I am opening up about this in order to let others know they are not alone, and to hopefully spread some awareness. Since high school I have suffered chronic pain, which has recently been diagnosed as fibromyalgia. Law isn’t easy at the best of times and when you’re in a lot of pain studying is the last thing you want to be doing.
I have altered the way I manage my studies as a result. I tend to choose recorded classes so I am able to stop whenever I need to and walk around. I have difficulty getting through readings and assignments take so much longer to complete when you can’t physically sit at your computer for very long. I’ve had to acquire a sloped desk, which enables me to elevate what I’m reading just to get through it. I have trouble concentrating through the pain and am unable to carry any of my textbooks, as I’m just too weak.
There are weeks where I can’t come in to university at all and stay at home with a heatpack and my ergonomic furniture (those lecture desks are truly awful for anyone). Stress exacerbates my condition and I am in frequent contact with the university disability centre to make sure I’m managing my study load, and they are able to step in for me when I need an extension, deferred exams or to drop a unit without incurring an academic penalty. During exams I have a number of special arrangements, which allow me to compete with able-bodied students in a more even setting. I am going to take longer to get my degree as a result but in the meantime it makes my life a lot more manageable. During the five years I’ve spent at university, I’ve learnt that there is no shame in admitting that you are not coping, and asking for help – you are the only person who is judging you.
Fibromyalgia is a condition that has been used to describe a wide number of symptoms but most definitions include aching joints and muscles, stiffness, weakness, fatigue, tenderness and a heightened sensitivity to pain. My own experiences have been of severe and chronic pain and stiffness through my back, chest, shoulders and neck with crippling headaches and muscle spasms. I have trouble sleeping and fatigue easily.
I made a decision a long time ago that I wouldn’t let pain or my condition stop me from doing what I strive to do and I refused to let it prevent me from reaching my dream of becoming a lawyer. I’m not going to lie: I have wondered at various weak moments why I would do such a thing to myself, and whether the suffering is worth it. I’ve taken on too much and had to admit I was too ambitious in my goals. I’ve had to ask for help, seek extensions and get special conditions and arrangements for exams so that I could endure sitting for the three hours required to finish my paper.
I have trouble explaining what is wrong to friends, for example the reasons why I might not go to a lecture if it’s recorded and why sometimes I walk out of long classes. I’ve had strange stares when I stretch in class and when I have to take painkillers on campus.
As many others with a disability have experienced, people in the community often have negative perceptions based on stereotypes and a lack of understanding of what living and studying with a disability actually involves. One of the hardest parts of having chronic pain is when people tell me that I’m not stretching enough, that I ‘just have bad posture’, that it’s in my head or ask if I’ve tried taking some Panadol. I find it particularly difficult when it comes around to exams and people look at me suspiciously when I say have special conditions. Apparently because I’m young and do not appear outwardly to have anything wrong with me makes it appear that I’m cheating the system. As much as it irks me and occasionally upsets me to endure this I don’t blame people for saying it. Ultimately they mean well and I hope that raising awareness of what I’m going through may mean fewer people go through this.
So far I have somehow made it through with results I am proud of and I hope one day to work in a corporate firm. I am slowly doing rehab with an ultimate goal of reducing the cycle of pain over time. I do not expect it to be easy, but I am grateful for the gains I have made so far. I am very lucky to have an amazing support network of friends and family who have helped me over the years both emotionally and financially. I do not know how I could have gotten through without them and I am humbled everyday by their love and understanding.
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