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When I Had to Take a Medical Withdrawal From Graduate School Due to My Health Issues

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I am a nerd. No, really, I’m a big nerd. I kind of love it though. I love learning and am eager to take classes to increase my knowledge and competency. I am currently in graduate school, but it has been a long road, and even now, a difficult one.

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I graduated high school a semester early and immediately enrolled at a community college. I had a scholarship there, and was already involved with certain departments in that school. It was there I determined my major, and got all of my basics out of the way. By the time I started a traditional four year college, I was already 21 with a couple of years still to go.

Something else happened when I was 21. I got engaged, and then I got dumped. This left me in a desperate cycle of depression, self-harm, and abusing my medication. I had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety in middle school, so I was familiar with mental health struggles. This was something else entirely. When one of my medications left me manic, I was diagnosed with bipolar and hospitalized. A little later on, I was still struggling and ended up in the ICU after pushing myself too far and accidentally overdosing. I was desperate for an answer, and my family was desperate, too.

When I overdosed, my school was notified. After I got out of the hospital, the school administration offered me the option of taking a medical withdrawal for the semester. At the time, I didn’t understand what the medical withdrawal was, nor did I have the state of mind that could make the best decision for my future regarding school. I did not withdraw, and I failed most of the classes I took that semester. For a girl who made all A’s her entire life, this would leave a dark scar on her transcripts that would later haunt her.

I was finally able to get stable, and to do that, I took a couple years off. When I was back in school, I was much older than my peers. This was incredibly frustrating, and left me with few social supports nearby. I finally graduated with a B.S. in Comprehensive Psychology.

I worked for five years, but in the back of my mind, graduate school was calling my name. After a work injury that triggered an autoimmune disorder that kept me home-bound for several months, I decided it was the right time to go back to school. I would be able to gain a degree that could make me qualified for a job I would be able to do successfully while managing my illnesses.

I enrolled in a master’s of Social Work program. I am much older than most of my fellow students, but am able to relate to my professors easily. I introduced myself to the Assistant Dean my first semester so if I had significant issues I could come to her and she could help me resolve them. After hearing what I had to say about my desire to learn and my aptitude in school and this subject, she remarked it seemed I was always meant for graduate work.

When I started, I enrolled with the department of disability services on campus. I was given paperwork to outline my physical and mental struggles where I may need assistance with. I am able to have a classmate provide me with an extra set of notes; I am assured a desk that is easy for me to get in and out of. It is outlined that due to my chronic pain, chronic fatigue, anxiety, and medications, that I may struggle to get out of the house sometimes, and may miss class. This is not a free pass to miss class, and I rarely do, but it lets the teacher know if something comes up that I am unable to control and has to do with my health, they are aware I am not trying to take advantage of them. In the same vein, if I am struggling getting my work done within the time given, I may be given additional time to complete the assignment and I am given double time for quizzes and tests.

Last summer, I took two classes that were a heavy load. One of them wasn’t even in my field of study, it was in the marriage and family therapy area, so it was difficult (I still loved it). As the summer progressed, I was experiencing panic attacks with more frequency. I finished the semester extremely stressed and exhausted. There was hardly a break between the completion of summer classes and the beginning of fall classes. The fall semester was heavier still. At the university, nine credit hours, or three classes, is full-time for a graduate student. That semester, social work candidates take 15 credit hours, or five classes.

I attended every class, but I was having real difficulty keeping up. I was having panic attacks every night, and had no idea what I was learning in my classes. I literally could not remember what was covered from one class to the next. Midterm approached, and with the first few papers I was really struggling. Around this time, I also began chemotherapy treatments for my autoimmune disorder. I had to drive to a hospital an hour away to get a two hour infusion every two weeks. The days after my infusions I was exhausted and very achy all over. It felt like the flu, but 10 times worse.

I admitted to myself my class work was really about to suffer. I knew something had to be done, but I didn’t know what choices I might have. I returned to the Assistant Dean I had befriended a year earlier to tell her the situation I was in, and that I needed help. She listened with a sympathetic ear, and went into action. She offered the medical withdrawal I had refused years earlier. Because I refused that first withdrawal, when I finally was admitted to the master’s program it was conditionally. I had to earn my spot the first semester. I knew I couldn’t do that this time. If I was going to get this degree, and become a licensed social worker, I had to take this withdrawal and extend the time frame for my degree.

There was a lot of paperwork involved in the medical withdrawal. I had to fill out paperwork, the director of the program had to fill out paperwork and my doctor had to fill out paperwork. A medical withdrawal erases that semester. You do not get F’s in the classes, and it does not affect your grade-point average. The worst part of it was I was supposed to do my second internship in the spring and I couldn’t without the classes offered in the fall. The classes I needed are only offered in the fall, and the internship has to happen the following semester. So instead of graduating this May, I won’t graduate for an additional year, next May.

Almost immediately, my panic attacks stopped. I started to get used to the chemo infusions. I got into therapy and really worked on my anxiety. I adjusted my psychotropic medications. I started writing essays for The Mighty. I was able to return to school this spring. I took three classes, and even though final grades won’t be posted for another week, I know I have A’s in all my classes. I have been able to spread out some of the classes so I will only need three classes in the fall. I’ve decided not to take classes over the summer for fear of getting overwhelmed again and take a steep nosedive the next semester. I believe if that were to happen, I probably wouldn’t be able to finish my degree.

It is very important to me I finish this degree. I have committed myself wholly. I carry with me the fact it took me such a long time to finish my undergraduate degree. It took a lot to own up to my issues and to commit myself back to school after being out for so long. I was excited to do this program in the two years it’s made for, and now I’m the only one in my class to have to extend it to three. But in the end, school is where I feel I thrive. I feel better about myself  than at any other time when I’m handed back an A on a paper I poured all my efforts into. I am proud when I tell people I am in graduate school. I am excited when I think of the people I will be able to help and to champion for once I have my degree and certification.

If you are in school and are struggling, you should know about the resources you have available to you. Go speak to someone in your disability services or adaptive needs office. It only takes a letter from a doctor for you to be able to sign up for their services and support. If you are struggling to the point of failing your classes, and it’s in large part due to your disability, talk to your teachers, your disability services office, or your administration about the possibility of a medical withdrawal. It seems scary and drastic at first, but if you need extra time and support to be successful, it is not a bad thing to ask for it. In fact, it makes you brave. It means you are advocating for yourself. You deserve to have the opportunity to do your best in your program, and there are people out there who are willing to help you get there.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

Thinkstock image by Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Originally published: May 15, 2017
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