Young woman with narcolepsy looks exhausted in the library with her laptop and pile of books

Going Back to Study With Narcolepsy

A few weeks ago, I got some exciting news...I got into the university program I wanted for next year! This is the next step on the path towards my new career, one I've been tiptoeing towards for a while.

I’m very excited to open this new chapter, but as an ever-anxious person, I still have plenty of worries – largely to do with my narcolepsy.

Different factors in the past

If all goes to plan, this will be my second bachelor's degree. For my first, I came straight out of high school into a 4-year program. We were a group of 80 students that mostly mingled amongst each other, as it was quite specialised. And as a design degree, most assessments were based on projects that we worked on slowly over the semester.

These factors made it quite easy for me, both socially and academically. I didn’t have to venture too far out of my shy-girl comfort zone to talk to new people in each class. I was also able to complete tasks over time when I had energy. This eliminated any stressing about falling asleep while doing extensive studies or in an exam.

Facing new challenges

This time, I'm stepping into the world of social work. I’m extremely passionate about the type of work I've been doing already, and I know that this will help to push me forward. However, I am concerned about the challenges of managing my wakefulness in a new learning environment.

Will I be okay to sit around for hours of reading in order to find good references for my essays? Will I feel comfortable meeting new people in each class I go to, especially since I’ll be a good decade older than most of them? Will I even be able to figure out how to enroll in all the right classes, with the open structure and my typically disorganised brain?

Of course, I can’t answer any of these questions in advance, and there’s not really any benefit to stressing over them. All I can do is remember that in the many years since my last university experience, I’ve grown and changed exponentially. I’m no longer literally afraid to talk to others. I feel confident in my own intelligence and writing ability. And most importantly, I’m more comfortable managing my symptoms.

Fighting my sleepiness

My first time at uni came only a few months after my initial narcolepsy diagnosis. I felt confident enough to disclose to the people around me, figuring that it was better to have people know that narcolepsy was the reason for my sleeping through lectures, rather than assuming I was lazy or didn’t care enough.

However, despite my confidence in explaining my condition, there was a lot I still had to come to terms with. Most prominently, I had a strong sense that I had to hold myself to the same high standard as everyone else. I figured that employers would never give me any special accommodations in “the real world” so I needed to learn early.

Maybe this time will be different

I’m still worried that sleep attacks will be an issue for me. Another barrier to retaining as much information as I should be. Any time I have to sit and listen to another person talking at length, it's still a challenge.

At the same time, I am now on a medication regime that is much more effective than it was a decade ago. I know that my symptoms have markedly improved. Not only that, but I am now completely comfortable with asking for what I need to counteract these setbacks.

Asking for support

Far off shying away from entering the disability office, I can now proudly claim my identity as a disabled woman. It is my intention to make good use of the university disability services, if and when I should need them.

These days, I see this as a basic mark of self-respect. Why would I not ensure that I have the same equal access to education as my neurotypical classmates? I’m also well-practised at the art of efficient napping, which has become a complete must-have for my daily productivity.

Will my mental health endure?

Another part of me worries about the emotional effects of studying. While my mental health has come forward in leaps and bounds over the past few years, anxiety is still an everyday reality for me. Having deadlines looming over my head has never had a positive effect on my mental state.

In the past, setting aside time to get work done at a reasonable pace seemed impossible. Nearly every time a project was due, I had a mini-mental breakdown at some point in the process.

Having faith in my resilience

Now, I have to have a little more faith in my resilience. Over the years, I've made it through some really difficult times. I've learned to swap out some of my more self-destructive coping mechanisms for healthier alternatives. I also feel comfortable reaching out to the people around me for help when I need it, either for practical support or just an ear to vent to.

I know I won't be left to fail alone. The people who care about me will be there regardless of how high or low my marks are. There’s no need for an existential crisis over one assessment; I can only ever do my best.

Putting things in perspective

Going back to university feels somewhat like going full circle and starting back at the beginning again. At times, that can feel like a frustrating step backward. As if the past 10 years have been something of a waste. This is something I consider often, especially when comparing my own progress to that of my peers – which has always been delayed.

However, if I allow myself to put things back in perspective, I can see that it was only through the experiences I’ve had since my first degree that I found my true passion. Also, I thank my narcolepsy work for the insight that supporting other people is what makes me feel most fulfilled.

I wouldn’t be where I am today without my previous career, but that doesn’t mean that things can't change. My path towards my new career in social work has been a wild ride so far, and I’m really looking forward to taking another big leap of faith.

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