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When My College Advisor Saw Through the Mask I Wore to Hide My Illness

While I was walking around the main commons at college, my breathing sounded like a muffled tailpipe wheezing in and out. I guess after lung surgery, this was to be expected.  I took the elevator to the third floor and located my advisor’s office. I knocked on the door, but before I could she opened it and offered me a seat.

To be honest, that was the most exercise I had done in four weeks and I wanted to slouch over in a chair and take a nap. I was still in pain, so I had to remember not to lean on my left side or make sharp movements.

She asked how I was doing, and frankly I did not know what to say other than, “Well, I’m out of the hospital, so that’s good.”

I had enough nerve in me to go over the seven weeks of papers, assignments, and projects I had missed. She probably could have sensed my frustration from the other side of the building, but I like to chalk it up to a mother’s intuition.

I told her it will all be completed when I returned.

I lied.

I lied to myself about my ability and strength to get these tasks done.

I lied to her about the empty tank of courage I had.

I lied to myself about what I was feeling.

I lied to her about my thoughts on the amount of work.

I sat there wondering if she could see through my masquerade I formed around my pale face. I questioned what file cabinets she was opening and closing to read my energy.

A moment later she looked at me and said, “It’s OK to ask for help.”

I let that seep into my ears hoping it would tattoo itself on my heart.

I repeated it to myself. “It’s OK to ask for help.”

I burst into tears.

She came back with, “You are not like other students, and your circumstances are different and serious. You have major health issues happening now that not many students will ever encounter in their lifetime. Your priority is your health.”

I sat back in astonishment and awe as tears leaked and escaped my eyes.

Was I like other students or was I different? Was my circumstance serious enough to warrant the leeway I had been granted? And was my health trumping college?

She answered all these questions I had with a look of serene sincerity.

I realized in that brief lapse of time that I needed to do what was right for me even if it means taking the time to focus on my health.

I did not understand the importance of self-care and my health until it was jeopardized. When you don’t have your health, you cannot really focus your energy on other tasks. When your health is unreliable but you as a person are reliable for others, it is an unprecedented emotion to encounter. And I was just that.

As a stubborn student who wanted to complete everything and achieve the highest grade possible, I was reminded that it is not a rush. It is not a rush to jump back into the swing of things at college. It is not a rush to turn in assignments haphazardly because I am overwhelmed by the work I missed. And it most certainly is not a rush to catch up to the other students.

I was reminded to listen to my body and health all from the look in my advisor’s eyes. I was reminded to ask for help from professors in the future, because my circumstances are serious enough. Not because I decided or said they were, but because one professor already acknowledged they were. I was reminded to let professors know in the future that I am juggling appointments every week and that I might miss class, exams, and lectures because of it. I was encouraged to open the vessel of my diagnosis I gingerly carried in my pocket to other professors and future professors all because someone else, someone different, and someone who was not in scrubs understood my health concerns.

And to my professor, there are not enough words for me to even begin to explain what burden you graciously lifted off my academic shoulders.