Recognizing Your Limitations as a College Student With Chronic Pain


College is an exciting and mysterious time for any young adult. It is a time when one can finally be “free” to explore themselves and the world around them without any judgment or limitations. For most college-bound adults, the word “limitations” refers to their small hometown, the people who they grew up with who know everything about them and maybe, in part, even their family. However, to a college student who is chronically ill, the word “limitations” takes on a whole new meaning. Limitations to this select group often means their medical conditions, doctor appointments, medications and their very present chronic pain. When you are ready as a young adult to enter into the life phase known fondly to most as “the best years of their lives,” a chronically ill college student needs to remember the three important Cs: college, care and chronic illness.

When you arrive at college it is very easy to quickly feel overwhelmed by the new environment around you, and a lot of people don’t seem to have a care in the world. But as a chronically ill individual, you have to remember that you will not always fall into that category, and this is OK. When you are sick, all-nighters, no sleep and a poor diet aren’t always in the cards for you. A lot more is at stake with your health, which requires you to be a little more selective than other freshmen. You have to know your limits. For me personally, I know that I need sleep, and if I do not get at least nine hours of it, I will not function. As a result of this, I aim to be in bed by 11 p.m. every night at the latest. I know I cannot pull all-nighters and I know I can’t go out and party then show up to my 9 a.m. without sleep the next day. While plenty of my friends can do this, I realize it is just a limitation for me. And the important thing is, I am OK with this. I’ve come to accept that I am not your typical college student, but I also know that this fact isn’t going to hurt me. It may, in fact, be very beneficial, as I have found a sense of self-control – something some people search for all four years of their undergraduate degree.

Something I have struggled with, having completed my first full semester and currently beginning my second semester in college, is accepting that I have done everything I can do when it comes to my work ethic. As some of my fellow chronically ill freshmen can probably agree, it isn’t easy to allow yourself to stop what you are doing and take a break. Being that we are sick and have so little control in our personal lives, it is easy to seek that out in schoolwork. My nature is to push myself. I have always been a bit of a perfectionist – OK, maybe more than “a bit” – but there is a legitimate reason behind this; school is the only thing I feel like I can control. I have no say in how painsomnia the night before may affect me, no say in whether I will awake to “normal bad pain” or “debilitating pain” and no say in how long it will be before my body simply says “you are all out of energy, and therefore cannot do any more.”

With this being said, it is very easy to throw myself into my schoolwork, as I search for some sense of normalcy. But I am here to tell you that in doing this, you need to be careful and err on the side of caution. Only you know your limits, so take it easy on yourself and do not push past them. There is a difference between “healthy perseverance” and neglecting your body. It is OK to push through your pain to finish that last math question so you can call it a night. It is not OK, however, to ignore the fatigue that is washing over you as you’re trying to get ahead of the syllabus for your courses.

College is all about taking things at your own pace. Who cares if you do not finish the same amount of work as your peers as quickly as they did. All that matters is that you get it done and that you are proud of yourself for making it through. Statistics state that most people do not finish their undergraduate degree on time, and that includes people who do not struggle with chronic illness and pain. It is OK. You will get there, but it will be on your own time. Keep a line of open communication with your professors, advisors and your school’s disability services, because taking advantage of these resources will only help you in the long run. And most importantly, take the time to give yourself a break. You deserve quality care and that sense of self-love can only start with you. Remember: be kind to yourself, be gentle with yourself and be fearless in the pursuit of that which sets your soul on fire, and you will never fail.

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