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Tag Archives: stress

Stranded RTO Students under Stress

Students are stranded as the Registered Training Organisation (RTO) fail rate leaves us in a stressful limbo.

Add Australian Careers Institute to the list, otherwise known as Sage Institute (of Fitness, Childcare, Massage and Aged Care, among others). I am (or is that technically “was”) a student of Sage Institute of Fitness.

As a student I am not about to enter the political blame game of which party did what, when or why. Mr Birmingham, right now the buck stops with you because you are in charge. Australia cannot leave students high and dry.

In correspondence received today, students are advised the following (emphasis added):

Students may still be liable to pay for the portion of the course that has been delivered. The Administrators will be in contact with those effected in separate correspondence.

Furthermore:

We will endeavour to provide Statements of Attainment and Certificates during the administration period so long as resources are available.

The following holds out some hope.

The Group is a member of ACPET’s Tuition Assurance scheme. This is a scheme that provides support to students of closed colleges as per government guidelines. ACPET will shortly (in the next 3 to 4 business days) be contacting all affected students to outline their options moving forward. This includes:

Placing them with another training provider of the student’s choice;

Arranging re-credits of VET FEE HELP loans; and / or

Coordinating refunds of amounts paid to the Group.

I have spoken to ACPET, as have other students equally concerned about their future. At this stage ACPET are unable to provide specific advice. I have also contacted my local MP.

Many of us are almost complete. We have finished all class contact hours and are finalising our last assignment, an assessment done as part of the required 120 hours of practical placement. From the above correspondence we really do not know what will happen to us. In my case, I only need that last assignment marked and half of another I had at home for reference when Sage went into Administration. Other students are in similar positions, while yet others have scrambled to complete over the last few weeks. Students not so far advanced in their courses may (or may not) be in better positions to transfer to other providers.

I have received no communication from Sage. The first communication to all students received from the Administrator was, in my case, addressed to “Dear Stephen”. A follow-up letter to all students was addressed to “Dear Student”. As an IT professional, I can guess the most probable cause, however it did add insult to injury.

A new career was a choice I made when I was made redundant in 2015. Rheumatoid Arthritis means sitting at a desk all day is not the best approach to pain management. Exercise is. By changing careers I could not only help others in a similar physical/health situation, but also help myself. It made sense. Also, unemployment and I do not make good bedfellows.

When we were enrolled, we were told we would be able to work after six months of the course. This was great news to many students and we took this as a major benefit of doing the course. However, when we tried to work, we found this was not true.

I wrote a letter to Sage, the opening paragraph is below.

When I enrolled in this course I was very clearly told I would be able to work after six months, providing I had passed the requisite units to that point of the course.  I now discover this is not correct. Fitness Australia will not register students part-way through this course, even if we have exceeded the requirements of Certificate IV. Unfortunately, I only discovered this after I had paid for the requisite insurance and registered a business name. There are tax implications as well, as without declarable revenue, expenses are not claimable.

Some twenty other students co-signed my letter and a meeting was held. Sadly, there was little resolution to be had. The situation was blamed on a miscommunication by the Sales Department. Poor consolation for those students who had budgeted on being able to earn money. Not foreseeing the current state of affairs, I went ahead and registered my trademark at not inconsiderable cost.

Another student is in his mid-forties and needs to work – he has two school age children. Another is turning fifty later this year and while he has other revenue streams, he also needs to work. We ALL need to work. We had university students in our class who need to work to fund their university education. We had other students who, like me, have health and/or medical reasons for doing the course. The common thread is we all are now stressed and in limbo.

We all made sacrifices to study for the year: our families made sacrifices to help us. Children missed Saturdays with their Dads, spouses missed their partners, household budgets were adjusted. It is not just the students who are affected. Some of us travelled considerable distances to attend school. At one point I was living in Craigieburn, working in Geelong and studying in the Melbourne CBD. All the travelling meant I could not realistically do practical placement hours at the same time. Another student had a senior managerial job and simply could not fit in practical placement hours and work and study – but that was OK at the time as we had twelve months after the completion of class contact hours to finish our practical placement hours. Now it appears that provision has been swept away.

