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Dropping Out of My College Program Due to Chronic Pain Does Not Make Me a 'Burnout'

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When I started college, I was in the visual arts program. It was my absolute dream, getting to spend all day exploring mediums and giving myself some time to decide what I wanted to do in the future. I knew I wasn’t a prodigy, or top of my class, but I loved the work I was doing. But pulling all-nighters more often than not, having to quit my job, the never-ending work and the pressure started to take its toll, both mentally and physically. I worked so incredibly hard to get in, and to keep my grades up to my impossibly high standards for myself. Having to give it all up, just a year later, felt like the biggest failure I could possibly imagine.

When my hands started to shake and hurt, I attributed it to my complex regional pain syndrome, figuring it had spread or the cold weather was making my symptoms worse. When my fingers started to swell, I bought some compression gloves and promptly covered them in paint while doing homework. But when they started to go from numb to hypersensitive in seconds, when the pain and spasms became so unbearable that I couldn’t hold a pencil, and when it became harder and harder to paint and draw, I decided I should probably ask my doctor about it. Within weeks of my summer, when I should’ve been celebrating the end of my first year, I had lost the ability to eat with a fork without extreme difficulty. In my summer classes, I noticed a steady decline in my handwriting, and realized towards the end that I could barely write my name. Eating soup, cutting up vegetables, all while stuck on a waitlist that would eventually tell me that this was not CRPS. That I had to start my journey for a diagnosis again, because while my old issues were CRPS, something new was going on. It felt like a punch in the gut. And that feeling hasn’t really gone away.

I’m about to finish my second month in my new program, general social sciences. I like my program, it’s fine. Some classes are good, some are boring, just like any college experience. But the shame of having left, the feeling of knowing that people think I’m a burnout, that I just couldn’t take the pressure, has not stopped hurting.

I don’t regret my decision. These days, even typing can be too hard. My hands feel like foreign objects, like I woke up and my old hands, the ones that could type at lightning speed and do intricate braids, draw human anatomy and paint, were replaced with someone else’s. I know that if I was in my old program, my pain would be even more out of control than it already is, and I would have failed. But that doesn’t make my decision easier. Because while it technically was my choice, my option, my decision to leave, it wasn’t really up to me. It’s not like I had much of a choice. Either spend a year pushing myself to do something that’s become physically impossible and ruin my GPA, or go into something that, while boring, is doable.

I still do my art. Digital art, glitch art, things I can physically do that also help me express the shakiness, distortion and forced delay between mind and body that shape my world. And I love doing it. I even make some money doing it. But as much as I love it and feel like I’m accomplishing things, I still feel like the “burnout kid” who just wasn’t willing to put the work in.

My hands have not gotten better. And right now, I’m not sure that they will. I know I won’t be going back to my overly intense fine arts program, because it’s simply not something that works for me right now. And while that feels pretty disappointing, I know it’s OK. I know if I was still there, I would be nowhere near as functional as I am now. And taking action to take care of myself, and listen to my body, is incredibly important. While I still have feelings of shame and failure, I know I’m not a burnout, and I am not a failure. My health and wellbeing is worth more than a degree.

Follow this journey on JESSM.ART.

Originally published: October 18, 2018
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