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Sick and Thriving: How To Survive College With A Chronic Illness

The transition into college life can be difficult for any student, but when you’re living with a chronic illness, it can be even more trying.

As someone who has been living with a chronic illness for nearly five years now, I understand the difficulties that come with being forced to make life changes in order to better cope with school and daily living.

Currently, I live with endless migraines, nausea, exhaustion, pain, confusion, memory and language problems, incoordination, dizziness, numbness and a host of other problems. This can make it difficult to sit in a bright classroom, listen to a loud lecture and even, as I discovered more recently, take notes.

So to combat this illness, rather than let it take over my life, I have taken steps to continue my education and my career. Here are some of my tricks for those of you looking to find your balance.

  1. Be a Boy Scout (Always be Prepared): The first step is that I always, always, always have supplies with me to help in case of a major flare up. Whether it is the doctor prescribed medication or a bottle of ginger ale and a pack of crackers, I make sure that I keep emergency supplies with me at all times. This is so that if I am sitting in class and suddenly feel sick, I don’t have to leave and miss important information. I also try to keep sunglasses and earplugs with me. By doing this I have the chance to manage a migraine without missing out on class or study time. The sunglasses allow me to filter out bright light and the ear plugs provide me a quiet space, no matter where I am.

  2. Om…: The next step, that I just started in the last few months, is that before bed each night and during the day when I start feeling like I am going to have another nausea attack (this is what my family has dubbed my bouts of illness), I meditate. I discovered an app called Headspace one night through Snapchat. At the end of one of the stories on Snapchat there was this trial of a Headspace session. After repeating it half a dozen times, I promptly downloaded the Headspace app. You get 10 free sessions that you can replay, or you can subscribe and have access to all of the features of the app. I have found that even just copying the breathing exercises taught in the app, I can sometimes slow the onset of a nausea attack or, on occasion, stop it all together. While I used to believe meditation was cheezy, I have learned that it is mostly about self-awareness, or allowing yourself to recognize what your body is feeling without trying to force it to change. Doing this has helped me more than almost anything else I have tried, not to mention it has amazing health benefits backed by science.

  3. Eat Like a Rabbit: Another change that I made in my life is that I improved my diet. My mother used to call me a “junk food junkie,” but now she is repeatedly amazed by how often I incorporate vegetables into my meals and snacks. Now instead of eating chips, I’ll eat snap peas. Instead of eating pepperoni pizza, I’ll eat spinach and feta pizza. Instead of eating Ramen, I’ll eat whole grain or vegetable pasta with a little olive oil and sauteed vegetables. Healthy eating does not have to be bland or boring. If you learn to cook your own meals, you can make them super healthy with any flavor you enjoy.

  4. Know When to Speak Up: Not many people know that I suffer from a chronic illness, but I have had to learn when to let people know. If I am suddenly falling asleep in class or repeatedly missing notes, it is important that I let my professor know what is going on. I have to actively hold myself accountable for everything I do, but also know when to ask for help before it’s too late. Though at times telling people about my illness can make me feel like less of a person, sometimes you have to speak up.

  5. Know When to Stop: Finally, while I don’t let my illness stop me from participating, I know my limits. I enjoy going out with friends and attending university events just as much as everyone else, the only difference being I have to pay attention to what my body tells me and know to stop before I surpass my threshold and end up sick. I still go out and enjoy a healthy social life, but I know when to call it quits.

Like many living with a chronic illness, I know how difficult it can be to share your situation with other people and to explain what you live and struggle with everyday. I spent many years sequestering myself believing that it was unfair to get involved with anything or anyone because it would drag them into my daily hell. But in the end, it is all about knowing yourself. If you know what you can handle, and are honest with yourself and others about it, life, on and off campus, can be just as fulfilling for you as it is for those around you.

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