When POTS Challenges Your Identity as an Academic Overachiever


POTS and I have a complicated relationship.

Here’s the thing: I’m an over-committer. Like, the kind who is utterly convinced that there are infinite hours in a week and continues to take on more things until they crush me. I’ve done this since before chronic illness, when I could bounce back quickly.

I don’t particularly enjoy or prioritize looking after myself. So POTS comes around going, “Hey man, if you don’t chill the heck out then I’m going to do it for you.” I didn’t chill out. POTS kept its word.

And that’s all really funny except for the fact that POTS forced me to face head on the fact that I absolutely define myself as someone who loves to learn and is good at it.

I was diagnosed in December, just when holidays started. I spent the summer looking after myself and listening to my body and generally making peace with chronic illness. I get a lot better. So much better, in fact, that I think it’s a good idea to do a full-time course load.

OK, obviously this was not wise, but I did one subject per semester last year and I felt like a failure. My identity is wrapped up in the ability to push myself so hard I almost crack and still achieve great results. I achieved great results last year. I passed a course I thought I’d fail, and I received a distinction in the semester I got my diagnosis. I didn’t care. It felt like nothing. It also extended my degree by a year. Anything less than three subjects per semester this year would extend it another.

college student laying in bed and reading a book for class

And I was so determined to prove to myself I could do this. If chronic illness was going to exist, I wanted it to exist on my terms. It’d be the inspirational backing track to the montage of my university career. I’d graduate on time, with excellent grades, in spite of illness.

From the beginning, brain fog hits me hard. I can’t concentrate in lectures, I can’t remember what’s been said when the slides move forward, I can barely connect the points the lecturer is making. Never mind, I tell myself, lectures are recorded and I’ll make time to watch all of them again. My fatigue triples, and I start to get insomnia. I deny the fact that these things make my plan next to impossible.

Week two rolls around, and on the Monday, I faint in a lecture. In line with my determination, I lay there for a bit then get back up and keep working, ending the day by catching the bus home (which includes a 15-minute walk). And then I’m hit with an actual inspiration story.

Amy Cuddy, whose TED talk I’ve been showed umpteen times. Who sustained a brain injury that dropped her IQ by almost 30 points, when her identity was wrapped up in her intelligence. And whose message I selectively remembered, apparently, because one line stared me down when I heard it again. “I finished my degree. It took me four years longer than my peers.”

So I dropped a course. Actually, I cried on the kitchen floor, then I dropped a course.

I’m not sure when I’ll graduate, or if I’ll get the marks I think I should. I still don’t know if this is ever going to get easier, when I’ll learn to be kind to myself or exactly how much of my ability this illness has taken.

But I know I’m going to be OK, whichever form that takes.

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