On being a grad student (with chronic illness)

I’ve been sort of pondering about what this blog should ultimately be. It seems superficial to have it just be about planners and other crafts because although those are my biggest hobbies, I feel like I also want to share the person who’s behind all of that as well. Maybe that’s not the best marketing strategy. But hey, I guess I reserve the right to do whatever I want with my blog, and who knows. Maybe some people in the crafting community will be interested in my story.

As you might know if you’ve browsed my site for a bit, I’m currently a graduate student. I work a full time job, and I also work at an unpaid internship about 15 to 20 hours each week on top of that. I am loving what I do at my internship so far. If you’d have met me over the summer you never would have guessed it would turn out that way – my internship is in an inpatient addictions facility, and before I started I was absolutely terrified. On top of it I had some pretty inaccurate perceptions about addiction despite being a clinical mental health student. Regardless, this internship has been by far and away the best experience of my graduate education so far.

All that said, it’s been exhausting. On average I work six 10-hour days a week (Monday through Saturday). And although I have a good job with good benefits, it can be really stressful at times because of a lot of reorganization in the office and lack of any helpful direction from higher ups. I’m lucky in that I have a solid job with good health insurance to help me pay for all my doctor visits, hospital visits, and medications for my heart. But I can help but envy some of my classmates, many of whom have a spouse or partner with health insurance to cover them while they work part time to make time for their internships. Or even some of my fellow students who are healthy enough to safely go without health insurance for a few months.

It’s really difficult having a disability / chronic illness in this situation. It also complicates things that my illness is mostly invisible to others. I have to take way more time off work than others which occasionally gets me a questioning side-eye. I’m always either out or running out of paid leave (although thank goodness I have paid leave to begin with!). I’ve already run myself ragged and gotten sick several times this semester, and it takes some real self-motivation to keep going. Way too often, I find myself forgoing self care, rest, or a sick day when I’m sick because I know in the back of my mind I just can’t afford to have even more work or hours to make up later. Just worrying about it on a regular basis is a drain on my mental resources.

Mental resources that I desperately need in order to keep up with my studies. I find that more and more I’m forgetting assignments, turning things in late, blah blah blah. The sorts of things that my previously perfectionistic self wouldn’t -couldn’t! – have stood for. But here’s the thing: I have grown so much during this entire experience.

Through application to dozens of grad programs over two years, I learned what it felt like to not be the top student – a crushing experience that was much needed. Why? Because I didn’t die. I wasn’t the best candidate, or circumstance just didn’t favor me, and for two years I had to sit with that fact and realize that I’m still ok. My friend still love me. My cats still cuddle with me. Nobody pointed and called me an eternal failure for not getting in the first round – and I ended up getting a job that helped me learn about community mental health from the front lines.

I also learned how to get out there and network, cold call, and advocate for myself. My school did not help me procure a practicing or an internship – we were all essentially thrown to the wind and told, “Good luck!” I reached out in ways I’ve always been terrified to do. I kept going despite being turned down over and over again, something I previously might not have done. And I was juggling studying, school, and a potential cancer scare while I was doing it.

Because with chronic illness there’s always that extra layer, isn’t there? That extra, “Don’t forget you’re sick” in the back of your mind like a shadow over everything you do. Which is why, when I do manage to do something like work my way through grad school and graduate, it’s going to be one of the proudest moments of my life.

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