Despite Nothing

“You were so ill.”

“You got 3 hours of sleep in a week.”

“You sat an exam with bloods that should have had you in resus.”

“You didn’t fail a single thing despite everything you went through and were going through.”

“How are you even still alive, let alone still at uni AND through to second year?”

“Despite your health you did great.”

No. I set standards for myself and I fell short of them. Everyone else I know from our course got a first at the end of year one. A lot of them just about scraped an overall average of 70% or above. And I averaged out below 70. I haven’t calculated the exact number, it’s a comfortable/ high 2:1 (mid – high 60s), but all I could think was that the deputy head of my school was right back in November when he said that I was capable of a first but my health was going to stop me getting one, and that for that reason I should take time out until my health improved (news flash – it isn’t going to, so I’d just never come back I guess). All I could hear replaying in my mind was four different lecturers saying:

There’s no reason you shouldn’t get a first.

I will be VERY surprised if you don’t get a first.

Something will have to go horribly wrong for you not to get a first, given all you’ve been going through while consistently producing firsts all year. 

You’ll get a first (my anatomy lecturer said this to me, after I almost died in an anatomy lab, was rushed to hospital in an ambulance, and still managed to get a solid first in the work from that practical… And then got the second highest mark in a “clicker test” while having missed well over half of the lectures. He was impressed. I told him this would not be maintained) In fact, I’m so sure you’ll get a first that if you don’t I’ll shout. 

I said I wouldn’t. I tried to say I wouldn’t, and they said that they’d seen plenty of students and knew well enough to see that I was more than capable of getting a first. I couldn’t explain the impact my health was starting to have, the situations elsewhere that were stressing me out and my overwhelming fear of the university turning around and kicking me out because I wasn’t fit to be there or some rubbish.

But I’m disappointed. My health isn’t an excuse. It isn’t me. I don’t care why I fell short, I fell short. No excuses.

Everybody I told was impressed. They tried to talk away my disappointment in myself and replace it with their own viewpoint.

My argument was:

Without the circumstances I was in around exams, I could have done better and I’m so frustrated because I KNOW I was capable

My friends in response were all:

But… you did have those circumstances and it’s impressive that you even made it to your exams with them, forget passing them or getting a high 2:1 overall at the end of such an awful year where you missed over HALF of all the taught programmes. It’s even impressive to see you walking again and looking so much better… You look like a different person. I’ve honestly never seen you look so well (this is ironic, for reasons you will discover later in this post).

This wasn’t something I could be talked out of, and nobody could understand why I had any reason to be disappointed. But they look at me and see illness, and I look at myself and  see the person they all overlook. I see who I was. I see somebody who is capable and when that same person in the mirror doesn’t achieve the things I know she is capable of (for whatever reason) it feels like a personal failure. My health isn’t an excuse to me. It isn’t. It is my normal and I should learn to adapt and achieve with it. Not despite it. I do everything despite nothing. I achieve things with my health issues. There’s a difference in that outlook that people don’t seem to understand.

Let me feel it, let me get lost in it, let me get up from it and move on. Don’t drag it out by telling me that the way I feel is stupid so that I bury it and let it eat away at me. Let me have this. I’m disappointed. But I need this, this experience, because it feels like a catalyst. My health stole the first that my mind was capable of getting. Or did it? That’s what everyone is telling me. I fall short, it’s what I do. For a few minutes I spiralled into self loathing and was very, very low. Because I needed to let that reaction pass. And it did. By the time Bastille was playing through my headphones as I walked to meet Uni Portsmouth Friend in her new flat, I was even more determined to be normal – and that determination was fuelled by a fire, an anger. I am not getting ill(er) again. It (my health) isn’t taking anything else. It can take all of me, or it can leave my life alone.

I let so many people down. But mostly, I let myself down. And it’s “fine” because I nearly died an awful lot of times throughout the last uni year, and I’m the “ill” one. But it isn’t. It isn’t fine at all. I don’t want people to be amazed “despite” something. People lower their expectations of me because of my health and I am done with that. I’m done. The pressure of being top of the class all the way through secondary school was awful, but it pushed me on and made the bullying worth it. I guess that’s the person I am. There was always so much pressure on me from all angles within school to perform well because it was expected of me, and now I put that same pressure on myself by default. There was a lot of pressure on me here at uni to perform well also. And knowing they were wrong didn’t stop me latching onto their words due to a desperate fear that I’d be letting everyone down if I didn’t achieve what they expected (I’d only just become comfortable with the realisation that I wasn’t going to do as well as I wanted, and then they reversed all of that). If you take my health out of the equation, people would be like “You’re the only person I could think of who didn’t get a first” or they’d remind me about our course mate who went to no lectures and somehow got a first. They’d see where I was thinking from. But people don’t detach me from my health. And it may sound stupid for me to be so hung up on this, but sometimes sweating the small stuff is better than being crushed by the big stuff.

