Navigating college with a chronic illness isn’t an easy task. While my friends are stressing over getting into bars, assignments, or internships I often find myself stressing over health insurance, balancing my energy and medications, and finding the time to catch up with my peers. There’s no doubt that chronic illness makes pursuing an education more difficult. Here are some tips I’ve acquired that help me make the best of it:
Make an Appointment with Disability Services and Get Accommodations
Regardless if you personally identify with being disabled, the disability service is there to help you if you have a chronic illness. While most schools definitely have a long way to go to provide proper accommodations, legally by law they are required to help you. These accommodations can be anything from getting help taking notes, or being able to take breaks during tests.
I was reluctant at signing up for disability services at first because I don’t exactly consider myself disabled and I don’t like accepting help– but getting the accommodations were exactly what I needed. My accommodations allow me to take ample breaks during classes and tests, help me plan my schedule around times that I have the most energy, and even provided me housing with a kitchen and bathroom to cater to my allergies. Depending on your school, getting these accommodations can be really easy or somewhat difficult– but regardless, it is important to advocate for yourself!
An important perspective to keep in mind is: these accommodations don’t exist to give you an unfair advantage– they exist to keep you on an even playing field with your peers. (So take advantage of them!)
Find a Specialist Near Your School
Luckily for me, my school is only 15 miles away from home so I have always been able to see my doctors without having to take a road trip. Weirdly enough, I was actually closer to most of my doctors at school!
If finding a new doctor seems daunting (I get it, I’ve been there) you can still continue going to your current doctor through telehealth visits. Although, it is important to familiarize yourself with a specialist in the neighborhood and meet with them once or twice in case of an emergency. This might not be as important right now if you are remote, but it is something to keep in mind.
Chat with your professors
Having a chronic illness isn’t as taboo as you think, and many of your teachers will actually relate to you. Talking about your illness to teachers can be awkward and really weird. For example, when I chat with my teachers I have to say something along the lines of, “Hi, my name is Kristen I absolutely love this class, so excited for this semester. I just wanted to let you know that I have an undiagnosed chronic illness that causes me to have incontinence and diarrhea up to 12 times a day– so I may need to take a break or run out of the classroom spontaneously.” Although it’s awkward and really embarrassing I have never been met with judgment (except for one rare time). But for the most part, it helped me create a better bond with my teachers. At the end of the day, any teachers worth taking a class with are there to help you and want to make their learning environment a place you will succeed in.
Become friends with Health Services
Your tuition oftentimes charges you a “Health Services” fee and you would be silly not to take advantage of it! You would be surprised by all the services they offer. For example, my school offers a nutritionist, acupuncturist, massage therapist, 1-1 yoga, and so many more things. Not only will these services help you keep your copays down, but health services can also advocate for you and help you find services and support in the local area.
Plan your Schedule According to Your Personal Limits
Your schedule should work for you! Both your academic councelor and disability services should be able to help you plan your schedule that best fits your needs– but remember you know yourself best!
I personally try to plan my hard classes in the fall, and my easier ones in the spring– because my symptoms get worse in the cold months. I also cannot take a night class because I get massive brain fog after 7 pm that makes it difficult to function. All of these preferences look different for each person depending on their symptoms. But be strategic and take note of the times you feel your best.
Find Creative Ways to Study
One thing that I have learned through my chronic illness journey is that symptoms can be spontaneous, unpredictable, and completely out of our control. When fatigue hits, the last thing I want to do is study. One of the most helpful hacks I have learned is to record me reading my notes out loud. Then if I am having a particularly bad symptom day, I can play the recording to myself while lying in bed. Sometimes you have to think outside of the box: there are ways to absorb all the material!
