Still learning

There are two things you should know about me. One, I always did well in school. And two, I love getting rid of stuff.

Seriously, there are few things more satisfying than cleaning out a closet or a drawer (or an entire room!) and coming across things you don’t wear, don’t use, don’t need, don’t want etc. and just getting rid of them. It’s fun! Despite this, I’ve never been able to get rid of several binders packed with coursework from a few important university classes. You know, the information that I will need as a reference one day when I go back to school.

More about that school thing.

School photos

When I say I always did well in school that’s kind of an understatement. I was smart from the start. You should see my grade one spelling tests. I graduated high school top of my class and went to university on a full ride scholarship. Even though I got sick one month into my first semester, I became that annoying person who ruined the curve for everyone else. I had a 4.23 GPA, a resume overflowing with work and volunteer experiences, and I was on track to reach every goal I had set. School was not just a means to an end for me, but rather a core part of my being, and my education was not a privilege I took lightly.

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What six year old even knows what precipitation is, let alone how to spell it??

I’m not telling you this to brag; I’m telling you this to help you understand what I lost when I got sick. Well, when I got sicker. When I got sick enough that I could no longer keep up the life I had been living, no matter how hard I tried.

And believe me, I tried. Over and over again, I tried.

I’ve lost count now of how many times I registered for classes, or even just one class, and ended up withdrawing part way through because of my health, usually because I wound up in the hospital for weeks at a time. I did this enough times that the university told me not to start a class unless I was sure I could finish it. Still, not getting a degree didn’t seem like an option. Despite how sick I was, I could not fathom an existence in which I was too sick to go to school. I could not fathom an existence in which chronic illness wasn’t just a footnote in my life, but rather a central theme.

Part of that came from the outside world. Social media is flooded with stories of people overcoming all odds to achieve the seemingly impossible. Messages of “if I can do it you can do it” and #noexcuses are everywhere. It happens in person, too. Instead of listening to my point of view, people are quick to tell me not to give up, that I’m too smart not to go to school, that I’m still young so I have lots of time left.

And part of it originated from my own self-image. I was the one who was going somewhere. I was the one with all that potential. I was the one everyone assumed was guaranteed to succeed.

I didn’t know how to let go of that.

Which is why I signed up for a class again this past semester. A class I had already started and withdrawn from. Twice. A class I thought might go better now that I’m healthier than the last time I tried. A class that would put me three credits closer to being that success story I so wanted to be. A class that I withdrew from for the third time in June. And a class that I was so thankful I had withdrawn from later that month when I found myself in the hospital yet again.

Everything is different now. I used to love school. I loved learning. Retaining information came easy and I functioned well under pressure. School had a purpose because I had goals, goals that didn’t factor in the limits that chronic illness places on a mind and body.

But everything is different now.

The truth is that I don’t like school anymore. Instead of energizing me, it exhausts me. It takes up all of my reserves and all of my resources, negatively affecting my quality of life and my overall health. My body now buckles under pressure. And the goals I had, the driving purpose behind all of my hard work, those goals are no longer realistic.

I don’t like school anymore, and because I don’t like the fact that I don’t like it I’ve wasted a lot of time, energy and money trying to like it again. Trying to do something because I felt like I was supposed to, because if other people could overcome the odds then I had to, too. Trying not to let my potential go to waste. Trying not to let my illness ‘win.’ Trying to be the person that would one day make use of all that coursework I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of.

There are lots of young people out there living with chronic illnesses and disabilities who are overcoming all odds for the sake of their education and because I know how hard it is to do what they are doing, they impress me to no end. I, however, am not one of them. The highlight reel of my success story is not going to include that coveted cap and gown photo.

And I think I’m okay with that. Or at least I’m trying to be. I’m learning to be, which is the whole point anyway. The point is that learning is not limited to lecture halls and labs. The point is that my education doesn’t have to end just because I’ve decided to stop paying money in pursuit of a BSc next to my name.

I am learning that there is so much more to learning than I ever realized.

Let’s go back, now, to all that old coursework I could never get rid of, where my love of learning faces off with my love of getting rid of stuff. All that paper waiting around for the day I go back to school, let’s go back to that.

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Oh, actually, we can’t. Because I got rid of it. All of it! All 17 pounds of paper (not before I weighed it, of course) and all of the stress and uncertainty it held. All those binders and all of the expectations and disappointments that were buried within them.

I was finally able to let it all go because I’m learning to let that version of my life go. I’m learning to broaden my view of success. I’m learning to respect and value the education I’ve been receiving this entire time.

Everything is different now, and I’m learning to let that be okay.

The most important part is that I’m still learning.

And that I never have to stop.

11 thoughts on “Still learning

  1. For those who are not dealing with chronic illness, it is hard to comprehend the extra barriers that exist in the education sector. It is more than just overcoming one’s physical illness to feel well enough to concentrate on study – there are often physical access issues just to get through the doors, attitudinal ones (although you were so lucky to have a support system at your university through your colleagues), organisational barriers such as timetabling clashing with energy levels or support service rosters and if you are not working due to illness, there is the financial barrier to study as well.

    I’m glad you mentioned the media’s role in creating unrealistic expectations of people which then promote a sense of failure if one does not meet those ideals.

    The ability to overcome unrealistic expectations of your own capacity, either your own expectations or those of others, and the coming to terms with a ‘new you’ or ‘new stage’ in your life will certainly enhance your quality of life. There is more to a person than academic achievement; having a degree does not guarantee success or happiness in life.

    When I got sick, I had to throw away previous ideas and find a whole new way of living. It was like a ‘total reset’ of everything! I found new interests, new social circles, new ways of doing things and new priorities.

    Enjoy the journey of discovery as you find the ‘new you’ and incorporate parts of the ‘old Catherine’ into the new one, while gently saying goodbye to others and allowing yourself to grieve for them.
    This post shows you have reached a level of acceptance that will give you more room to grow.

    Wishing you more comfort and less distress over things that are beyond your control.

    Hugs xx

  2. Made it to University at age 35. 1 credit short (2 classes) of a double major honours degree ( done before my CFS diagnosis -which I’ve had since age 9). 5 years out of school and still not going back.
    BUT only a few months since I can write emails and comments on blogs posts!
    Progress is progress even if progress is accepting limitations. Nice to hear my story is similar to so many.

  3. I’m so proud of you, Catherine. I’m twice your age and still just coming to some of the realizations you’re making. Keep up the great work.

  4. I also am in a similar situation. I always strived in school to get good grades. I just started highschool last year and had to withdraw because of my illness. I will be missing this year as well. Now I’m doing my best to homeschool in hopes that I can go back for Junior year. It all just seems so daunting though, and it is stressful. I feel like I’m failing my parents, and I too am amazed at those who can push through the illness. This was comforting to read, knowing that I’m not the only one who struggles with this

    • I am always in awe of all you (even younger) youngins with chronic illnesses as you make your way through the high school years while being so sick. I can only imagine how hard it is to not only get everything done, but also to have to miss out on so much. Sending lots of hugs your way!

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