For People with Multiple Sclerosis Who Are Going to School

Recently, I posted a blog for parents with MS who are sending their kids back to school, entitled Back to School Time and Multiple Sclerosis. Indeed, this is a rather hectic time for parents and it comes with certain stresses.
However, these stresses are magnified and very different for the person with MS who is also the student heading back to school. Many people with MS attend school, whether they are young people with MS who are attending college or high school, or older people in graduate school or returning to college at a later age.
I was finishing up my graduate degree when I was diagnosed with MS and had been experiencing symptoms for several years before my diagnosis. Although I wasn't sure what was wrong with me, I knew that I had to do things differently around school than I had in my younger college days.
Here are some tips that I can offer students with MS:
Plan your schedule strategically. To the extent possible, arrange your classes around your MS. Take your classes during those times of day that are your best times in terms of fatigue and other symptoms. Breaks between classes are good, but if you take classes back-to-back, try to schedule those that are in the same building, or at least close to each other. Ideally, you could have a day off each week, or a couple of really light days. In other words, look at your schedule realistically and imagine how it will be to go through it day after day. You may have to delay taking a certain class until next semester or next year to make it work – that is okay. You will get more out of school with a sensible class load and schedule. 
Don't overload yourself. On a related note, don't max out your credits. I never learned my lesson on this one. Sure, it all worked when I was in college and had the stamina to take an overloaded schedule. However, in graduate school, I would still add extra classes just because I could – after all, I had paid for them in my tuition and they sounded interesting. I ended up getting less out of my education by doing this, as I was always frantic (and always tired), trying to keep up with the work by doing the bare minimum. I always felt stressed out and I know this made me feel worse physically. Perhaps had I known I had MS in those early days of grad school, I would have been more sensible and taken a normal load of classes.
Make friends to study with and share notes with. There may be days where you don't feel good enough to go to class. Or, even if you do make it, cognitive issues may get in the way of taking adequate notes or following the lecture completely. A good friend will be invaluable in sharing notes and studying with.
No more "all-nighters" are allowed. I remember how disoriented I felt after staying up all night to finish a project when I was an 18-year-old college freshman. I did that a couple of times in grad school and it took me out of commission for a couple of days. Just don't do it. Plan ahead to get your work done on time. Have a strict schedule and stick to it. People with MS cannot afford to abuse themselves by losing a night's sleep.
Decide if you want to share your MS diagnosis with your professors. Although I found out about my MS at the very end of graduate school, had I known earlier, I would have had private conversations with certain professors about my diagnosis. I probably would not have brought it up to the profs that taught the large classes in the lecture halls. However, for my smaller classes that demanded me to be consistently sharp and prepared, it might have been a good thing to let the professor know that I was not falling asleep out of boredom or that my occasionally unsteady walk was due to MS and not caused by drinking the night before. You may also want to explain why you were or may be absent on occasion. Before you disclose your MS status, though, make sure you know what your reason is for doing so.
The bottom line is that school can be pretty hectic and stressful for most people, but for people with MS, this needs to be reduced as much as possible. You will feel better if you can "do school" in a calm, strategic way, and this will lead to a better all-around experience.

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Julie Stachowiak, PhD

Julie is the author of the Multiple Sclerosis Manifesto, the winner of the 2009 ForeWord Book of the Year Award in the Health Category. She is an epidemiologist who is also a person living with MS, Julie has an in-depth understanding about current research and scientific developments around MS. She also has first-hand knowledge of the frustrations and anxiety surrounding the disease, as she had MS for at least 15 years before receiving a diagnosis in 2003 and has had several relapses since her diagnosis.