Let’s try that again… at a distance.

All the way back in 1994, barely two months into my Honours year in Philosophy at Monash, I had to withdraw due to illness. My teachers and tutors had, they told me, been concerned as they watched me descend into exhaustion, and were relieved I was willing to take a break and care for my health. I told them I’d look after myself and be back next year and all but one of them met my proclamation with cheerful agreement. The one teacher who did not was new to the Uni, at the end of the previous year. He had been brought in by our wonderful Professor to fill a gap in the department in Greek Philosophy, which was my passion. This new tutor and I had been working since the end of third year, over Summer, to develop my Honours thesis question and make it one that could grow into a PhD thesis – I wanted to be a scholar of Greek Philosophy.

Perhaps it was because he knew me fairly well, by then, or perhaps he recognised what it took doctors three years to diagnose (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis – or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) but he gently told me not to put pressure on myself with future plans, but to focus on the now, on getting better. He could see that my “I’ll be back next year” was an an attempt to time travel to the point when the nightmare of watching my whole future darken before me was over. Then he told me a story of how one of his favourite professors, in the States, had once said to him (through a plume of smoke from a cigar, apparently) that no-one should be allowed to do philosophy before they were fifty and had lived a little! I chuckled with him and understood that the point was that “it’s never too late” but, of course, being twenty-one, I inwardly rejected the idea.

Twenty five years later, I’m forty-six – which is close enough to fifty – and goodness knows I’ve lived some life, and I’m returning to Philosophy at Monash, if from a distance.

I had investigated Monash before I’d even applied to Uni Melb, but found that their M. Public Health was very much a clinically focused degree and required biomed pre-req’s I didn’t have. Any other degree at Monash would require going all the way to Clayton (2.5 hours by car, each way, from near Ballarat) and their online study website offered very few degrees.

What I hadn’t realised was that studying “online” at Monash is a different thing to studying “off-campus”. A bunch of their undergraduate and graduate programs have an option which is listed in the handbook as: Off-campus (Clayton). This means that the degrees are handled by the on-campus administration, not their Online arm. One of those degrees offered off-campus is a specialist Master of Bioethics.

I discovered this on the Friday after the Tuesday of my disastrous attempt at attending campus at Uni Melb, when the class that I missed, because I was collapsed and near-blacking-out on a pile of cushions in the Disability Space, was, in fact, Bioethics.

I had a long talk with myself about whether withdrawing from Uni Melb after one day of trying was “quitting”, and decided to trust myself. After twenty-five years living with chronic illness, I can feel the difference between activity that will become easier with practice and activity that will trigger Post Exertion Malaise, worsening all my symptoms and rendering me “recovering” for weeks, if not months. I applied for the M. Bioethics that Friday night, marked my planner to follow up in 4 weeks and, so as not to get my hopes up for just one option, continued researching degrees through Open Uni and Deakin’s Cloud Campus.

I admit, I wasn’t doing a great job keeping my hopes in check, so it’s probably a very good thing, indeed, that the next Wednesday (last week) I received an offer! Though I didn’t apply for it, because I thought it had been too long, Monash offered me credits to exempt me from foundational ethics subjects, because of my Philosophy Specialisation all those years ago. Those credits just happen to equal a semester-worth, so I wouldn’t even need to lose any time because of my failed attempt at Uni Melb. Of course, me being me, I’ve asked whether I could refuse the exemption and use the credits to take two subjects from the Master of Journalism, in research and investigative journalism, instead. I’m waiting to hear, and will be happy either way.

The Centre for Bioethics is, like the School of Population and Global Health at Uni Melb, allied with the World Health Organisation but focuses specifically on my area of interest and so, I hope, should put me in an even better position to join the conversation on how doctors, researchers, patients and the wider community approach chronic pain and illness. I hope to bring not just my experience but to bring a voice from the #spoonie community I have belonged to for the last twenty-five years – watch this space because I’ll be reaching out!

Meanwhile, here’s a little video on the Master of Bioethics at Monash 😊


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