Another complication that affected different students to varying degrees was Sage offered no assistance to organise the 120 hours of practical placement or the five individual people needed for the final assignment. Due to my age, specific area of interest and some physical limitations I found arranging practical placement difficult, let alone finding five athletes (the athlete requirement was later modified). When I did finally find a gym and a mentor and subjects, I was part-way through when the gym changed hands. The new operators are very kindly allowing me to continue, however now I don’t know if my work will be counted. To start again from scratch at my age would be a very difficult situation. Other mature age students face the same difficult choice.

Have we just wasted a year? Are we going to be left with an $18,500 VET-FEE debt (or payments to date lost) and no qualification? We do not know. This is extremely stressful. Of course, the number one instruction from my medical specialist is “keep stress out of your life”.

We, the students, had no part to play in reducing the TAFE system or in the growth of RTOs. Whether it was Labor, Liberal, Greens or One Nation is irrelevant to us. We, the students deserve better, more timely communication clearly addressing our concerns and offering us viable solutions. It is my understanding other students of other failed RTOs are in exactly the same situation as Sage students. The article below cites $32 million over two years for Sage alone – what is the total for all failed RTOs?

The college earned more than $32 million over two years through the now-scrapped VET FEE-HELP loan scheme, while graduating 45 per cent of students.

A hearing in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in October heard the college had spent $6 million marketing Commando Steve’s unique “cutting edge” Diploma of Fitness Coaching Course in one year.

Source: SMH

I feel for the staff, who have been made redundant. I know what that feels like. The teachers were wonderful and are as much victims of this disaster as the students are. They have done their best to try and finalise as many of us as possible, but in some cases it just isn’t possible.

The disabled have also been impacted (emphasis added).

Up to 3000 disabled students are at risk of having funding cut to their vocational education courses after the NSW government suspended 17 providers for failing to meet minimum standards under the Smart and Skilled program.

Source: SMH

While there has been some criticism of Sage in the press in the past and I have criticised Sage in this article, it is my experience Sage were trying to do the right thing. There was investment in new equipment and additional practical class areas. Appropriate flooring was installed. When students complained about the selling technique described above, management did engage with us. The teachers they employed were caring, knowledgeable and dedicated. I had to adjust my expectations of the academic standards required: I have a university degree and the standards set for vocational training are quite different, understandably. I was, as a student, quite critical of some of the course and assessment material yet I needed to be mindful I was not at a tertiary institution.

So many RTOs “going under” all at once may not be entirely their fault. The VET-FEE scheme has been terminated. It seems as part of the change-over to a replacement scheme, RTOs were not paid.

The college, which has campuses in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, had received no federal government money since late 2016, after the axing of the scandal-ridden VET FEE-HELP scheme caused cash to “dry up”.

Source: SMH

No business can survive if the cash-flow suddenly disappears. Rent still has to be paid, teachers still have to be paid. Would Sage (and other RTOs) have survived if the matter had been handled better by the government department responsible? It seems to me this question is not being investigated sufficiently. Personally, I would prefer to see the TAFE system adequately funded: however I don’t like to see blame apportioned where it may not belong.

What would students find an acceptable resolution? I would be happy to have my VET-FEE debt adjusted to the level for Cert IV and receive a Cert IV qualification. Other students I have spoken to agree this would be an acceptable resolution for those of us who have completed the class contact hours and passed all the assessments related thereto. I stress this may not be acceptable to all by any means, but could be an option acceptable to some. Most of us have far exceeded the practical placement hours required for a Cert IV and although the course structure was different, surely the content in its entirety is comparable? We enrolled in the twelve month diploma because of the broader coverage, however we can all undertake continued professional development. Cert IV would enable us to be registered as professionals with Fitness Australia. We could then either launch our own businesses or seek employment. For many of us, studying for another twelve months is really not an option, no matter how dedicated we may be.

On behalf of my fellow students I ask the government to not enter into a blame game but to concentrate on the welfare of the students so unfairly and unexpectedly impacted by the current situation. 

If you are an RTO student impacted by the current turn of events, please share your situation in the comments below, anonymously if you prefer. We need to remind the powers that be there are PEOPLE involved here, not just organisations who may or may not have tried to do the right thing. That is not our decision to make.

