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Advice for College Students With Fibromyalgia

For college students with fibromyalgia, great care must be taken to ensure a fulfilling and healthy semester. For me, I found seven ways to handle my college education while having fibromyalgia.

1. Make accommodations for your health.

Before you take that first step on campus, think about what physical accommodations you will need for the semester. For me, the most physically difficult semester is the fall semester. When the weather is colder, I tend to have more pain and less mobility. The best classes for me during the fall semester are online and hybrid (a combination of online and on-campus) classes. In the spring semester, I usually take on-campus classes. During warmer weather, I tend not to have as much pain as I do have during the fall semester.

2. Contact your school’s disability services center.

Thanks to my college’s disability services center, I was able to get academic counseling, tutoring, class accommodations (extended test times and more breaks in class as needed), and access to the staff elevators, so I wouldn’t have to struggle taking the stairs to class. Without those accommodations, I wouldn’t have been able to take classes on campus.

3. Be open and honest with your professors.

Don’t feel embarrassed to speak with your professor about needing accommodations. When I first started college, I felt embarrassed about asking for help. During my first semester, I needlessly struggled. It was making college more stressful than it needed to be. Then, a music history professor reminded me that he was there to help me, not punish me, for needing accommodations. Thanks to him, I feel comfortable asking for help. Though I have come across professors who were less than helpful, with the guidance of my school’s disability services center, I was able to succeed in those difficult classes.

4. Prioritize and pace yourself. 

I put both of these ideas in the same category because if you do not initially set up your priorities, it makes pacing yourself difficult. Currently, I work from home, go to college, have household obligations and am pursuing a writing career. With all of my obligations, this is how I set up my priorities:

A. Take care of my health and personal needs

B. Family needs

C. Work

D. College/homework

E. Household chores

F. Writing

To help pace my priorities, I list everything that needs to be done and what I would like to get done on a dry erase board. My main focus is on what needs to be done. If I am not able to finish what I would like to do, I can leave it on the dry erase board for the next day.

5. Don’t overwork yourself.

I like to get things done as soon as possible and work ahead. But if I overwork myself, my fibromyalgia flares up, causing me to be in more pain and less active then before. I wind up doing less and falling behind. Reasonably do what you can do, or else you risk burning yourself out.

6. There is nothing wrong with needing a break.

I have been in an out of college since I was 18 because of extended periods of absence due to health reasons, including two serious illnesses and major surgery. Today, I’m 26. It can be frustrating seeing people your age graduate with a degree while you’re still in college, but there’s nothing wrong with taking longer for an education. For example, when I take night classes, there are an array of students, of all ages, who go back to school part time for a variety of reasons, like single moms trying to get a better job, military veterans returning to civilian life, and students with chronic medical conditions. Your health is first — everything else is secondary.

7. Resist comparing your situation with “typical” students.

When I hear typical students talk about taking a full load of classes while working a full time job, it makes me feel like I’m lazy. Then I try to compete with them, hurting myself in the process. Breaking this habit feels like I’m trying to quit smoking. Though I understand that my life has had more challenges than the typical student, I still find myself comparing myself to them. This is never constructive.

Looking back, I’m grateful I haven’t had the typical college experience. Because I’ve had to take a longer time to get my education, I learned to appreciate the importance of having a college education. I also benefited from deeply impacting professors. But most importantly, I found two subjects I’m profoundly passionate about, sociology and media studies.

Fibromyalgia might limit me in some ways, but it also motivates me to keep looking for options.

Image via Thinkstock Images

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