Don’t be afraid of Online Courses
I didn’t realize how online courses benefitted me until I was forced to take them due to COVID-19. There is beauty in being able to take a class from the comfort of your own bed. Some online courses are asynchronous meaning you do the work alone at any point during a set given of time. These classes are great because you can do the work on the days you feel good, so you don’t have to worry about it on bad days. Completely online might be the thing for you, or maybe you can take a few in person and a few online. Be open to trying it, I can promise you they aren’t as scary as they seem!
Manage your Time
I always try to stay ahead in studying and homework so in case I have a flare-up or an out-of-the-blue ER trip I won’t be scrambling.
One of the best ways I manage my time is by using a physical planner to track school work, and a Google Calendar to time block. I block out everything from breaks, to study times and snacks. Obviously, most days don’t go to plan, and I have to be flexible with this but it helps me visualize what I plan to do for the day. I also try to batch everything: whether it’s homework, grocery shopping, or cooking — I pick a day to focus on one thing and try to bolt it all out at one time. This might not work for everyone, but I find it is easier for me to focus on one thing at a time.
Make time for yourself
One way I make time for myself is by going on walks, having spontaneous dance parties, making time to bake something and do yoga once a week. Whatever fills your heart with happiness– make time for it! School is stressful: and you deserve to focus on things that fill you up.
create a Medical Binder & Stay Organized
Make sure to have a copy of your insurance card and medical history. I swear by my medical binder– but recently I found creating a digital medical binder to be more beneficial. Keep everything in a Google Drive folder and share it with your doctors. It’s easy to search through and helps save a few trees.
Another helpful thing I did was created a “medical resume.” I took a resume template from Canva and included all of my medical histories in chronological order. It’s kind of a fun easy digestible way to share all of the “need to know” information with a doctor. Obviously not every doctor will receive this well, but I think it is easier than having them spend a weekend reading my binder.
Keep a pill organizer to stay on top of your meds. Use apps to track your symptoms. Make sure to keep a record, it’ll be helpful in the long run.
Tell a friend!
Having a chronic illness has made me feel isolated. Whether you want someone to watch a movie with you, accompany you on a doctor’s appointment, sit in silence– it’s always helpful to have someone in your corner that ‘just gets it’.
You don’t need to tell everyone you come in contact with– but it is always helpful to have a friend or two on your side. Some colleges also offer support groups, but if not there are plenty of online communities you can join. I recently found out about the Sick Chicks. They are a non-profit that aims to spread empowerment to women with chronic illness.
Be Comfortable with Your Living Situation
The last thing you want after coming home from a bad day of classes is to be uncomfortable in your own room. Your room should be a safe space, and you should be open with your roommates about your health. You don’t need to give them every detail– but share enough that they will understand what you are going through.
It’s also important to give them tips on how to help you. Often times they want to support you, but they can’t read your mind. Be open about what you need. Some of these things can include:
- On flare-up days I may spend a long time in the bathroom
- In order to manage my symptoms, I need to keep a strict sleep schedule. I would love it if you can respect that and be quiet after 10 pm. Some days I can stay up later, but if I am having a flare-up I need to prioritize sleep.
- Please don’t eat my food. I have strict food restrictions and I have to make everything from scratch.
Once again, these look different to everyone. But let people in, I can guarantee they want to help you.
Learn your limits
Unfortunately, we can’t always stay as active as some of our peers. I don’t have the energy to go on 6 am runs then stay up till 2 am at a bar on the same day. One of the most important things I have done is learning the art of “pacing.” Pacing allows me to stay in touch with my body and make sure I don’t overdo it.
Just like every other college kid: you deserve to have fun! Give yourself a break and shake off some of the pressure. Hang out with friends, stay up late (even if that means you won’t feel well the next day). Sometimes it’s worth making your body hurt if it means your heart is happy.
Sometimes it’s worth making your body hurt if it means your heart is happy.
Navigating college with a compromised immune system during a global pandemic is a whole other mental hurdle. I don’t have all the answers and haven’t been able to put my thoughts into words– but one day I will write a blog post about it. Remember you aren’t alone, even when it feels like it.