Footnote: For those who previously asked for an unemployment status update (refer article linked to above), yes, I am currently working in a role I love with great people in a great organisation. In a contract role: it will come to an end. I still need (and want) my fitness qualifications.

Will we hate ourselves into oblivion?

Look around you, my friends. Hate. Everywhere. At first I thought to myself “this is worse than it has ever been”. Then I remembered the Holocaust, two World Wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition. Maybe this is just the next wave. It seems worse because the global population is the most it has ever been, so there is more hate noise spewing forth. But is it worse per capita? Probably not. Too many people shouting out hate for “the other side” rather than listening, comprehending, learning: the very things humans pride themselves on being able to do that allegedly separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

This time IS different though. This time our home is at stake.

“Rich western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate,” said biologist Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in California. “We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?”

Despite the scientific community becoming more vocal than ever before, many countries, prominent, influential countries, have leaders who deny there is any environmental problem at all. Trump declares concerns a hoax perpetrated by China, Turnbull changes his mind once Prime Minister and, believe it or not, there are worse waiting in the wings. I don’t understand David Archibald at all, nor am I going to try.

I do understand people having different views, perspectives, beliefs, religions. What I struggle with is the vitriol of discourse, the hatred expressed. Nothing will be solved if the best the human race can do is hate the other side.

We have the unthinkable happening in the USA: press freedom under threat. Sure, some members of the media have not maintained the required degree of professionalism in recent years. The internet has made it difficult to determine the real from the unreal, a large proportion of the populace has become addicted to “reality TV shows” (that bear no resemblance to reality at all).

There is no escaping, however, the seriousness and historical learnings from silencing the press.

It isn’t just the press. As the people rise up in protest in the USA, those in power move to shut them down – in eighteen states. THE democracy that held itself up as THE political system all countries should follow, whether they wanted to or not, is trying to silence the people.

Hillary Clinton called the Trump supporters “deplorables”. Not a sensible move. Trump spoke of “draining the swamp” (but refilled it with worse).

There is no doubt Trump lies. The evidence is overwhelming and easily found. In Australia we have our current Brandis issue: not the first and not the last.

The efforts to disenfranchise the general populace is astounding. Trump’s administration is busy winding back school lunches, health care and protections for the LGBT community. The Turnbull government just readjusted penalty rates, probably on the basis parents’ should be buying houses for their children rather than the children working Sundays to put fuel in the car to attend their classes to try to get that good job to be able to afford their own house before they are forty.

But, you ask, where is the hate in all of that? Indifference might indeed be a better description of some of the actions taken, but that indifference leads to the have-nots hating the haves. The haves don’t listen, don’t learn, don’t comprehend and react with hatred.

During WWII we had the capacity to destroy ourselves. Surprisingly, we managed not to. Today we have even greater capacity to hate ourselves into oblivion. Whether than be by destroying our planet due to environmental mismanagement fueled by greed or firing nuclear and chemical weapons around the globe, we have more than enough capacity to annihilate ourselves.

The biggest threats are the “wannabe haves”. The ones that aren’t the billionaires but see politics as an avenue to power and prestige. Pauline Hanson – from fish and chip shop owner to a very nice high profile, well paying, powerful role. Both Hanson and Trump generate hate by attacking anyone who is not like them. Their followers take up arms, literally, in the belief they are faithfully following their leaders. What I do not understand is the inability of the followers to assess these dangerous leaders with critical thought processes. The blind adoration and acceptance is astounding. What have we become? Can we no longer think for ourselves? People like Trump and Hanson seize upon the lack of critical thought in the the population as an opportunity for them to rise to power, yet crush the very voters that put them there. Before we know it, we WILL be repeating history.

Even if we successfully manage not to blow ourselves up, we are at risk of stressing ourselves out of existence. Google “stress” with “health” and there are number of reputable articles.

Not having a lunch at school is stressful. Not being able to afford health care is stressful. Missing classes because the student is unable to afford to get to class or buy textbooks is stressful. Renting is stressful (refer Sally’s Tweets above). Being unemployed is stressful. Not having food to feed your children is stressful. Stress is cumulative and a massive health risk.

The human race must find a way to stop hating “the others” and work together for the benefit of all. Until that happens, every single one of us is at risk.

