5 Tips for When Your Chronic Illness Gets in the Way of Your Studies

My disease has been clashing with my studies since my second year of my undergraduate school, as well as a minor flare up in my first year. In my third year of undergrad, my Crohn’s disease became more aggressive, and this has lasted throughout my masters and has resulted in me getting a colostomy.

Despite having Crohn’s disease since the age of 9, I undermined the impact the disease would have when I moved away to start university. I had experienced a number of flare-ups and having a flare-up at university was exceptionally different and twice as difficult.

The purpose of this article is to highlight a number of things I have learned from my experience in the hopes it helps others struggling to cope. Although my own experience was with Crohn’s Disease, my “tips” are not exclusive to this disease.

1. Don’t overstrain yourself.

Symptoms of the disease are not compatible with the university’s agenda. Due to the digestive issues, I avoided eating almost completely. I would eat on average a cheese scone or two a day from the university café, and the remaining proportion of my diet would consist of coffee and energy drinks.

This inevitably led to fatigue and a dire lack of concentration. Aside from digestive symptoms, my others included severe cramps, joint pain, legs swelling, (projectile) vomiting, insomnia and fevers. These symptoms can be persistent, progressive but also unpredictable, so I became anxious (or unable) to leave the house. As a result of this, and numerous hospital stays thrown into the mix, I missed an abundance of lectures, deadlines, seminars and meetings. Once you enter this cycle, it is difficult to get back on track. I was dissatisfied with the work I produced and struggled with balancing the disease and work.

2. Take time off.

When I say I struggled to balance the disease and work, what I should say is I denied the severity of the disease, but continued to struggle under the assumption I wasn’t working hard enough, or I was stupid. Due to the nature of the disease, I became very isolated and, like so many people living with chronic diseases, this developed into anxiety.

I had anxiety attacks in seminars and lost confidence which reflected in my essays. To exacerbate this, I was limited in the resources I could access. Due to digestive hassle and other things, I rarely used the library and was reliant on online materials. In hindsight, I should have taken time off, a gap year, to heal and avoid it progressing.

3. Chat with your tutor/professor.

Because my confidence took a beating, I was too embarrassed to “bug” my professors for support. I got extensions, but I continued to waver. Remember: the support is there. My tutor at the time was incredibly compassionate and seemed to genuinely care about my progress. To my fault, I rarely made appointments to see her as I considered myself annoying and hated sending the dreaded email beginning with “Unfortunately…”

I initially tried to contact professors explaining absences and asking for important information to be forwarded. One professor emailed me back saying it was my responsibility to turn up. I doubt she would have thought so if I vomited everywhere.

Of course, looking back, it raises two points. Firstly, the fact my valid reason was brushed aside suggests professors are confronted with a large amount of “lazy” students who give any excuse for not turning up. Secondly, that some diseases are not recognized as serious, if at all recognized.

To counteract this, make an appointment with your tutor and ask for an email to be circulated to your professors explaining your condition and limitations. Further, before an assignment, make a meeting with your professor to discuss your paper so you avoid being isolated (if you end up missing lectures) and you can prepare sufficiently.

4. Chat with the support team.

Chatting with your tutor can only give you so much support. To ensure your back is covered or for advice, make an appointment with the university’s disability support team. Support teams normally provide a range of services such as making tailored support strategies, modified exam arrangements, help accessing resources and even financial advice.

When I tried contacted mine during my studies, I was directed to the Students’ Union, and back and forth. My advice would be to contact them at the beginning of your course just to make them aware you have a condition, so subsequent contact will be effectual.

5. Network with other people with chronic disease.

This is perhaps my most important piece of advice. It was only after my most recent surgery that I met another person with Crohn’s disease. She, like me, is ambitious and would like to pursue academia. She, unlike me, paced herself during flare ups and took time away from her studies to recover and received regular support from her university. Chatting with her made me aware Crohn’s is debilitating (so I was not just stupid), and the physical and psychological impact can cause serious damage. Networking helps avoid isolation and serves as a reassurance that you are not alone. You can empathize with people facing similar challenges and trade advice when able to.

Throughout the many years of relapse I dodged intrusive questions by my doctor to avoid surgery and because I was uncomfortable with having the disease itself. Since surgery, I don’t care about having the disease and feel confident enough to strive for a career.

Before university I had wanted to get a Ph.D. and move away. Crohn’s has interrupted this plan, but I am mainly at fault here as I didn’t give my body time to recover, which, unintentionally, aggravated the disease further. Due to Crohn’s my masters was done on the distance learning program as I assumed it would diminish anxiety and be more in line with the disease. I was wrong.

The disease is painful, isolating and exhausting. Be sure to make it a priority to deal with. My overarching advice, therefore, is to step back and recover, join networks of support and appreciate the severity of the disease in order to manage it appropriately.


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