Hi, my name’s Emma

– Originally published in Palatinate, May 7th 2016 [including print edition] –

Hi, my name’s Emma. I’m a Durham student and I have a myriad of health problems. Doesn’t this feel a little bit like an AA meeting already? As if I’m going to confess my deepest darkest secrets, with an added sprinkle of despair. Nah, let’s not go for that. Let’s just be honest.

So: I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, scoliosis, kyphosis and some other more minor things. I’ve written blog posts before about the experience of having major spinal surgery when I was a kid and the continuing problems my back causes me. However, only about 1% of people have scoliosis at all, and even more rare is to have it bad enough to compress your lungs and leave you struggling to breathe and under the knife within a year of diagnosis.

Fatigue is perhaps something you might be able to identify with better. My sister has CFS, and there are so many different causes of fatigue, which is a symptom of my EDS too. The potential for fatigue isn’t something you can measure when you sit at home surrounded by university prospectuses, with ten different futures sprawled out on the bed in front of you. All you can see is a list of bursaries in one and pretty campus buildings in another – the documents all pretty pictures and slogans.

So I chose Durham. A city reasonably close to home, meaning short visits to see my family would be viable or having the opportunity to have a rest in my own bed wouldn’t be too hard. A city that boasts a UNESCO World Heritage Site and some of the best coffee shops in the North East. It is also a city, and a university, that can be difficult to navigate with health problems.

I can almost hear you shouting your objections through the computer screen. But I should have known, shouldn’t I? The hills, they were clear from the start. Yes, yes they were. So I chose a Bailey college, nestled close to Elvet Riverside and Tesco. It would be hard to go wrong with that, right?

But then came the treacherous minefield that was trying to find somewhere to live for second year, with the vast gulf between the even halfway decent houses close to the city centre and the amount my group had budgeted. I had to be near the city centre; Gilesgate or Neville’s Cross wasn’t an option.

Turns out, surprisingly enough, that the even kind of reasonably priced houses close to the city centre usually have some pretty major problems, or had been snatched up far too quickly for a fresher to stand a chance. So this year, I’m living close enough to my lectures and the library but in a house that leaves quite a bit to be desired. Never mind. I’m sure every second year is paying out thousands for a place that doesn’t quite meet their needs.

Having health problems that limit my energy levels have affected my choices for third year too. Luckily, my college are wonderful and are making sure that I’ll have a place there. Living in is a much easier option, and might just stop me resorting to takeaways when I’m completely exhausted.

Until now I’ve tried to avoid talking about how my degree itself is affecting my health, because I know that it is. Trying to write 10,000 words of readable essays over the Christmas holidays, when I was just trying to recover from the intensity of Michaelmas term wasn’t easy. Whispered phone calls home late at night when I’m so exhausted that I don’t know how I’m going to finish the next assignment, never mind return those library books (heads up to any history students out there, you’ll be waiting a while for that book you recalled…)

You can’t see it. Any of it. Apart from the little panda circles under my eyes and the remaining sliver of a curve to my back you’d only see if I made the dubious decision of wearing a bodycon dress to lectures. But they don’t really count. The symptoms rather than the problem.

Still, things are looking up. It’s the end of term, almost. Twelve thousand words to go and I’ll almost be free, for this summer at least. Fatigue can feel like spiralling circles, with no way back up to the well rested person you were, but it can also dissipate and leave you remembering just how good things can be.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had any serious written work, I’ve taken it a little easy this week and right now I’m feeling a little bit better.

That’s something.

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