wondered if I should even be in this field.

Maybe I’d made a huge mistake after all.

When people ask how I’m doing lately, I have no idea what to say.  On the one hand, I’m successfully living on my own again, and my PANS symptoms are 95% better.  On the other, I’m easily the least effective graduate student in my group.

I feel like I’m the runt of the litter, when my professors thought they were hiring a pure-bred show dog.  My undergraduate mentors apparently wrote glowing recommendation letters, but now that I’m here, I’m barely meeting these new professors’ demands.

After that conversation with my professor, I was utterly deflated.  I’d been on the verge of a breakthrough, excited to find where it would lead, but now I wanted nothing to do with my work.  I went home and cried, longing for the days at my old school when my professors understood me so well and always gave me the encouragement I needed.

I tried taking a walk around campus, I tried calling my parents to vent, and I even tried going out with a friend that night.  But nothing could lift the storm cloud that was now enveloping me.

IMG_6013That familiar depression—the monster I’ve fought for over half my life—had suddenly crept back in to eat me alive.  This was always how it began.  I’d been on such a long streak without a full-blown episode, but here it was to taunt me all over again…

I couldn’t leave my room the next day.  I spent the following day alternating between crying and scrolling through Twitter (but not tweeting anything because I was too exhausted to think of anything to say).  I eventually went to the lab to attempt some work, but just looking at it brought on a panic attack, so I gave up.

Let’s just say that I felt utterly pathetic and unsure why in the world I ever imagined I was cut out for grad school.

The problem with having PANS is that every time I have a bad mood or get extra anxious, I worry that I’m relapsing.  The disease attacks the brain, so the symptoms are psychiatric and neurological ones like depression, anxiety, OCD, involuntary movements, and too many others to name.  It can be easy to mistake it for “garden-variety” mental illness, especially in the early stages.

And for me, most of my PANS flares start with sudden, severe depression similar to what I experienced last weekend.  I’d also been getting other symptoms in the days leading up, like more difficulty sleeping and even some tics, which often proceed my flares, too.

Was this going to be like every school year in my undergraduate career, cursed with a major relapse at some point?

But then came Sunday.

As difficult as it was to make myself do anything, since I was being far more unproductive than usual I forced myself to get in the car and leave town for an afternoon.  I had so much work hanging over my head, but I needed to get away from it all just for a bit.

And you know what happened?

The darkness lifted. 

SunriseI felt like myself again by the time I returned to campus.  I got a renewed fire in me to prove everyone wrong—to prove that I really can do a strong thesis and have a solid career.  So I went home and got back to work.

Although the fear that I’ll never be good enough still stings, I’ve realized that something incredible happened because of that meeting with my professor: I had a somewhat “normal” response to a painful situation—the depression I experienced wasn’t from my brain being inflamed like it is in a true PANS episode.

It turns out recovery is complicated.

Many people think that recovery from PANS means a person has no mental health issues anymore, nor anything that could remotely be mistaken as a symptom.  Perhaps there are cases like that, particularly if they were caught early and treated promptly, but I think this is too idealistic an expectation for a lot of us who went years without care.

Even if my depression and anxiety were initially caused by an autoimmune attack (PANS) years ago, it seems to me that because the disease taught my brain those maladaptive patterns for so many years, it still takes less of an emotional trigger to send me back into them now—but now my problem has become psychological rather than autoimmune. 

It’s not surprising at all that I fell so hard and so fast into depression after what happened the other week—but the fact that a day out rather than more antibiotics or steroids broke through the darkness proves it had nothing to do with my disease this time.  I’m just a struggling grad student now, and no amount of Prednisone can fix that.

At this point, a year since I re-started treatment following a catastrophic PANS relapse that left me as a shell of my former self, I dare say that for all practical purposes, I’m better… 

But “better” is a tricky concept to define when you’re talking about a condition that attacks the brain, changes your personality, and forces you to relearn every aspect of normalcy.  Better doesn’t mean you don’t have any kinds of problems.

The reality is that I’ve just spent an entire year living at home and focusing on nothing but healing my brain—and for all I know, it’s still healing since the ability to stay on task and manage time can be one of the last things to improve.  Either way, though, it’s no surprise that being on my own and starting full-time grad school all of a sudden has been so jarring.  No wonder I’m having a hard time, since I’m coming from a vastly different world than all of my healthy peers fresh out of undergrad.

When you’re going back to school after a serious illness, you have to be patient with yourself and give yourself credit for showing up—even when others say you’re not doing a good job.  Don’t listen to them—you’re doing a fantastic job living the best life you can given the circumstances.

If you’re like me, you might be ready to go full-speed and leave the sick days behind, but it takes time to relearn your limits and adjust to a new life.  I’m learning that, no matter what anyone says, I have to be patient and kind to myself.

I’m happy to say that things are starting to improve since that conversation with my professor, and I’m beginning to find my footing.

No, I’m not the most efficient worker, and perhaps by those standards, I’m still a runt.  But you know what?  Sometimes the runts grow up to be the best dogs because of their differences.

So these days, I’m standing tall, and I’m proud of what I’m doing…  I hope others will soon be, too.


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P.S.: I’m tentatively going to appear on national talk radio next week for PANDAS Awareness Day on October 9th.  Stay tuned for more details on when/how to listen! 

8 Essentials for University Success with a Disability: How to Build a Bulletproof Support System

I have a disability.

I never thought those four words would describe me, especially at twenty-three, but in my first few days as a graduate student, they’ve become a heavy truth I have no choice but to accept—and at the same time, they’ve turned into a statement of empowerment.

Continue reading “8 Essentials for University Success with a Disability: How to Build a Bulletproof Support System”

4 Things I Learned from 4 Years of Blogging… And an Announcement!

What in the world have I done?!  I thought to myself.

A wave of panic ran through me, and my heart began to pound as I stared back at the computer screen.  I couldn’t believe it finally happened.  I’d exposed myself before the whole world—my life story, in front of any eyeballs that landed upon it.  Despite everything in me saying I shouldn’t be sharing so much, I’d just published the first post on this blog.  But there was no turning back now. Continue reading “4 Things I Learned from 4 Years of Blogging… And an Announcement!”

Is There Hope in the Unknown of Chronic Illness?

Three months ago, as I drove away victoriously from the IV infusion center for the ninth, and final, time that semester, I almost dared hope I’d left behind the last three years of treatments and relapses… Almost.

It was the end of my college career, and I’d just spent its entirety fighting Lyme disease and an autoimmune condition that doctors still aren’t sure how to treat—or what the long-term prognosis is. I’d not only juggled exams and papers and weird living arrangements for four and-a-half years, but I’d been battling through countless procedures and medications and appointments—always in the naive hope that my illness would soon be over. Continue reading “Is There Hope in the Unknown of Chronic Illness?”