Graduate school is an enormous feat for any student. Many graduate students may be employed, have children, or may even be dealing with serious health issues while attending graduate school. I, personally, fit in each of those categories. I’m currently a graduate student pursuing a Master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling. I’m also a mother to a ten year old energetic son, and I’m dealing with health issues as well.

My experience

When I was nineteen years old I was diagnosed with Lupus SLE. About 10 years later I was also diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. At that time there was very little research into Lupus, an autoimmune disease. There were mainly treatments with large doses of prednisone.

My family was told on many occasions to make preparations for my passing. I felt discouraged many times, but my family and more importantly God never gave up on me. I was still in undergrad and had to drop classes twice due to flare ups and hospital stays.

You may be wondering, what exactly is a flare up? A flare up is when symptoms of your disease tend to exacerbate when triggered by certain stressors. For me, stress often causes flares. Also, the excessive exposure to the sun seems to do the trick as well. The triggers and time frame of a flare differ from person to person. As with many chronic illnesses, each person’s experience may vary. I thought I’d never graduate, and my undergraduate grade point average suffered as a result.

I still succeeded in spite of bouts with lethargy, periods of not walking, comas, excessive weight gain, and more. I walked across that stage. Finally, I made it!  Now I find myself attempting to conquer graduate school, balance my personal life, and manage my chronic illness.

I’ve found my own personal ways to manage chronic illness while attending graduate school. The tools and interventions I use aren’t necessarily used in any particular order. I may use one or two simultaneously if I feel the need to do so. The main goal was to find helpful outlets and use what I found to improve my overall well-being. I’ve incorporated these outlets into almost every aspect of my life, and they’ve been very beneficial for me.

Putting self and family first

It took me years to figure out that you have to take time for yourself and your family. Early in my career I was constantly burning the midnight oil. After I was diagnosed with lupus and pulmonary hypertension I had to really take a step back and reevaluate some things. I slowed down but still kept a steady pace in my career. The job was not an easy one in the beginning, but I was determined to stick with it.

I really stopped in my tracks and put things in perspective once my son was born. Spending time with my son is a non-negotiable priority. I don’t want to miss any of the highlights in his life. I don’t take work home with me anymore. I had to really be consistent with maintaining a healthy balance between my home life, graduate school, and work.

The demands of it all can be overwhelming at times, but I learned to meditate and just sit in silence. I noticed that it calmed me and eased any lingering tensions. Frequent massages are always good to reduce stress, and they’ve even got massage chairs in the mall that are more cost efficient! A warm bubble bath with aroma candles and essential oils always hits the spot after a long day.

Your health has to be a priority, not an afterthought

People are often bogged down with day-to-day activities and ignore vital warning signs of fatigue or stress on their body. Whenever my body would feel run down or overexerted I would make myself slow down before it got out of hand. I made sure to keep my regular doctor’s appointments, and I kept my medical team well informed about any changes in my body.

I exercise 3 or 4 times a week by walking or taking a Zumba class. When I’d get a break after one of my classes, I’d just walk around the campus and count the steps on my Fit bit. It’s important to give your body the attention it needs, and at times being sedentary in a class all day can wear the body down.

The walk will give you a chance to stretch your muscles and reenergize. Having an autoimmune disease means preparing for the ever changing seasons. Don’t wait to the last minute to get flu or pneumonia shots. Prepare yourself for flu season ahead of time. You’ve got to stay well enough to attend class and meet your other obligations.

Organize and Prioritize

The demands of a graduate program can be very stressful. I’ve learned to prioritize things in my life to help decrease confusion and the need for last minute quick fixes. Balancing the demands of your own personal life and pursuing higher education can be a tricky one.

It’s important to remain ahead of the game at all times if possible. I do my best to work ahead and give myself time to study and complete upcoming assignments. I also figure my son’s weekly activities and needs into my schedule as well.

I prep snacks and meals over the weekend so that I have more time to study, exercise, etc. I prioritize what’s important, and what’s not can simply wait for the next checklist! I don’t try to build Rome in a day. I keep a planner where I list all important due dates, appointments, and contact information. It has definitely been a handy tool to have. Try the dry erase boards and calendars also. I have a few at work and home that help me to remain organized.

Utilize Your Support System

Lastly, pull in your supports! I’m very fortunate to have friends and family that offer support whenever I need it. Supports can be formal or informal. Many states have support groups that offer resources and aid for individuals with specific chronic illnesses. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk to others who understand what you’re going through. We can’t be strong 24/7. There are times when we need others to comfort or support us. Don’t let pride keep you from asking for help.

Pets are also great supports as well. A lot of people find it easier to connect and spend time with their pets. If it brings you comfort, then by all means curl up on the couch with your furry friend! Either way, don’t take on so much by yourself. Bend someone’s ear if need be. Grab a good ole’ bear hug if you need it. Most importantly, use your supports!

I hope reading about some of my own personal experiences and the interventions I use to manage my chronic illness while in graduate school helps you all in some way. You may want to begin your own personal plan to keep you on track while you’re in graduate school. Just remember to take care of yourself, put your medical needs at the top of your list, prioritize, organize, and use your supports as often as you can. You’ve got this! Good luck!


Carisa Powell
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