Thursday, September 15, 2011

How I Made It through College

Getting through college while ill was tough with the brain fog and trying to keep up. I used quite a few strategies to make things more manageable and those strategies have also helped me in life after college.

Choosing a College
I didn’t go to a highly competitive college and I declined honors courses, despite my qualifications. I chose a college with the least requirements in my weaker areas (no PE requirement, no foreign language, and less science requirements). The college I chose was also small with small class sizes, which made it easier to work with professors and get the help I needed.

Course Load
I had to take four courses a semester in order to maintain full-time status and keep my scholarships and health insurance, but it was less than the standard five. I made up the additional courses during the summer and winter terms. I also took took advantage of the ability to take one general requirement pass/fail a semester so I could literally go to class, do the bare minimum, and not worry about it negatively affecting my GPA. I would recommend part-time to anyone who has the means.

I chose majors I had a natural knack for. I even managed to graduate with a double major by using all my electives towards one of my two major requirements and finding courses that could be used to satisfy multiple requirements. If there was a way to kill two birds with one stone, I found it.

Utilizing Disability Services
Disability services gave me priority registration and the ability to get into the classes that had the best schedules for my needs (no early mornings, for instance). Some of my professors even allowed extensions when I needed them and I was surprised by how those professors really wanted to make sure I succeeded.

Additionally, I registered for five courses and then dropped whichever course I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle (usually the one with the least accommodating professor if there was another one who taught the course). I would get a pretty good feel within the first week and would be able to drop it before it would stay on my record.

Living On Campus
I found living on campus worked best for my particular situation. I have four younger siblings and the youngest was still a toddler when I left for college, so home was not exactly the quietest environment. Living on campus was also very convenient. I didn’t have to worry about whether the fibro fog was too thick to drive, and I didn’t have to waste time commuting. I also admit that wanting to get the full college experience had something to do with it, and I am glad I did it. 

Living at home would probably work better for those who have a home environment conducive to studying, have the ability to get to campus regularly, or can take classes online.
To help me survive living on campus, disability services gave me medical housing. As a freshman, I did not specify what I needed out of medical housing, so I was placed on the first floor with a roommate who also requested medical housing. Although my roommate was great, I knew by the end of the year that a single room would better accommodate my sleeping habits. 
I also learned that the first floor is by far the nosiest. I could hear every conversation outside and I swear the guys above me had both a drum set and a skateboard ramp set up. I definitely recommend bringing ear plugs and a sleep mask for anyone planning to live on campus. 

By junior year I had figured out and gotten into the best room for my situation. I had a single room on the top floor of a building with an elevator in the closest dorm to the academic side of campus. My apartment was right next to the elevator and although I was on the top floor, there were only four floors, so when the fire alarm went off, I only had to go down three flights of stairs. 
Additionally, my apartment was located in the short hall of the building, consisting of only four apartments per floor. The girls I lived with were good about keeping the noise down, so it worked out really well. Noise from rooms below doesn’t seem to travel as well as noise from rooms above, so I didn’t have much trouble with the apartment below.

Adjusting Expectations
It was still tough, and I had to sacrifice most of my social life to get through it. I was only involved with one organization and that is where I made most of my friends, since I had time for little else. Taking it one semester at a time was important, as was trying not to get too stressed out about not being able to do as well as I knew I could. I tried to remember that getting through college with an illness is a huge accomplishment in itself. 
My symptoms were also less severe while I was in school then they are now, so I think that helped a lot too.

Applying these Tips Beyond College
I have found that a lot of the techniques I used to get through college have helped me survive life after college as well. The most important tip for me is taking things one day at a time and trying not to worry too much about not being able to do as well or as much as I used to be capable of.

Other ways I have applied these tips after college are taking advantage of disability accommodations both at work and in other areas of life, including utilizing a handicapped parking placard. I always try to find the most efficient way to get tasks done, so I don’t waste any unnecessary energy.

I also have chosen the places I have lived using the same principles I used in choosing dorm rooms. When I looking for my first apartment I looked for one in a quiet area with the least amount of shared walls possible. When it came to buying a house, we went for the smaller house in the more convenient location, also factoring in the need for a quieter area. As a bonus, a smaller house requires less cleaning. 
Do you have any tips or techniques that helped you get through something?

Friday, September 2, 2011

On a Scale of 1 to 10

We’ve all heard it. How bad is the pain, on a scale of 1 to 10?

But how exactly do you answer the question when you’ve had more than your fair share of pain? How can anyone know what my 10 is compared to someone else’s?

It seems to me that the more exposure one has to severe pain, the more severe that person’s 10 will be. For instance, if the worst pain Johnny ever felt was a sprained ankle, then Johnny may say that his sprained ankle is a 10. With all the pain I have experienced, a sprained ankle may feel like a 5 to me.

If I say my pain is a 5 to someone who is unfamiliar with the amount of pain I have experienced, I wonder if it may be taken less seriously. It seems like a double-edged sword because saying a very high number may give the impression that one is exaggerating, especially when pain is chronic.

To make it worse, sometimes “with 10 being the worst pain you’ve ever felt” is added; other times it is “with 10 being the worst pain you could imagine” that is added. That could lead to two very different answers for the same person. On the second scale, with all the pain I’ve been through and my imagination, I wince at the thought of what a 10 could be.

In order to clarify my answer, I often follow with a comparison to something most can relate to. For instance, I may add that the pain hurts as much as a sprained ankle.

Being in pain all the time also makes it difficult to tell how much something really hurts. I couldn’t even feel a second degree burn I got last week.

My husband had put dinner in the oven and I was sitting in the kitchen when the timer went off. I figured the least I could do was pull dinner out of the oven, since I was sitting right next to it. Knowing how clumsy I’ve been lately and my tendency to burn myself, I put an oven mitt on each hand and proceeded to take the food out of the oven. Well leave it to me to manage to burn myself even with two oven mitts on!

Luckily, I did feel the pain while my skin was being burned and pulled my arm out.

I could tell by looking at it that it was going to leave a scar (I have extensive experience accidentally burning myself, although this is the first time I managed to do it with two oven mitts on), but within seconds, I no longer noticed any pain, even touching it. It is only a second degree burn, so it should have hurt. It blistered up and looks awful, which is the only reason I even remember it happened.

Maybe it did hurt, but because I am so used to constant pain, I haven’t noticed it.

I get bruises all the time because I am constantly bumping into stuff, and like the burn, I notice a little pain the moment it happens, but it subsides immediately. I usually forget what caused the bruise by the time it shows up because I don’t notice the pain. It seems bruises hurt less than the aches and pains I experience daily. Sometimes they will feel tender when I apply pressure to the bruises, but not as much as my fibro tender points.

Another problem with the pain scale is that 10 is such a small number. It hardly seems large enough to represent the spectrum of pain I have experienced. There is a large gap between numbers for me.

I am currently keeping track of the level of pain I experience daily, among other symptoms, to see if new medications are helping and to keep track of what affects my symptoms. I often find myself using numbers such as 4.5 because I will have a day that is clearly much worse than what I would consider a 4, but not nearly as bad as what I would consider a 5.

It also seems to me that our own pain scales may change as time goes on and we experience and get used to more pain. I remember when I was a kid, I hated paper cuts; I thought they were the worst. Now I would take a paper cut any day over my usual pain. I am sure I would have rated a paper cut much higher on the pain scale when I was a kid than I would today.

How do you feel about the pain scale?