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An Open Letter to My Teachers Who Didn't Try to Understand My Illnesses

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Maybe it’s just me, possibly curiosity or a strange type of interest, but when I find out someone I know has an illness or disability, I research it. I find out what it is and how it affects them. Like I said, maybe it’s just me being curious, but maybe it’s also me trying to care, to find out how I can help them or just be able to understand it better so I don’t do what others have done to me.

After spending a year out of education, I restarted at a different college at the same time everyone I knew was heading off to university. When I met with my new tutor, I explained my medical conditions, letting her know that sometimes I just won’t have the energy to come into college. Her response was simply, “As long as you don’t take the piss” (which meant as long as I didn’t take advantage of the situation). Now, anyone with a chronic illness knows we don’t “take the piss.” We want to be in college like everyone else, we want to learn and we want to have a future, too. If anything, I think we are less likely to “take advantage” than anyone else because of how grateful we are for the days that we feel slightly healthier than normal. I looked past her ignorance and the first six months went smoothly.

Now coming towards the end of my first year, my teachers should know me relatively well. I’ve tried to keep my attendance high, only missing days for hospital appointments. Recently, my cardiologist told me I most likely have another illness called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), which is commonly seen among those with gastroparesis like me. Unfortunately, this meant that I couldn’t join my class on a trip to a university. So I let my teacher know about the potential diagnosis, only to find the next day that she wanted me to see the school nurse. While walking down with her, she explained that another student also has POTS but she is “clearly more severe than you.” Now, teachers, here’s a lesson for you: Please never say this to anyone with any sort of illness. Sure, she might have different symptoms to me or “seem” more ill, but that’s why it’s an invisible illness. You don’t know about my extremely high heart rate or how dizzy I get when I stand up. Everybody is different.

In the past week, two of my teachers have asked me in front of the rest of the class, “Is it contagious?” Possibly I was just naïve to think teachers would understand that my chronic illnesses weren’t going to spread to anyone else, because maybe I thought you had looked them up to have an understanding of them.

selfie of girl wearing a feeding tube and exercise clothes
Fi when she had a Peg-J feeding tube.

Some days there will be bad days where I won’t feel 100 percent, but please don’t say to me like you have before, “Give us a smile” or “You’re acting like you’ve got a black cloud over your head.” Again, I thought that because of your background in health and social care that you’d have empathy and compassion for how I’m feeling on those bad days.

As a teacher, you are sometimes given access to personal information about a student, possibly even including their medical conditions for safety purposes, and also extra help, especially if that student is at risk of missing a lot of school. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not expecting you to become a doctor or medical expert, but it would be nice for you to take five minutes to do some research. Find out what it is, how it affects them and then look at how you can help them as a teacher. Can you offer them extra support? Or even if you can’t, just have an understanding. Trust me, the student will be grateful you took those five minutes to understand them.

But thank you to my teachers, because now I know how to not speak to someone with a chronic illness or any condition. You’ve taught me to accept everyone’s bad days. You’ve taught me hope, because one day I hope you’ll look back on it and act differently next time you’re talking to someone like me with a chronic illness.

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 1, 2016
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