Have you ever noticed that person sitting at the back of the class? The one no one knows their name or where they come from. The one that looks older than the rest of you and kind of out of place. Well, I was that person for three years. My name is Irina and it took me 7 years to graduate from University. Nice to meet you!
I started my University experience like any other student. I had worked hard in high school to get good grades and it paid off when I got into my University and degree of choice. I continued to work hard, I made friends, went to all the parties… You could say I was doing it right. And this went on for two years.
People always say “you don’t know what you have until you lose it” but I never really understood the full meaning of this until I lost my health in 2014. It was on my third year of University that my brain started to repeatedly zoom out. It didn’t matter where I was or what I was doing; attending a class, talking to a friend, working, driving my mom’s car… from one moment to the next I just unwillingly disconnected from the situation and for a few seconds, travelled somewhere else. I travelled to my subconscious and I reviewed my own dreams. Dreams I had dreamt before would appear in my brain like from a beamer, and so I would not be able to pay attention to my surroundings anymore. This lasted for around 30 seconds and as quickly as it came, it went away. And I was left with an empty feeling, followed by painful chills starting from my head to every nerve in my body until my fingertips. And then I was back.
I didn’t really notice this was happening to me until it got SO bad, I was having 20 to 30 “episodes” per day. Obviously, I was scared because my first thought was – “Oh my God, I have a brain tumor for sure!” – followed by – “I don’t have time for a brain tumor! I’m too busy!!”. For real.
And so, I didn’t want to go to a doctor who would give me brain surgery, chemo, and who knows what else (so irresponsible, I know). But my plan B was starting an “episodes journal” where I would write down day, time and what I was doing before I had each episode. I didn’t find any pattern in my activities, but I did see that the episodes got more recurrent in a monthly basis. Kind of like my period – imagine how happy I was to have two such great things awaiting every month!
And like this the third year ended and I got a job for the summer. I guess I never noticed how stressed I actually was, trying to keep myself afloat, but my body certainly did. One moment I’m there, working normally, and the next I am sitting outside surrounded by my boss, my whole family and a paramedics who is asking me for my name. And I think really hard “what is my name?” – and I can’t remember. So she asks me how old I am. She asks me where I live. But I can’t remember any of that either. Eventually my identity came back to me and they took me to the Emergency Room, where I realized I just had an epileptic seizure. “Le grand mal” they call it. As it turns out, I’d had epilepsy all along, but a more “subtle” type, typical of childhood, characterized in absence seizures.
From this point on, things didn’t get any easier because guess what… epilepsy medication is NO FUN. That night in the hospital, I went back home like if I had drunk a whole bottle of Vodka by myself. I was SO drugged by the medication I even told my dad, who was holding me so I wouldn’t fall – “so many years of sobering up before coming home, for you to see me like this now!”. The irony of life.
Basically, I was drunk for 3 months straight until my body got used to the medication. However, I couldn’t get behind the wheel until 7 months after. As one may expect, I failed almost every exam during my fourth year, plus some others I also flunked the year before. And this is the moment where my class graduated. All my friends were suddenly gone, and I didn’t know anyone anymore. But I had to continue with my degree… because otherwise, what would I do with my life?
I was always smart before. I always had friends before. I used to be happy. But now I was flunking. I felt alone, I was sad and permanently high. I couldn’t focus anymore, I would forget literally EVERYTHING. So how can one study like this, right? You just can’t. I stopped hanging out with my friends and doing the things I liked. I unconsciously isolated myself. I sat at the back of the classes, staring at my new classmates’ backs. I didn’t really talk to any of them because I felt judged. But it was somehow easier this way. I didn’t have to talk about it, I didn’t have to admit my failures out loud.
During this time, people in University just thought I was stupid. I know this for a fact because some have told me afterwards. And sometimes, I thought so too. That I didn’t have what it takes anymore, and I didn’t belong there. Then I would always try to take my medication in front of other people, so they would know I was sick. It sounds stupid now, especially because no one ever noticed.
My brain worked differently now, and I just had to get used to it. I tried different studying techniques, to see if they would fit my new brain. Try and error basically, which added some new classes to the “to repeat” list, while removing others. I started doing yoga. And I thought to myself – “now that you kind of lost a lot of time, you should make the most of what you have left here”. And so, I started traveling, most of the time solo. I joined a student’s association. I did internships in the summers. And I slowly got to know myself again. The new damaged me. And eventually, after what seemed like A LONG time, I ended liking what I saw. I had grown, I was stronger. And more importantly, I learned how resilient I can be.
I learned so much from what happened during that time. For starters, I should have taken some time off University. Because really, just struggling against the current when I was obviously not fit didn’t help much. I would advise to anyone in a remotely similar situation to TAKE TIME OFF. Take care of yourself, you are the only you there is.
In addition, you should always seek for help. I should have opened up about my battle to my friends and my family and I should have asked for their support. Professional help is also important. There is a big stigma in seeing a therapist, maybe because we don’t take mental health as seriously as physical health, a study by the King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry published in 2013 suggests. But I know it would have helped me a lot and that is why I now listen to the doctors and health professionals and always take their advice and recommendations.
If I made it through this, I can make ANYTHING happen. This is now my superpower.