I got an envelope with this sticker on it in the mail the other day, and I stood in my mail room and grinned. My smile wasn’t for the actual graduation. I won’t be attending the ceremony – I’m teaching that day, plus it will be a lot of standing outside in the sun and then hours of sitting, which is not terribly me-friendly. And it wasn’t for the qualification itself either – this is a piece of paper that qualifies me to do… well, not much really, other than the job I’ve already been doing for several years.
My grin was because I did it. I finished. It took me seven times longer than it would have taken a full-time, healthy student to complete, but I still did it.
I started this qualification – a diploma in creative writing – back in 2009. I completed one paper, before I had to drop out, because my health wasn’t good, and my mum was very ill at the time as well. It just seemed too stressful.
Dropping out wasn’t an unusual thing for me at that point in my life. My physical health and anxiety had caused me to drop out of pretty much every course – formal and informal – that I’d ever tried to take, and it was only due to incredibly supportive bosses (who suggested I take leave instead every time I tried to quit) that I had managed to hold down part time employment.
This time was slightly different though. I’d managed to complete the paper before dropping out. Even though I hadn’t finished the qualification all in one go, I had at least done enough to get that first lot of credits. In some ways, I think completing that first paper was a turning point for me.
Initially, this whole exercise was mostly just for my own interest, but over the last couple of years it became more important to me to finish. I work teaching creative writing, and having subject matter and adult education qualifications (will finish the adult ed. one this year!) will likely become important to continuing to do this in the future.
Over the next seven years, I completed the rest of the papers – one at a time, and sometimes with yearlong gaps in between. I had plenty of free time, but not always enough spoons to stretch to cover study, and trying to do assignments while flaring badly was painful and exhausting. There were many times where this all felt hopeless, and I wanted to give up. I felt like I would be studying for the rest of my life, and it was all beginning to feel a bit pointless. But then, I started to embrace life as a tortoise. It wasn’t going to happen quickly, but as long as I didn’t give up, I would eventually get there. One by one, I completed the papers, and now here I am, grinning at an envelope like an idiot.
Doing anything with chronic illness is often harder and slower, but sometimes that makes it just that much sweeter when you finally get there. I think graduating means more to me now, than it would have if I had completed the course that first year. It tells me not only that I can do the work, but that I can work through the hard stuff, even when it seems like I can’t at first.
If you’re in the middle of battling managing chronic illness and study and feel like giving up… it is okay if you do. It is a really hard thing, and sometimes saying enough is enough is the right choice. But you know what? You CAN do this. It will be hard and mostly likely slow, and there may be times where you have to pull out of one or more papers and come back to them later. But tortoises still make it to the end eventually, and man is it going to feel so good when you do.
Thanks for reading
Little Miss Autoimmune
On a related, but slightly self-promotion-y note - some of the stories I wrote during my studies are now published in my first short story collection, Symbolic Death. You can get a free copy of it here.