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What does learning look like with chronic illness?

Off-black background with multicoloured handwritten text in block capitals. Text reads: "Just because you can't remember, doesn't mean you've forgotten".

One of the most frustrating aspects of my chronic illness, and subsequent cognitive dysfunction, is its impact on my ability to learn. Over the years I've decided perhaps it's not the ways that I learn that need changing, but my fundamental comprehension of what it means to learn, to understand. What does it look like?

It's so important to keep learning and unlearning. To commit to that as an active practice for your whole life. Particularly if you're a privileged white slim cis person like me. Learning will look different for everyone, potentially each day different from the next. It looks different for me now compared to how I used to learn pre-chronic illness. I've come to realise, that doesn't mean it's not working.

I've had M.E for a decade, and over that time I've learned a lot from other people's lived experiences. I've learned a lot about the barriers others are up against, my own privileges, the way the world works - and the ways it absolutely does not.

I read and watch and listen to the best of my cognitively-impaired abilities. But it almost feels like the information won't stick. Or that's how I used to frame it anyway. It felt like I couldn't retain any of the information because I was incapable of passing that information along.

I'd read something on a page in a book and immediately try to share with the friend sitting next to me. But I couldn't. The information wouldn't come back out. Even while searching for it through my brain, I couldn't seem to find it.

It almost felt disrespectful. To learn about injustices and not be able to retain that information enough to pass the knowledge along, have conversation around it etc.

But I abruptly put a stop to that way of thinking. Because really, that's just ego talking isn't it? Some sort of hierarchical bullshit no doubt rooted in white supremacy and ableism.

That somehow the power of knowledge hinges on whether or not you can tell someone else that you know it. That knowledge is more important if you can prove in a particular way that you're in possession of it. Placing knowledge above understanding, the power of words over action.

It's nonsense.

Just because you can't remember something, that doesn't mean you've forgotten it. Not really. Whether or not I'm able to recall what I've been learning and unlearning, it matters that I keep doing it.

You'll never be who you were before you knew these things. Every time you learn something new, unlearn something old, it changes how you move through the world from that moment on.

You'll think differently for the rest of your life. And more importantly, you'll act differently too. Even if you can't recall the exact thing that made it that way. It matters.

You're more aware of your own beliefs, thoughts and opinions. You get into the habit of analysing them. Where did they come from? Is it actually what you believe or was it a knee-jerk reaction coming from a place of privilege? Who taught you these things? Why? What things have been hidden from you? What are you being redirected away from? Why?

This all matters. Whether or not you can reiterate the new information back out.

It isn't that it's never useful or important to pass on what you've learned. More-so that it's important you keep learning regardless. If you can't do the former, the latter still matters. It's still worthwhile doing. It still makes a difference. And often we can pass on an understanding with our actions as well as our words.


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