Related:

What it is REALLY like to be unemployed

Unemployed. If there has been any day in my 61.5 years of life when I’ve felt it is all just too much, yesterday was that day. Today is not much better. While sharing the pain I feel publicly may further hinder my employment prospects (is that even possible?) I share in the hope my experience may help others know they are not alone and may, just may, encourage some employers and recruitment agents to rethink their approach to candidates. The government also needs to walk a mile in my shoes, then tell me I can get a job and they can safely cut the Newstart Allowance. And yes, Grace Collier, I am training to start my own business – if I can hold my body together. Holding my body together costs money.

Where to start? Some background for context, perhaps. I was diagnosed late 2014/early 2015 with autoimmune (AI) conditions. Nothing I can’t manage, providing I can AFFORD to manage them. In my experience, AI conditions can take a lot of time and money to manage to the point where I look and feel normal (photo supplied as evidence). With a couple of exceptions: I can no longer sit for hours without moving, like a good little accountant should. I have to move reasonably often.

In June 2015 I was made redundant. In September 2015 I secured a new job which lasted a massively long six weeks. It seemed to boil down to the fact I refused to get my hair cut short, but I was called at home and told not to go back in, by “mutual agreement”. It was indeed mutual, as I found it a very toxic environment and had already contacted the recruitment agency with my concerns. The agency had encouraged me to “hold on until January”, which I had tried to do.

Having been made redundant in June then effectively fired (for the first time in my working life) in October, I wasn’t feeling very good psychologically. Off to the psychologist who was my saviour and the GP for anxiety medication.

AI needs time to manage properly, so a senior management role is no longer an option for me. Given the medical situation Centrelink have me in the disability support stream of job seekers to provide additional employment assistance – but most of that assistance seems only to kick in AFTER I secure a job, such as they can provide a sit-stand desk. In all the time I’ve been with this Job Search Provider, I have been referred for ONE interview! ONE! The Job Search Provider network seems, to me, to be more about meeting the contractual compliance obligation paperwork to “earn” their revenue (funded by the taxpayer) than actually finding work for the unemployed. That is an analysis for another day. When I ended up in tears one day I was told to go and get a medical certificate to exempt me from job hunting. I was in tears because I DON’T HAVE A JOB! Getting a medical certificate to stop me looking for a job wasn’t going to improve the situation!

I started studying a Diploma of Fitness Coaching with the objective of setting up my own business providing training to people like myself who need exercise for pain control/management. I understand what it is like to not be able to move first thing in the morning and I know the benefits exercise has provided me. My doctors (of whom I have a battalion) all support my business plan. Getting the qualification, however has proven difficult. Registered training organisations (RTOs) seem to me to be of a similar ilk in many instances to the Job Search Provider network. I need 120 hours of practical placement and within that be able to train five people for about six weeks to complete a final assignment. That is just one complication: we were told on enrollment we would be able to work after six months of the twelve month course (obviously an attractive proposition to an unemployed person). Well, yes, if we can find someone to employ us without insurance. I’m a CPA – am I likely to do that? Anyway, really, a minor problem. I just don’t need people like Grace Collier telling me to “start my own business” – I’m trying, but I’d like to stay alive in the meantime.

I am under the care of four specialists: endocrinologist, rheumatologist, dermatologist and gastroenterologist. Then there is my GP (who thankfully bulk-bills), my physiotherapist and massage therapist. Luckily these days I see the specialists less frequently than I used to: every three or six months, but they are not cheap. Yes, Medicare covers some of the cost, but the patient still has to pay up-front. No, I am not going the public health system route with chronic conditions unless I absolutely have to, because I need this team of specialists to provide continuity of care, not be seeing a different one of each specialty each visit. The specialists’ visits vary between $120 and $180 a visit. Then I am to have three skin biopsies next month – that’s not cheap either. At one stage I was having endoscopies every six months: private patient with health insurance I may soon have to give up. Not to mention the travel costs to see all these health professionals.

Then there is the cost of the prescriptions: because I have a pension card (thanks Centrelink, I really needed to be reminded you think I am a hopeless case too old for a Health Care Card) these are reduced to $5.20, but the other supplements, like fish oil, glucosamine, Vitamin D, magnesium etc are not. I get a Pharmaceutical Allowance of $3.10 a week.