There were two ways I could go with this – give up on second year and decide I was screwed before I even started (not going to lie, I almost did this) but I took the other road. I opened the university’s online resource, and I found the lecture slides for the three hours of lectures that I have on Monday (2 hours of human & molecular biology – that may or may not be the name of the module – and cardiac and respiratory physiology – anatomy & physiology were my favourite modules last year, and this is literally my favourite area of physiology to study – there’s an anatomically accurate drawing of a heart on my wall that I did the other day for goodness sake!) I read through the slides and made notes on an hour’s worth.

And then it happened.

I’d been in bed all day other than when I went to meet Portsmouth Uni Friend. I was sleepy, I thought from my night out last night (even though I got back two hours earlier than I would usually go to sleep). Suddenly a wave of awfulness swept over me – the unmistakable feel and taste of acidosis. I get no warning until I’m basically acidotic, and my body gave up compensating and it hit me hard.

There was a moderate panic sweeping through me. I laid there, and I could see the injection I needed (in order to stand any chance of stopping it) sat on the end of my bed, but I couldn’t move at all. I realised I had a problem. Usually I’d probably accept that this was going to end badly and flick over into a resigned state of feeling like everything was pointless. But I want to uni and life and so this time there was panic, panic because lectures started the day after tomorrow (or, as I’m writing this, tomorrow) and I didn’t want to miss any at all.

Hong Kong Uni Friend got back from her family’s home in Paris, and I’d said I would meet her at 11pm. By that stage, I wasn’t just dizzy, I felt like I was about to lose consciousness. I was holding back the urge to throw up everywhere, which meant I was definitely acidotic because that doesn’t happen until my pH is below a certain value. I cursed the universe a little bit. My limbs felt out of control. My brain had that horrible feeling you get when you’re far too drunk. I somehow managed to grab the injection, did the biggest dose it was sensible to give into a vein (I needed IVs, I wasn’t going anywhere near a place where I could get them, so I improvised), and then as I felt myself starting to pass out, I hoped I’d done enough to wake up. I almost called an ambulance. I could have and definitely should have, but I couldn’t – they’d have put me in resus and I’d have ended up with a central line and I’d have had to see doctors and face up to my health again and I’m not ready for any of that. There was a mental block there. NOPE. It did make me realise that I should probably tell the staff at my accommodation about my health issues (as they requested of everyone before we moved in).

I did wake up. I didn’t know how to stand, let alone walk. It took me a long time to pull on a pair of jeans, and I was freezing cold and seriously dehydrated, so I shoved on a large hoody and downed a pint of water in one go (which appeased the thirst for about five seconds afterwards). My heart was racing, because it gets very annoyed at acidosis. I looked grey.

I made it to the front of the building to meet Hong Kong Uni Friend, holding the walls along the corridor to stop myself falling over or zig-zagging all over the place. The two of us sat on the pavement on Mile End Road with our backs against the building we live in while Hong Kong Uni Friend smoked fancy French cigarettes. She looked like a different person, so much better but still fighting the voice of her eating disorder that made her feel huge when she was still so dangerously thin. I won’t tell you about what it put her through this summer, it isn’t my story to tell, but she almost couldn’t return because of how physically unwell she became through it. I wish there was more easily accessible support for people recovering from eating disorders, it’s such a difficult process.

We talked for ages, and it was nice. The fresh air was much appreciated (although thick with cigarette smoke) and gradually I started to feel less like death. She had to buy eggs, so we walked a tiny way to the shop just past the bottom of our building. Portsmouth Uni Friend bought me a melon and chicken & bacon tortellini earlier on in the day after I took her on a tour of my EMPTY accommodation building (seriously there’s never anybody anywhere – I talked to Hong Kong Uni Friend about it because she’s lived there for a year, and she nodded and was all “Yeah. Like you like being alone but you don’t like being lonely?” exactly – I like being alone because I chose to be, not because I have to be). Hong Kong Uni Friend bought me an expensive ready meal and a big bottle of lemonade. I cannot get over how amazing my friends are being. I don’t want them to buy things for me, it makes me feel awful and embarrassed and pathetic and ashamed  of myself. But they seem pretty insistent on helping out and don’t even want any money back in return. They say they probably owe me and they know I’d do the same. Hong Kong Uni Friend said it’s just what friends do. I can’t believe how many true friends I have. I am blown away by their kindness and generosity and it is an honour and a privilege to call them my friends. They are making me feel ALL the feels.

