AE is the new A

All my life I have been a school person. I liked school and I did well at school. School has always just kind of been my thing. If you browse through my university transcript you will see one B+ amongst a few A’s and a lot of A+’s. I’m not saying this to show off or rub my previous academic success in anyone’s face, I’m just giving you an idea of what I mean when I say school was kind of my thing. Put a soccer ball at my feet and I’ll probably trip over it, but give me an anatomy textbook and I’m happy for hours.

As such, one of the hardest parts about this whole chronic illness thing is that I’ve had to take some time away from school. In the fall of 2012 when I started to get really sick I barely finished the semester. Because of my type A, perfectionist, academically-oriented personality my GPA did not suffer at all, but my body sure did. After that I decided to take a semester off to get my health back on track and at the time I thought it would be that easy. In fact I thought by February, March at the latest, I would be ready to go again. Gastroparesis intervened and I ended up withdrawing from both the fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters when I landed myself in the hospital and had bigger things to worry about. And by bigger things I mean feeding tubes.

This summer, however, with my fingers crossed that the third time would be the charm, I enrolled in a distance education class. I was a little apprehensive because it had been so long, but I was hopeful that it would be the first step back in the right direction towards getting my degree. I will be perfectly honest and say that it was hard. I had to take advantage of my good moments and use them to get ahead so that a write-off day or two wouldn’t set me back too far. Despite that, however, it was going really well! I was doing really well! In fact, I was on track to get an A+.

But my health was not doing so well.

After my last assignment was submitted at the end of July, I started to worry about whether or not I would be well enough to finish off the coursework, study, and write my final exam in two weeks time. A week before the exam I knew that there was no way this would be possible. My health situation was not very stable and I didn’t have it in me to do coursework, let alone actually make it to campus for a three hour exam.

Two years ago I would have pushed through anyway. I would have ignored my health for the sake of my grade. Thinking about this now, it seems crazy, but the truth is that I have done it so many times in the past. Not anymore.

Because the final exam was only worth 25%, if I got a zero I would still end up with a B- in the course. Okay, I could accept that. I emailed the course instructor and explained the situation. I asked to not write the exam, take a zero, and walk away with a B-. In the end, after lots of back and forth and discussion among various people in the department, I was given an AE designation. AE stands for aegrotat and is what universities commonly use to indicate that a student completed most of the course requirements but was unable, usually for health reasons, to write the final exam. It’s considered a compassionate pass, and gives the student credit for the course but doesn’t influence their GPA.

The best part about this whole situation, though, is that I was okay with taking a B-. I had absolutely no regret or anxiety about it. It’s taken me five years of university with a chronic illness to finally learn, and more importantly to put into practice, that my health is more important than my GPA. I am not defined by the grade I receive. Doing well at school is not the most important part of who I am.

Sure, in the end this course doesn’t even count towards my GPA, but I was going to be okay if it did and that’s the success here.

So why am I telling you this? I know I am not the only one out there who puts pressure on myself to do well and succeed. I know I am not the only person who has made foolish sacrifices in order to do things just because I think I “should” or because I feel that “I have to.” It’s not about the letter grade, the salary, the type of car or the kind of house. It’s not about what we achieve or who knows about how well we’ve done.

It’s about who we are. It’s about how much integrity we have. It’s about getting our priorities to complement our values. It’s about being willing to adjust our priorities based on our needs at the time and the needs of those we love.

My priority right now is my health. It has to be. And no amount of A’s is worth compromising that.

I would have been happy with a B-. I ended up with an AE. But it’s an A in its own way.

Lesson learned.

Why I needed my illness

I recently finished reading Bernie Siegel’s book “Love Medicine and Miracles” and while I have read at least a dozen health and wellness books in the last year this was definitely my favourite! If you, or anyone you know and love, is experiencing any health problems, I cannot recommend this book enough. Bernie works mostly with cancer patients, but his insights can be applied to any medical issue. What I loved is that as a surgeon, Bernie believes in and promotes medical interventions, but he also acknowledges the power of one’s mind and uses it along with conventional treatments to help his patients heal.

While reading this book I had so many a-ha moments and came across tidbit after tidbit of wisdom. The tidbit that stuck with me the most is one of the questions Bernie asks his patients when he first meets them: Why did you need your illness?

Wow. Talk about thought provoking. This is not an easy question to answer because we tend to look at illness as something bad happening to us, an outside force wreaking havoc in our lives. I can come up with a ton of reasons why I didn’t need my illness, a ton of reasons why I wish I had never gotten sick, and a ton of ways that being sick has flipped my world upside down.

But needing my illness? How could this be something that I needed?

I’ve always been an over achiever and I’ve always thrived on academic challenges. Learn all the muscle origins, insertions, innervations and actions? Okay! Know the ins and outs of all the body’s physiological systems? Sure! But throughout this thriving, I also had a tendency to burn myself out. Looking back now, I recognize that I put too much pressure on myself and too much weight on my academic successes. I needed my illness to break the cycle of lecture – study – exam – crash – repeat. I needed my illness to take a step back from school and learn to value myself for something other than my grades.

When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I was always writing in journals and ‘publishing’ stories by typing them up, adding some drawings and stapling it all together. As my life got busier I didn’t have enough time to write anything other than assigned essays. In a moment of anxiety, confusion and hopelessness last October, I pulled out a journal and started writing again. And since then I haven’t stopped. As it turns out, I still love it. I needed my illness to rediscover my writing voice.

One of Bernie’s theories is that illness is our body’s way of escaping a routine that is meaningless. Now, I don’t think the life I was leading was meaningless; I loved school, I loved teaching dance, and I loved being involved in science outreach. When I lost all that, it seemed like I lost my identity and my purpose but I have definitely found new ways to find meaning in my life. I have been able to witness the power in connecting with strangers through shared experience. I have been gifted with the time to do things for others just because it brings me joy. I have learned to celebrate every baby step. I needed my illness to discover these new sources of meaning.

Throughout this journey, I have come across so many incredible people. I have been cared for by so many compassionate doctors and nurses. I needed my illness to give me faith in the goodness of people. My family has always been close, but throughout this we have become even closer. I needed my illness in order to be surrounded by their unconditional love. Chronic illness takes its toll on relationships, but I am lucky enough to have a few friends who have kept in touch throughout it all and brighten my day, every day. I needed my illness to strengthen these friendships.

Perhaps most importantly, I needed my illness to realize my own resilience.

I’ve always tried to find the good in a bad situation, but I like Bernie’s question because it gives purpose to the hard times. Yes, illness is taking a lot of things away from me, but it is also giving me a lot of things that I need.

Don’t get me wrong, now, it’s not that I like being sick. I wouldn’t wish this experience on my worst enemy (or my best enemy for that matter!). My life is not turning out as I had planned. Could I have ended up happy if my life had gone the way I planned? Probably. Can I still end up happy the way my life is going, illness and all? Absolutely. Maybe even happier.

I think I needed my illness to find this new plan.

I’ll let you know when I figure out what it is!