• Katie Vahey Gaebler

Moon West is a self-advocate

We live in a world of sudden changes, transitions, and inconsistencies. In my view, these are facts of life that do not ever go away, especially in academia. I've been struggling (to put it lightly) the past few months. It started when I was home over the summer. Come the beginning of August something inside of me shifted. I knew I would be returning to school in about three weeks and my internship had just come to a close, and I was left with an excessive amount of free time. My routine had shifted. I found myself in a bit of a rut that I hoped would change when I returned back to my college campus in the fall. Hopefully, the consistency of a routine, my college community, my on-campus and off-campus commitments, my classes, and my job will provide me the stability that I was missing the last few weeks of summer. But something about mental health and mental well-being that I often fail to recognize, it is not place-dependent. My issues and need for accommodation will follow me regardless of where I physically am.

I arrived back to campus in mid-August eager to throw myself back into the life that I love, the life of a student and a learner. I consistently attended my classes, I was physically active every day, I reconnected with my advisors and favorite professors, started work on both of my Senior theses, and got back into the swing of my on-campus job. September rolled around and things in my mental state were not improving. I consistently felt exhausted. I felt disinterested in the topics and work that normally engage me. I felt distant from my friends and my community even though I was constantly interacting with them. The five red flags that I had identified with my therapist were coming up again. I was not doing well. About a year ago my therapist and I came up with a list of 5 red flags that are easy for me to identify and indicate I need more help. They are:

  1. I become disinterested in my academics and environment

  2. I feel lethargic and low energy

  3. I sleep more than necessary

  4. I struggle to complete care tasks such as my dishes, cleaning, laundry, etc

  5. I cry, a lot (my therapist calls it being teary)

Creating this list of 5 red flags has been revolutionary for me and the way that I assess what I need and how to advocate for myself. Sometimes I have dips where I might have one of these flags pop up but it's only one and oftentimes for me, when just one of these red flags comes up the issue is not as large as when all five of them are coexisting at the same time (like they were a few weeks ago).

I quickly realized I needed more help and accommodations than I was currently receiving. I called my parents. I expressed that I needed to go home two weeks early for fall break to receive more intensive treatment. My parents said of course, that they supported and loved me, and were proud of me for advocating for myself. I am incredibly lucky. I contacted my advisors, my professors, and the accommodations office on my college campus. Within two days I had meetings with all of these people. Expressing my need to return back home to seek treatment, my desire to continue at studies following fall break, and my commitment to keeping up and completing my work remotely while I was home. Unfortunately, my college is now unable to do classes remotely via Zoom. But I have been able to connect with professors over zoom and utilize our online assignment portals to complete my school work remotely. This is something that has shifted post-COVID-19, the availability and willingness to allow students to complete work remotely. I'm very thankful for this. I do believe in years before COVID I might have been asked to take incompletes for the semester and just stay home for the duration of the Fall. I'm grateful that this was not the case.

Something that I found incredible throughout this process for me was the seamless utilization of Universal Design in my college classes. My professors were consistently proud of me for advocating for myself and because I asked for what I needed rather than allowing myself to flounder, they were able and willing to work with me. I have been intentional about cultivating meaningful relationships with my academic team throughout my college career. I went to a small high school where relationships with teachers were incredibly important to the well-being of you as a student. This is a skill I was grateful to learn then and have intentionally continued throughout my time in higher academia. This type of student-professor relationship is critical. It provides a known and safe space where students can advocate for themselves and utilize their agency. Professors and- anyone- in the world will not be able to give you what you need if you are unable to voice that for yourself. I am not saying that self-advocacy is easy. It can be an incredibly challenging skill to learn and utilize. As a neurodivergent person, I feel as though a lot of my life has been centered around the necessity that I advocate for myself. There are times when I'm much better at this than others. I have found that in an attempt to hone my skills for self-advocacy, I’ve tried to transfer the setting of that skill and advocate for myself in non-academic situations. For example, if my friends say that they want to go to some restaurant for dinner but I'm not a huge fan of the type of food, rather than resigning to the reality that I must only do what my friends want to do, I've been working to express my wants out of a situation. I found that working to advocate in these less intensive situations makes advocating in more intensive situations easier as I have a road map to go off of. I highly recommend doing this for anyone that is struggling with self-advocacy.

Advocating for yourself is possible. You can receive the accommodations and care you need. You deserve to take care of yourself and to be cared for. This world is challenging. Oftentimes it’s not built for neurodiverse individuals and we must find ways to build the world for ourselves. I believe with community, care, advocacy, and accommodation thriving in this world is achievable. After returning home and receiving treatment, I feel better. I’m more like myself again. I’m less burnt out and laughing more. I head back to my college in a few weeks, and can get right back where I left off. I would have been unable to get to this place without my already-in-place accommodations and self-advocacy.



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