I went back to my room (after briefly seeing Hong Kong Uni Friend’s room with a view of… not Canary Wharf – I don’t even know what we were looking out over). Hong Kong Uni Friend was for some reason pretty amazed with my heart drawing. She was even more amazed that I drew it with my non-dominant hand and simply said, “Dude, is there anything you can’t do?” (Get a first at the end of my first year like EVERYONE expected me to? Successfully human?) She left me, and I lay on the bed and I couldn’t move. My limbs felt like jelly and I hardly had the energy required to breathe. I was seeing weird shapes and flashes, and my eyes couldn’t focus on anything. I felt so unwell (you know how unwell I have to be in order to call it unwell). And I didn’t have time for that. I’m not seeing any of my consultants or health teams (other than my cardiologist, because I want to run again, and I was meant to call him if I passed out but NOPE what he doesn’t know he can’t stress about or limit me with).

I lay there with J+J podcasts and a few vlogs playing in the background, and I lay there helplessly, too unwell by this stage even to panic… And I started to think about Bob Jr. (my insulin pump) I haven’t seen him since I disconnected myself for my surgery. I normally do about 8 injections a day if Bob Jr. is in, but without him I’ve been doing SO many more, easily double that, probably even more. It was a random thing to think about, but it distracted my brain until I moved on to going over what I’d just learned in the lecture slides (C-values, DNA melting, DNA reannealing…).

Swim trials are this evening. I won’t be going to those. I need to just spend the day in bed and I know I do. I feel rough. My body will take a while to recover. Last year I lived in denial and pushed on through states like this. Right now I know that if I want to be able to get on with lectures tomorrow and make it through the week, I need to take this time out to let my body get over itself. It is an idiot, and it is holding me back right now and getting in the way of my swimming aims, but I need to listen to it this time. I want this year of university too bad.

I’m never achieving despite something again. Nobody really has any idea how unwell I have been or how serious situations got (apart from my uni parents, who were there through the start of it) I don’t want a year like the last. This stops here and now.

I’m passing those exams at the end of this year “despite” nothing. And I now have reason to work for it and an improvement to make.

No way but through.

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4 thoughts on “Despite Nothing

  1. Let me give you a different perspective. It’s not better, or right, just different. I had lots of times where I had to choose studying for one subject over another- whether I liked it more, the teacher was better, or the exam was a larger percent of my overall course grade. I’ve gotten 97% on major tests. I’ve gotten 31% on major tests. Some classes were on a curve, others weren’t. Some final grades truly reflected my learning, others did not.

    I graduated 8 years ago, and I can STILL tell you which exams and courses I aced or bombed. But the only thing that actually matters is 1) how much I actually knew and retained of the information, and 2) how well I was able to go to the next course in the sequence and apply that knowledge.

    You didn’t get a first. That sucks, because you did know the information and you are smart. The only way out is through – take the knowledge you have but couldn’t show and kick butt this year.

    And if you don’t get a first this year? Same thing. One of the running jokes in my world is, “What do you call a med student who gets all C’s (75% agter the curve)?” Doctor.

    Not sure this makes sense, and I do see where you don’t want to succeed despite. But don’t forget that you wouldn’t be where you are without your health hiccups. You want to pursue this field to do better than those who treated you. You know acidosis far better than I ever will (be careful with your potassium please though), no matter how many classes I take.

    Now I’m just rambling. Whoops.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think what gets to me is that this was the best I had to give and at the same time so far from it for reasons I couldn’t control. And that frustrates me, falling short because of stuff that almost meant I had to leave my university. I felt like the whole year was an uphill struggle because of my health, but I’d been doing well. The frustration happens and it passes. I think that’s healthy because if I stood there and said “well my health…” I think I’d do exactly the same next year. If I hadn’t had chance to prepare properly because I hadn’t been bothered, people would have no sympathy and tell me it was my own fault. I guess my REAL issue is that people are using my health as an excuse FOR me and offering buckets of sympathy and comments about how amazing it is, and that doesn’t make me feel any better to have not reached my goal. In fact, knowing that people lower their expectations of me because of my health… It just saddens me a little, that I become this person in their eyes who isn’t my true self. And sympathy is much appreciated but it makes me very embarrassed 😂

      Anyway, I stop, I feel rubbish about it, I let that feeling out, and I move on. That’s just what I do. I think it’s healthier to feel this way then to not. I’m happy with the grade I got don’t get me wrong. I’m just also frustrated with it as I don’t feel it’s a true reflection of me and nobody else seems to think so because I “am ill”

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  2. You’re mourning the loss of what you should have been capable of doing. It doesn’t mean you don’t realize you did well given the circumstances – it means you cannot feel okay about it right now. I think mourning losses is healthy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s such a better way of putting it! Thanks for this, everybody I’ve talked to about it just thinks I’m being stupid. But you’ve hit the nail on the head with this comment! Thank you for taking the time for write it, and for understanding I guess ☺️ it is all much appreciated 👍

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