Are you stressed out so far just reading this? Actually, NONE of that is too bad. With exercise I am rebuilding my muscle strength (working on hip adductor strength at the moment for the physically inclined among you) and keep the pain away almost 100% of the time. Until my stress levels get too high and cause a flare.

Job hunting is the most stressful thing in my life. Ever. Worse than the suicides of my parents or my four divorces. The four divorces? That’s why I am not independently wealthy at my age, which is what people like Scott Morrison no doubt expect. Pity I’m not a famous film star – they always seem to stay rich after divorces. I digress.

Let me share some examples that stand out in my mind. One major hospital interviewed me for a job I really was very keen on. They didn’t employ me, but subsequently interviewed one of my ex-staff for the same position and asked her about me. They did tell me to keep applying for other jobs at the hospital. So I did. Never got one. In the end you dread being the resume the HR staff member looks at and goes “oh, no, not her AGAIN!” and automatically throws your resume in the reject pile. So I don’t apply to that organisation any more.

The government department that sends you an email stating you were “in this instance rated non-competitive” and then sends you a follow-up email of how to break the government job application code/secret.

The private, family owned company who did a phone interview with me for forty minutes and invited me to a job interview the next day for which I had to take a day off work from my then eight week contract position (so lost a day’s pay)  – and never got back to me to tell me I didn’t have the job, despite promising to contact me the following week. They ALWAYS promise to be in touch tomorrow, by the end of the week, next week….. they lie. If recruiters actually interview an applicant, surely they can have the common courtesy to notify the applicant of the outcome?

The state government authority that wrote to tell me a job I had applied for had been withdrawn. When I saw it advertised again a fortnight later I wrote and asked if I could submit another application. Oh yes, was the response, “but please note the criteria includes specific knowledge of our INTERNAL computer system”. Then why advertise externally? Policy requirements, yes, I know. Easy to circumvent by framing the selection criteria in such a way only an internal applicant will qualify.

The sporting body that sends you an email with a subject line of “Not this time around…”. I accept that if you haven’t been unemployed for twelve months, the subject line might not bother you. When it is just another in a long line of rejections, the impact is harsh.

The legal firm that promises second round interviews will be held in two weeks time and unsuccessful applicants will be notified with feedback. Dead silence.

Over time, the rejections become just too damaging to the soul. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger? No, I’m sorry, not always true. As a very wise psychologist once said to me, the reality is more like water dripping on a stone – eventually the stone wears away. There comes times when you just can’t bear another rejection. Hiding under the doona with digital dragons is less soul-destroying than applying for yet another job you won’t get.

Then there is Centrelink demanding a certain number of job applications per week. Just to meet the KPIs. It doesn’t matter if the jobs are suitable, just anything to meet the numbers. Naturally, this results in more rejections which heightens the stress levels.

Network, they say. So you do. You contact people you have worked with in the past via the professional version of Facebook. Dead silence. That is depressing, because you think you had a good working relationship with many of those people – but that was in many cases years ago – perhaps they no longer even remember you, although you remember them. Thank you to the few that did respond, I appreciate it.

Younger people tell me today’s recruitment environment requires that applicants follow-up as it shows interest to the recruiter. In my day that was frowned upon, just was not done. So while I do it, it goes against every fibre of my upbringing. More stress.

Other advice I am given – change my resume. Basically, turn it into a lie. I can’t do that, I can’t lie about who I am – I don’t want to work for people to whom I have to pretend I’m something I’m not. I am a CPA, I have skills and experience which, while I may not be able to work 100% as a desk jockey any more, I can still use. My brain still works, damn it. Also another thing that wasn’t done when I was growing up.

When I was in my twenties, if you got the job you were most likely offered the job at the end of the interview. Yes, I know the competition is greater today, I know unemployment is higher – all those logical points don’t reduce the stress of being unemployed.

I’ve joked no-one wants to employ their mothers. Hiring managers are predominantly mid-thirties to mid-forties. And woe-betide you if you want a less senior role for medical reasons. These days people want carbon copies of the previous incumbent of a position, nothing more, nothing less. If an applicant doesn’t fit the mould: rejection. The knowledge that in most cases the recruiter only has time to read the first three lines of any application, if that, isn’t comforting.

