Things I Wish I Knew Before Coming to College with a Chronic Illness

For anyone out there who has a chronic illness, we all know how much of a pain in the ass it can be. Whether it’s diabetes, cystic fibrosis, or migraines, the idea of having to go to college (or go back) is pretty scary. There are so many things that could be triggers and so many factors that could make it worse. I got diagnosed with chronic migraines going into my sophomore year of college and I literally had no clue what would help me back at school besides taking my medications, vitamins, following the lifestyle choices I had made, and knowing my triggers. Yet when I got back to school, I realized that there were so many new things that were triggers. The crazy weather here, too much stress, the crappy food at Saga, the elevation level we were at, and so forth. So here are a couple things I wish I knew before coming to college:

1. Schedule an appointment to meet with Disability Services. Disability Services will be your new best friend and will help you to function academically. They can work with you to write an accommodation form that you give to your professors and here, at least, there are many different kinds of forms. At HWS, there are residential accommodations (such as getting a medical single), meal accommodations (allowing Saga to make food that’ll meet your needs), and academic accommodations (such as getting an extension on how many classes you’re allowed to miss, being able to wear sunglasses in class when looking at screens, double time on all exams, and so forth). If you have a chronic illness, Disability Services is going to be incredibly useful.

2. Bring items with you that help manage your disease. For example, the items I brought to school with me this year to help manage my migraines included a heating pad, Beats headphones (I can’t listen to music but I use them to block out the noise when I'm having a migraine), sunglasses, headache relief balm, ice packs, and so forth. Whatever items you use at home to help you, bring them. It can be anything from a yoga mat, an electric kettle (HWS doesn't allow normal kettles), certain types of tea, an eye mask--whatever helps best, bring it! If you’re not sure what would help, ask your doctor, Google it (even type in on Amazon “migraines” or “cystic fibrosis” to see what items pop up), or ask Disability Services. Having items in your dorm room can be a lifesaver.

3. If you don’t have a single, inform your roommate. You’re going to be spending around 8-9 months living in a small room with another person that you don’t know (unless they’re your friend). Nobody lives exactly the same and, at first, it’s hard trying to adjust the way you have lived the majority of your life with the way another person has lived theirs. So it’s really important to inform your roommate so that they’ll be aware. If there's a conflict or they're being disrespectful, have a conversation with them or talk to your RA. If there are still problems, go to Disability Services and/or Residential Education.

4. It’s okay to have bad days. There’s a huge stigma surrounding disabilities and chronic illnesses; people think we’re weak, being overdramatic, making it up in order to get attention or get accommodations which make things easier for you, and so forth. Obviously, this is a load of bullshit. But not everyone gets that. You have to remind yourself that yes, having a chronic illness sucks, but don’t start believing what society is saying. I know that’s a hard thing to preach and even I struggle with this sometimes, believing that I’m weak for not being able to go to class due to a migraine attack. Yet you have to remind yourself that you can’t feel bad for yourself and believe in these lies. You have a chronic illness and this is your life right now. It’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to have bad days but don’t let those bad days shape your life.

Coming to college is hard when you have a chronic illness and at first you’re going to struggle. But once you get settled in, start figuring out how to accommodate yourself and once you find the right friends, things will start to get easier. That doesn’t mean you won’t have bad days or that your illness will get easier, but you’ll start to settle in and adjust. You’ll know how to help yourself better when you have a bad day and you’ll have friends who you can rely on. Yes, it’s scary at first but it gets better. Despite my chronic illness I don’t regret going back to school because, even though it gets in the way sometimes, being at college is one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had. Don’t let your fear get in the way of that.