Young woman in college.

6 Tips for Your First Year of College With a Chronic Illness


I went to the school clinic a while back to get something for an ear infection. The nurse asked me the usual questions:

“Do you drink?” No.

“Do you smoke?” No.

“Do you do drugs including marijuana?” No.

“Are you sexually active?” No.

She was surprised because without a parent there, there would be no reason to lie to the school nurse. The nurse looked up at me and gave me a funny look, “You don’t do any of those?” No, I smiled sadly.

It’s ironic that college is supposed to be one of the best times of your life. Students are supposed to enjoy new freedoms, take risks, and begin to really live their lives. But not me. I have dysautonomia.

Transitioning to college was super difficult for me. Learning to take care of my body meant no drinking, smoking, or drugs – no typical “college fun.”

Here are a few tips to help your first year of college if you have a chronic illness:

1. Have a support team. Siblings and parents can help you through a lot. You’re going to need friends, too. I was lonely at the beginning of school so I made a support group of friends from high school, family friends, and my family until I made friends at college who became my new support group.

2. Find your limits. Just because you are sick doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. It just might mean a different kind of fun than “college fun.” Most medications rule out the use of alcohol and other drugs like marijuana. Personally, I can’t stay up too late. In the beginning of school, I stayed up to 11 or 12 every night. I learned that wears you down very quickly. Now, I go to bed around 10 every night, and I feel a lot better.

3. Pick the right friends. In the beginning it’s hard to find friends, and once you do, sometimes they aren’t the right friends. Yes, it’s cool to hang out with people who are really having a college experience, but eventually you will feel left out. I felt like I was judged by my friend’s new friends who didn’t know or care about why I wasn’t drinking or smoking. When this happens, it’s OK to distance yourself and find new friends. Remember friends aren’t people who push you to do things you are uncomfortable with.

4. Know you are going to repeat yourself. No one is going to remember your illness so you are going to tell them multiple times. People are going to want justifications for why you aren’t going out or drinking with them. The hardest part about this one is that no one knows what dysautonomia is and it’s not a quick easy answer. So, a lot of people just end up knowing you have a nervous system disorder and you can’t drink, without knowing the correlation.

5. Don’t skip class and don’t procrastinate on your work. For people whose health is more guaranteed, they might be able to skip a day. But for us, that one day might be the only day in a week that you feel alright. You need to save those skipped days for days when you can’t get out of bed or for when you are so sick that you can’t walk on your own. I try to do homework every chance I get just because I know later I won’t be able to. I can’t stay up all night to write a paper that I procrastinated on so I do it in chunks days before so that it gets done on my time when I feel good.

6. Stay close to home. I know it sounds constricting to go to a college so close to home but it has really helped me. I can call my parents at any time because we are in the same time zone. They can come up when ever I need them to. Honestly, when you are at college it feels like such a different world anyway, so it doesn’t seem so close.

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Thinkstock Image By: Nick White

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