by Lisa Pearl McIntosh
Living with an invisible illness can be difficult. Add an academic workload to that weight and that difficulty level can reach untold heights. Illnesses not necessarily seen by the naked eye, such as gastrointestinal issues, fibromyalgia, migraines, or mental health can lead to a variety of negative encounters on campuses. Whether through conflict between faculty and students, or as a result of academic stress, these hidden ailments could make life in the education sphere unbearable. Well, don’t fret too much, because I am here to tell you that, although it can be hard, living with mental and physical health impairments is not an academic death sentence! In fact, most universities and faculties have understanding support networks in place to make your life more tolerable.
As a life-long sufferer of fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and anxiety, I’ve had my share of struggles. While completing my Undergraduate, I often found myself missing countless lectures and seminars due to my mental state or fibro-flare-ups. I lost my scholarship, had to drop a course due to a failing grade, and developed a frightful hatred of school. Unsure of who to talk to, I felt alone and unable to keep up with the demands of post-secondary education. After a short time away from school, and a change of location, I found myself at the University of Guelph. Almost immediately I was in contact with the campus counselling office discussing my disabilities and concerns. I quickly learned that not only was I able to take on a smaller course-load, but also that I could take advantage of the many services available to me, such as writing exams on a computer to avoid flare ups in my hands and more time for completing assignments due to my anxiety. Ultimately, because I was registered with this facility, I found faculty members more understanding and academic life more bearable. There was finally a light at the end of the tunnel.
When I began my Masters at the same institution, I knew that I needed to follow a similar path in order to maintain my grades -and sanity! My professors knew who I was, what my concerns were, and that I suffered from several illnesses. Communication and understanding were paramount. With these tools, and relationships, at my disposal I managed to receive, and maintain, an A average throughout my academic career, and even gained a scholarship for highest GPA as an undergrad. Though I am not suggesting that every student blindly take advantage of the facilities on campuses, I do want all academics to realise what is available to them and that, most importantly, they are not alone.
Perhaps the most significant lesson that living with invisible illnesses taught me, throughout my academic career, is the importance of communication. Communication not only between yourself and your coworkers, professors, or classmates, but also with your family members, partner(s), and/or friends. Talking to others about my own struggles allowed me to see that I was supported, that I had help, and that I was not alone. I gained friends, learned about new possibilities, and even secured a job outside of the university writing and cartooning about life with invisible illnesses! See, I told you it wasn’t all bad.
Living with these illnesses, and issues related to my mental health, also helped me become more understanding of others’ plights. As a Teaching Assistant I was able to not only relate to students’ troubles and concerns, but also provide more information for their own research, guidance, and help. Being open with my students about my own mental health and illnesses allowed us to form a different relationship built upon understanding and empathy. Unlike others, I could appreciate the difficulty of timing. I know that flare-ups and mental health episodes can happened at the drop of a hat, that there isn’t always a week’s notice for anxiety attacks, and that sometimes a small extension can literally change a student’s life. These things are not difficult; it is not the end of the world to grant a student one more day to complete their work. It does not make my life less tolerable to help my students get the grades that they deserve. Because of my own experiences, both positive and negative, I have a different outlook on academic relationships. I know that I will always hear a student out, give them the benefit of the doubt, and, if necessary, provide them with the necessary tools to get help. However, I will note that if or when a student tried to take advantage of that fact, there was no more Miss Nice Girl.
What I hope that you gain from reading this is the knowledge that living with invisible illnesses or mental health issues in the academic world is not the end. You can persevere, and you can find ways to make your life, and the lives of those around you, more tolerable. Ultimately, we can all graduate from a life in academia with a Masters in coping.
Lisa has a BAH and MA in History from the University of Guelph, Ontario, where she hopes to begin her PhD in 2018. Her research focuses upon Indigenous history on Turtle Island as well as Indigenous education policy, epistemology and pedagogy. In her doctorate, Lisa hopes to explore how schools might incorporate fundamental Indigenous ways of learning and teaching history and discover whether current facilities include aspects of Indigenous history and contributions in their educational practices, as outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation report. Lisa is a monthly contributor to an online health site regarding her life with invisible illnesses, and tutors in her spare time. She lives in Guelph with her partner and Alaskan Malamute, Asher, where she enjoys being part of the local community, volunteering, and being surrounded by academia.
(c) photo: https://njmetropain.com/what-is-an-invisible-illness/