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It May Have Taken a Decade Thanks to Lupus, but I Finally Completed My Master's Degree

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So I came to graduate school a little later than many in my class. Unlike many teachers in my Masters of Music Education program in the summer of 2005, it had been 11 long years since I’d been in a formal academic setting. It showed when I pulled out my stack of fresh notebooks and sharpened pencils and everyone else began to power up their laptops! Despite this, I made some wonderful friends and together we laughed, cried and struggled through those grueling, long, late nights and weekends of studying.

At that point, I’d only been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and “something autoimmune, maybe mixed connective tissue disease, looks kind of like lupus but…” I’ll spare those of you who have been through the years of testing and doctors and hell of uncertainty. I was in that period and wasn’t in the mood to deal with my health. Anything new we blamed on the fibromyalgia and that was fine with me. I couldn’t deal with another doctor or more uncertainty. Little did I know what I was in for.

After my first summer of grad school, the timing was right for our second child and we were lucky enough to be blessed with our daughter. The pregnancy was very rough and I went into a terrible flare in my second trimester requiring a month of bed rest and a course of prednisone for the rest of the pregnancy. My daughter is a tough, resilient female who will take over the world one day. I always say it’s because she had to be from the start. We were blessed with her arrival right before the summer so I missed the next summer of classes.

This was also the beginning of the end of being able to blame it all on the fibromyalgia. I began seeing my now beloved rheumatologists and the word “lupus” began to creep into the conversation. I began to take classes again in the summer but the work was getting harder and harder to focus on as reading scholarly journals is nearly impossible through the fog (heck, People magazine is hard to focus on in a fog) and the fatigue had me wiped out while trying to take care of a baby and toddler.

Somehow the work got done and all that was left was the thesis and orals and then bam, lupus decided to enter with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and upend my world forever.

The next seven years were spent in one long horrific flare (38 separate stays in the “white coat hotel” a.k.a. hospital, too many doctors and medicines to mention) and yet I kept trying to finish this damn degree. I hated how it hung over my head like this unfinished sentence, taunting me.

I somehow continued to teach music (while maxing out sick time plus a lot of FMLA) while presenting at conferences and raising my amazing children. I tried a few times to restart my thesis and each time my health would cause me to have to withdraw and I’d feel like a failure. Ashamed that once again I’d been betrayed by my own body.

Then, this summer, with the guidance of my advisor, it happened. We chose a topic I’ve been researching and presenting on for years and with a ridiculous amount of work (and a tremendous support system. I’ve written some articles about my friends and amazing husband. You might want to check them out), in August my major capstone project was completed!! (See, wait long enough and the curriculum changes and you can do either a thesis or capstone. Gotta look on the bright side of these things!)

All that left was my oral exams. Now, I can talk. Ask anyone who knows me, I can talk. But of the most frustrating things about lupus and fibromyalgia is that damn brain fog. Would my brain let me down at the crucial moment I needed it? Would I forget my major points and get flustered? Would I get sick and not be able to go?

I rehearsed my speeches to and from work every day for six weeks, answering potential questions and trying to anticipate what they would throw at me. By now you’ve guessed. I passed. Not only did I pass, I passed with honors!! I almost burst into tears when the committee told me.

author's husband and two children waiting outside for her with balloons

Outside waiting for me were my husband, two children and mom, holding balloons, sparkling cider and huge smiles. Over a decade after I started, I completed my degree. I no longer feel the shame of that “is working towards” hanging over my head. Something I thought lupus had stolen from me, my dreams of walking across that stage, being able to know I’d finished what I started, is now complete.

woman smiling with her mom

Saturday, May 12th I will walk in commencement. Who knows if I will use a cane that day, rolling walker or my own two feet unassisted. But I will walk across that stage and hold my head high having yet again conquered an obstacle, despite lupus.

Originally published: January 26, 2018
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