Transitioning from high school to college with invisible disabilities
High school felt like it lasted forever, but graduation flew by my feet, and let me tell you, the past couple months have been a melodic chaos of laziness, ambition, and a lot of Grey’s Anatomy. I managed to accomplish the impossible: graduating high school while battling fibromyalgia, PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), and various other disabilities. Fibromyalgia, for those of you who don’t know, is a condition that causes chronic, sometimes unbearable, pain. Graduation represented freedom from being forced to go without accommodations for my disabilities in school.
I walked with an aching, heavy step across the stage at graduation. The teachers that guided me through my rough patches, Mrs. Laurie Hayes and Mr. Patrick Jessee, sat and stood in the audience watching, along with my grandmother and other assorted family members. I took my time walking on the stage because my fibro was killing me, and I reached our principal while grasping my diploma with great ease. In that moment, the weight of my diploma triggered something that spiraled all aspects of my mental and physical stability as I contemplated my future college plans.
Graduating high school makes you a survivor of the age of adolescence — that’s why we receive a fancy diploma, to give us something to show for the years of pressure and stress. In high school, the stereotypical drama and pressure to be the best pushes most teenagers to their breaking point, and I was no different. I entered high school as a friendless freshman with no experience communicating outside of a computer screen, and I left as a weathered debater, taught in the art of speech and rhetoric. Although I grew into an educated young adult, I continued to allow the school system to pressure me into not advocating for any accommodations for my disabilities. I vowed the day of my graduation to always advocate for disability accommodations while I attended college, and I learned quite a lot about the process.
I planned early in my senior year of high school to attend my local community college, Wake Tech, in the college transfer program. I maintained a 4.25 GPA throughout high school and graduated as an NC Scholar, but I didn’t have the “wow” factors that help you stand out to a four-year college, like volunteer work. And, even with the Pell Grant I received, I didn’t have the financial means to pay for a four-year university without amassing a huge debt (which would have remained unpaid if my medical situation forced me to drop out at some point).
The pitfall of having chronic pain/illnesses is that you cannot shine as bright as you envisioned yourself before having life-altering disabilities. The shooting star you thought you were burns out like a match, and your aspirations of being successful sound foolish when you can’t get out of bed for most of the day. Instead of volunteering and changing the world, a person with chronic pain tends to spend all the energy they’ve got taking care of themselves. It’s not ideal, but we do what we can to survive. College takes a lot of willpower to pursue, especially with fibromyalgia, POTS, and PCOS. I used my willpower up after I graduated and fought for the gift of officially being diagnosed with fibromyalgia after five years of misdiagnosis. The official diagnosis allowed me to file paperwork at my college asking for accommodations for my disabilities, something I desperately needed.
On September 8, 2015 I went in for the appointment to specify those accommodations. My case worker showed the utmost empathy for my disabilities and showed me resources I didn’t even know I had at my disposal. She unearthed a plethora of accommodations that my high school never gave me, and I sat in utter shock as she explained to me the help I would receive. Getting an education will be much easier for me in college now that I have the proper diagnosis. I can work on tests for a longer period of time, record lectures, and have paperwork in place when I miss a class due to a medical emergency. Those are just a few of the accommodations I received, and the rest will all ensure that I transfer successfully to a great college.
My ambitious attitude cajoled me into taking 18 credit hours online. Online classes are great for me because I can plan out my week and adjust my workload depending on my pain levels. The downside to taking online classes is that I have to be my own teacher and endure long periods of minimal social interaction. Sometimes, my wits aren’t together enough to learn small details and I get very lonely sitting in my room all day, but I do my best
Even with the accommodations my college has given me to help me manage my illness, it’s been a big adjust me. Grade-wise, for example, things could be better. I’m earning B’s and C’s in my science and math classes, but A’s in everything else. My study habits in college are intense compared to high school and damage my health if I overdo it. I’ll go several hours without eating or drinking to learn what I need to know for class, and then I reward myself with self-care. My rewards include 8-9 hours of sleep, having time to take care of my teeth, going for a jog, and occasionally putting on the makeup I never wore in high school. I’ve been getting more sleep than I ever did in high school, and it’s made a remarkable difference in the quality of schoolwork I do.
College gives me the flexible schedule I desperately need to maintain my health. The downside to managing six different college classes and being responsible is that my ‘fibro’ fog impedes how much I can do or remember. Even with an agenda, I forgot at least three appointments I made in the past two weeks. The pressure to succeed sometimes seems to be swallowing me whole, but I am hoping that the fog will subside until I am done with my hardest classes.
My disabilities make the load of responsibility that comes with college that much heavier, but I am determined to get through it. To help other people like me, I hope to find a successful way to make college navigable for those with chronic illnesses. For now, I will be a mad scientist testing every method possible until I find the right one for my health.
(Image via iStock.)