I’m scared. Scared I will never get a job, scared I won’t be able to pay my medical bills and will therefore not be able to keep my AI conditions controlled. Scared I’ll never have my own private space again. Yes, I don’t even have my own space. Thanks to the generosity of my wonderful daughter and her equally wonderful husband, I have a roof over my head – but it costs me $120 a month to have my stuff in storage. I am 61, I want my own space! I feel I am interrupting their lives and it makes me cringe inside. I’ve been independent since I was 15 years old – this is an adjustment I am not dealing with well at all. More stress. There is no-where I could rent for less than the Newstart Allowance of $264.35 a week and still pay for food, utilities and medical care.

There is a known relationship between stress and AI conditions. The doctors say over and over “reduce the stress in your life”. Yesterday was a day when the stress boiled over and the pain had flared. The physiotherapist sent me home to lay on a heat pack and I woke this morning with a very sore back. She also strongly suggested I revisit my psychologist and was concerned I hadn’t had a massage (money considerations). I went to the psychologist’s office and made an appointment. As I got back in my car, a gust of wind slammed the car door into the side of my head. I burst into tears for the umpteenth time that day, I came home (missing class), lay on the heat pack and took a Serepax – the first I’ve taken in months. Physiotherapist suggests I touch base with my rheumatologist….. in other words, she is suggesting I have a condition flare. First in over six months.

How do I REALLY feel? As if life has no point any more. No-one needs me, no-one wants me. I have no social life: a social life is expensive and I have no idea how much longer I have to survive on what little money I do have. I feel I am a burden to my daughter. If this is what the next twenty years is going to be like then please stop the planet, I want to get off. There are days when I ask myself why am I bothering to fight back? Why push my body through the bench press and leg press? Why bother taking all these damn medicines and supplements? Just why in the hell bother at all?

Once I can’t afford to maintain my health, then I will be unemployable and end up on the Disability Pension. Hopefully, in my specific case my studies will prevent that, but on a daily basis it can be hard to see past just today. Not everyone in my sort of situation has the option to develop a new career and I do worry about the chances of business success at my age. But 68 year-old Hillary Clinton ran for President of the United States, so there is hope.

The lack of physical contact with anyone other than my physiotherapist or massage therapist grows more stressful each passing day.

Other unemployed have different sets of problems: mortgages, children to feed, car loans to pay. The emotional feelings, the stress, the sheer degradation of it all, is the same.

RUOK? No, I’m not OK. Not that anyone ever asks. We are just numbers – the great unwashed of unemployed. Past our prime, not valuable any more. A burden on society, our government keeps telling us. Malcolm Turnbull, do you have ANY idea what it is like to be told in the news cycle nearly every single day what you and your government ministers think about us?

I’ll bounce back, I always do. But not everyone can, not everyone does.

NB: I have deliberately not tried to “take the emotion out” of this article. If it is to serve any purpose, the emotion needs to be there. It is why I have written it today, a day when I feel absolutely NOT OK.

I also want to add that while I have criticised the Job Provider Network and RTOs in this article, I want to make it clear in both those systems there are some wonderfully caring people and in the latter some terrific teachers. It is the system I’m railing against, not the front line staff. Centrelink staff have always also been very nice to me.

 

 

The highs and lows of living with an immune disorder

It was inevitable that a big life change like buying a house would spark a flare-up of an immune disorder which reacts to stress. Anything which deviates from the flat line of normality is a risk. My particular flavour is called Ankylosing Spondylitis but I’m writing this post for anyone who ever feels the effects of stress.

My reaction to stress might be extreme but it is something which affects all of us in its own unique way and yet it is widely misunderstood. I am less surprised these days by the things I find ‘stressful’ but it has taken a long time and many visits to the emergency clinic to appreciate the way little things can build upon each other to ratchet up the pressure.

The role of stress in my condition wasn’t made clear to me until I was more than 20 years in to living with it when I saw a specialist in Brisbane shortly before he retired.

He had treated my uncle Fred for the same condition in the past and so the first part of the consultation was spent reminiscing. He didn’t know Fred had died some years before from prostate cancer. But he was unsurprised to hear how hard he’d fought that illness, right to its bitter end.

