It’s December. Holiday music peals through the air, and the hallways are decked in reds, greens, golds and silvers. The anticipation for the end of the year hangs in the air, breathing down the napes of necks and nipping at the ankles of passersby. For many adults, December means the holidays and family and endless food. For me, the eternal student, December means finals, deadlines and endless stress. But there’s yet another hat I get to wear. The eternal patient. For the eternal patient, December also means doctor’s appointments, medications and endless pain.
Having an invisible stress-related chronic condition means that not only does my disease flare up when I need it the least, but also people rarely believe me or my body’s horrible timing (I can hardly believe it myself). Like a group project partner from hell, my body not only decided it’s not going to cooperate, but also accidentally deleted all the progress we made up until that point.
While life can sometimes happen unpredictably, having a chronic illness takes some of unpredictability out. I know that, come December, I am likely going to need some help finishing up the semester. This is where MIT’s institutional resources come in to help — the team member you never knew you had. MIT’s institutional resources exist to help students, but sometimes, the process of asking for help can be an ordeal in and of itself. Like MIT itself, institutional resources are splayed across the campus and hidden under a myriad of acronyms and an unintelligible numbering system. Which… can be frustrating on a normal day but especially so when you are desperate, short on time and emotionally and mentally (and often also physically) exhausted.
Because I am a scientist, I have conducted several iterations of trial and error (another one of the joys of chronic illnesses). I have found that seeking help in the following order has yielded the greatest success for me.
Step 1. A meeting with a dean at the Office of Graduate Education
Because it is ALWAYS harder to handle countless meetings, paperwork and emails when you’re not feeling well, I urge anyone out there who suffers from chronic illnesses or mental disorders to reach out to these resources in the beginning of the semester and establish a relationship with the wonderful people at the Office of Graduate Education sooner rather than later. The deans in the Office of Graduate Education are like therapists that understand the ins and outs of MIT and academia. The Office of Graduate Education can reach out to faculty members on your behalf and offer institutional support for any academic requests you have. They act as a sort of a stamp of approval adding legitimacy to anything you may need given your unique circumstances. At the end of the day, however, the Office of Graduate Education can only make suggestions. The only institutional resource that can make demands based on a documented medical condition is Student Disability Services. Which brings me to my next point:
Step 2. A meeting with a dean at Student Disability Services
Student Disability Services (SDS) is located in the same offices as Student Support Services (S^3). I remember when I first went to the SDS office, my chest tightened with anxiety and doubt. Forget second thoughts — I was on 5th/6th thoughts by the time they finally called my name for my meeting. Why was I requesting disability services when I looked just like everyone else around me and could walk, talk and, for the most part, pretend to be normal? However, as soon as I walked into their office and talked about my chronic condition, the dean immediately told me what accommodations MIT could provide. A wave of relief washed over me at just the thought of how these accommodations would improve my quality of life. I felt myself exhale a breath I didn’t even know I was holding. But, it took me a few weeks after this meeting to truly feel like I deserved what I had been given. I learned to accept that just because I looked like everyone around me… I wasn’t. I was different. I had a chronic illness. I didn’t think it was fair to have special accommodations, but it also wasn’t fair that I had to live with a disease for the rest of my life.
Step 3. Speaking to the teaching staff of any and all courses
The thought of admitting weakness to my real-life superheroes, my professors, filled me with dread. I wanted more than anything to be seen as a golden pupil, their ideal student; not the sickly student that always required a little extra time and attention. The first time I had to request special accommodations on an exam, the Office of Graduate Education and Student Disability Services flooded the inboxes of my professors with institutional jargon and official paperwork. While I did not owe anyone an explanation for my medical conditions, it felt wrong to allow my identity as a student to be buried under electronic communications from institutional services rather than speaking for myself. Professors appreciate having a face to attach to a name — remember, they are only human themselves. They are not, however, required to believe you. I learned this lesson the hard way, which is why it is important to have any conversations with a professor only AFTER you have already spoken with the Office of Graduate Education or Student Disability Services. In many cases, you can also request a dean from either of these offices to be present at any conversations you’d like to have with faculty.
Step 4. Speaking to your advisor and labmates
This brings me to my final point.
Not everyone will believe you.
Not everyone will understand.
And that’s okay.
I learned that I do not need the world to understand what I deal with on a daily basis. But people are surprisingly more understanding than we give them credit for. The more information they have, the easier it is for them to be understanding when your life starts feeling like a literal dumpster fire. This is especially important in the case of your advisor and the people you work most closely with. I was truly touched by how caring my labmates were when I told them and how they treated me with just as much respect as before. My advisor told me that if I ever needed extra time to just let him know. Sometimes being honest with the people around you relieves more of our mental burden than we realize.
I walk down the infinite toward my meeting at the Office of Graduate Education. Billboards decked out with posters advertising holiday concerts line the walls, the intoxicating smell of hot chocolate wafts through the air, and, for the first time, it’s December and I’m filled not with anxiety or dread… but hope. While December might still mean doctor’s appointments, medications, finals, and deadlines, I learned that it doesn’t need to mean endless stress and endless pain. There is no roadmap for navigating chronic illnesses, or a PhD at MIT, or the tangled road that results from having to do both at the same time. But, luckily, there are friendly, lovely people to redirect you along the way if you know how (and when) to ask for their help.