More Than Just a Degree: Studying with an invisible disability, making a fresh start and the importance of kindness
The Employability and Skills team is interested in hearing student voices! We put a call out on our CCCU Careers and Disability Facebook group, asking students to share their experiences, both in life and in the workplace. Here, Olivia discusses the challenges she faces as a student with an invisible disability, and her advice to others.
I recently read a post calling for students with visible or invisible disabilities to write about their experience at university and in the workplace. I immediately offered to write something as I finished my MSc at CCCU last September and have had ME/CFS for the last four years. ME/CFS is a long-term condition with a number of symptoms, the main one being exhaustion which is not alleviated by rest. It can be classed as an invisible disability, especially when you have mild to moderate symptoms like I have which means you are able to leave your bed most days and appear fine, even if you feel pretty rubbish. Once I offered to write a post I then had two weeks of angst trying to work out what to say… I admit to feeling a little nervous about revealing things about the condition as there is still a fair share of stigma around invisible disabilities. However, I have taken the plunge and will write a few notes about my experience in the hope that it might help someone. Please remember this is just my personal experience and conditions like this can be different for everyone.
My health deteriorated four years ago when I was working in a busy job in London. I was self-employed and the work was all or nothing which was not ideal at the time. After trying to keep my job going for a while, I eventually had to quit and move back home. What followed was a few rather difficult years stuck in a push/crash cycle; a common symptom of ME/CFS is post-exertional malaise which is a worsening of symptoms up to 48 hours after exertion (this could be physical, emotional or mental exertion). After a while though, I learned how to cope better and found that pacing was key for me. I eventually felt well enough to change careers and start planning for my future. I knew I would be unable to cope with my old job and as Psychology had always been an interest of mine, I applied for a Psychology masters conversion at CCCU. My first attempt at the degree only lasted four weeks, I wasn’t ready so had to interrupt the year, but on my second attempt I managed to complete the year. This was thanks in part to me having an actual diagnosis by this time which meant an NLP could be put in place. The Psychology department also had a wonderful student support advisor who was invaluable throughout the year. When I was struggling I could get extensions and have someone to talk to who understood and was supportive. Throughout my degree I had to be careful to keep my stress levels in check as stress is a big trigger for me, I had to accept that I might not do as well as I would like but I’d do the best I could in the situation. I started off by focusing on getting through until Christmas and then telling myself I could interrupt again if needed. By giving myself small goals I was able to cope. Finishing the year at the end of August felt like a wonderful achievement and as well as passing everything, I felt very lucky to gain some lifelong friends in the process.
The next step, which of course brought with it a fair share of worry, was finding a job. I’d been out of the work place for almost four years. My long term goal is to become a psychologist but at the moment I have decided to work in part-time roles until I feel stronger and more able to cope with an increased workload. I initially applied for jobs with Unitemps and had to think carefully about what I could handle. Support work seemed like it would be a good place to start to gain clinical experience but I knew it would be a very physical job and I wasn’t sure I could do it. However accepting your limitations is never easy so I still went along to the interview, but then had to turn the job down job. Luckily my degree had strengthened my interest in research and after a few months of checking Unitemps on a daily basis, I was offered a research intern position. This job offered flexible hours, made use of skills I had gained in my previous career and has been really interesting so far. I still have some uncertainty about the future and need to find a job once this one ends, but I know that if I pace myself and put less pressure on situations, it will work out in the end. I didn’t expect to be so interested in research before starting my MSc but now know that this is a career path I could really enjoy and cope with.
With regards to disclosing about a disability, I still feel a bit unsure about when to do this. I am nervous to tell people sometimes, however I know that if they are aware then they will understand if I can’t make it in one day or need an extension on a piece of work. It’s all very personal so I’d recommend talking to a disability advisor at the university about this.
My main advice to anyone with a visible or invisible disability would be to be a bit kinder to yourself. Especially with illnesses which affect energy, concentration and mood, treating yourself a bit better and giving yourself plenty of time to get things done is key. You may have to completely overhaul your ideas about what you are going to do with your life but you will find something that interests you and utilises skills you have. Also, sometimes (as frustrating as it is to be unwell), it can gift you greater empathy for others and in my experience that is no bad thing!