He was a fighter, old Fred, much braver than me. Ankylosing spondylitis is a painful condition which primarily affects the spine, in extreme cases fusing the vertebrae into a fixed, immobile position.

Fred had it far worse than your Girl Reporter. He told me near the end that he had been in continuous pain until finally his spine fused completely. At least it didn’t hurt anymore.

Then he broke his neck and was delighted to be able to move his head freely for the first time in years. He was laughing as he told me that the horrified medical team, far from sharing his joy, put a stop to that before he could do any more damage to himself.

Fred’s experience was extreme and nothing like mine, which goes to show that everyone’s immune disorder plays out differently, whether it’s AS or anything else. I wish I could deal with mine with the same good grace as my uncle Fred but this isn’t a whinge fest, this is about the things which are the same.

When we got down to business the rheumatologist asked me what had been going on in my life recently. It was an odd question which no doctor had asked before. And yet, he said, he had never known a case of inflammation which didn’t have stress as its trigger.

In other words, a compromised immune system will react to any change – perhaps an elevated heart rate or a surge of adrenalin – as if the body is under serious attack.

In my case that means pain in any or all of my joints, cold-like symptoms and extreme tiredness. Sometimes, but not this time, it affects my eyes with painful inflammation of the iris called Iritis or Uveitis which can lead to blindness – a symptom my uncle Fred never experienced.

The thing about stress which is hardest to get to grips with is the fact that it is neither negative nor positive. As Hans Selye, who coined the term in 1936, put it: it’s “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”

Sounds simple enough, but we are accustomed to thinking of stress as purely negative. In the months of house-hunting, house-choosing, house-buying, house-moving I heard over and over, “Don’t worry.”

But I wasn’t worried. I was excited, I was happy. This was a great thing. And, sensing change in the wind, my immune system wheeled out the big guns and went on the attack.

The best I can hope for before, during and after a flare-up is to try and keep myself on an even keel both physically and emotionally. Change is inevitable for all of us so even if you don’t have the pleasure of something like AS you will have a non-specific reaction to change which may not be immediately obvious or understood.

Stress is acknowledged as a major factor in a range of physical and mental disorders and there are numerous recognised strategies for minimising its effects. The purpose of my article is not to expound the benefits of meditation or gardening but to highlight the elusive nature of stress itself.

The highs of life can be just as challenging as the lows, as my recent experience demonstrates.

The great excitement of moving into our dream home and finally putting down some roots after years of wandering has laid me low for weeks now. The pain has been manageable for most of it but the lethargy lingers on.

There’s a link at the end to a long but rather good explanation of the debilitating effects of chronic pain and fatigue using a simple spoon analogy.

Put briefly, every day begins with a calculation, the must-do against the want-to, with most things adding up to the can’t-manage.

This will pass and when it does, experience tells me, it will pass pretty instantly.

I know the fog is clearing because I’m writing this, after weeks of simply not having the energy for anything other than the essentials.

The fog will lift and all of a sudden I will be skipping down the street and jumping on to a train flushed with the excitement of a brief run down the station platform. It will be euphoric.

And that euphoria will be a new danger. Coming out of a stressful situation can be a whole new stressor. Even as I long for the fog to clear I must remember not to dance too long upon the sunlit slope when I finally reach it.

And that’s where meditation, bush walking or healthy eating and regular bedtimes show their worth. A strong base line, however you choose to maintain it, is the best way I’ve found to keep the sine wave of simply living within manageable bounds.

It’s not the most exciting strategy, nor does it offer any guarantees against another flare-up. But it does provide a degree of protection against the worst effects. And if it can do that for me, out here on the perimeter, then a little stress-resilience must be worth building whatever your non-specific reaction to it may be.

I’m taking a winter break. I’ll be back in July with more Adventures of a Girl Reporter, more delving into the Big Baxter story, more observations both light-hearted and serious. Til then, relax! It’ll be fun.

Further reading:

What is stress? – The American Institute of Stress

Explainer: What is the immune system? – The Conversation

The Spoon Theory – Christine Miserandino

Your Girl Reporter (usually) blogs fortnightly on the past, present and future of journalism – from growing up in Hong Kong, to working in the UK and now observing the state of the world from my native Australia. Read more Baxter here

 

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