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The Mental Toll of Trying to Keep Up in a World Designed for Healthy People

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“I am being buried. Every day… in every way… I am drowning in my own guilt and shame, because the person I want to rely on most is always failing me: Me.” — Bailey Anne Vincent, “Catching Breath for Bailey

Feelings of diminished worth due to illness are rarely discussed, but they are unfortunately commonplace with my less-than-healthy friends.

I once overheard a girl talking with our professor about making up missed work after being out sick, and I was disgusted to realize I envied her. Not because she was ill, of course, but because she had the courage and self-confidence to ask for and accept assistance. I envied the fact that she didn’t seem to see her illness and resultant absence as a reflection of some moral failing. That’s something I’ve never been able to master, mostly because I am constantly gripped by overwhelming feelings of shame.

Shame is the reason I don’t tell my professors why I’m absent for extended periods of time until I absolutely must. It is the reason I have a folder of completed assignments I felt too guilty to submit. Last semester, I made As on all my exams but one, but the “zeros” reflecting that folder of un-submitted assignments significantly brought down my final averages. I’ve had amazing professors who’ve given me the opportunity to make up what I’ve missed, and I’m grateful. It’s just that I felt uncomfortable meeting their kindness (of which I felt completely undeserving) with piling more work onto their already busy schedules. After all, wasn’t it better to show my appreciation by preserving their time and energy? I felt too guilty to make them grade my late work, especially knowing it wasn’t the quality of my healthy, non-brain-injured days.

A professor once told me I was a waste of taxpayer dollars. He quickly corrected himself, stating that my trying to go to school was the waste, not my existence. But his words didn’t upset me — they were actually kind of comforting. Like, “Oh, thank God, someone else sees it, too.” They fit with my inner-monologue, echoing my own feelings. A few weeks ago, in a sleep-deprived state, I accidentally admitted this to a professor. She replied with, “That’s so f**ked up!” I laughed because rationally, I knew she was right. But my guilt, shame, depression and anxiety rarely come from places of logic.

People tell me I say “I’m sorry” too much, and it’s true, but that’s how I feel. I’m sorry I can no longer perform as well as I was once able. I’m sorry that after all these years of being sick, I still haven’t figured out how to keep my poor health from spilling over and affecting other areas of my life. I’m sorry that others have to deal with the fallout of my dysfunction. I’m sorry, so sorry…

For me the hardest part of being a chronically ill college student isn’t all the hospitalizations, procedures, pain, exhaustion, vomiting and syncope, it’s the mental toll of continually trying and failing to keep up in an environment designed for those who are healthy. When productivity is conflated with intrinsic worth, the disabled student will almost always fall short. Even if our own internalized ableism is the thing confusing the two.

I generally strive to paint a much prettier picture of illness and disability, defaulting to, “it’s all good!” and giving explanations palatable to an able-bodied majority. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes, it just sucks.

Originally published: November 5, 2019
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