How to Balance Your GPA and Self-Care as a Chronically Ill Student


Being a college student, especially in graduate school, may be one of the most unhealthy life styles you can choose. There’s no sleep because of the long hours spent studying and stressing about grades and exams. Having been an undergraduate student, a graduate student and a teaching assistant, I have seen both sides of this life and it is always a battle for balance. The years of education I mentioned occurred when I had polycystic ovary syndrome and was obese, but they were prior to chronic pain and chronic fatigue life. I was “that student” that people seemed to hate. I didn’t study and I got fantastic grades, and I picked up new information quickly and could write a 10 page paper hours before it was do and get an A. The two years of college while I have been experiencing chronic pain and fatigue have been some of the worst of my life.

Before I knew what those symptoms were, I was struggling to understand what my professors were saying. I couldn’t focus on the words I was reading, and no matter what time I went to bed or how much sleep, I got I was falling asleep in the middle of class – which is a big deal for me as I have never been able to sleep in public. I was getting Cs and Ds trying to make it through pre-med classes so that I could get into medical school. When I started shaking all the time and having pain in my hands I made a difficult decision, I put medical school on the back burner and decided to peruse law school instead. Lawyers need a steady voice not so much steady hands, like a forensic pathologist would.

Having been in collage far longer than I am willing to admit I can honestly say that self-care is one of the most important things you can do to improve your grades and quality of life. Pushing yourself studying and stressing is not going to help you remember more. Take breaks or naps, plan ahead. I know that has been said time after time, but with chronic illness and the way stress and lack of sleep causes your body to react, trust me, resting on a flare day will impact your education much less than pushing yourself too far and ending up have an even longer and more difficult flare. Also, attending class is very important, but going when you are in terrible pain and with horrible brain fog is not going to benefit you at all and may only make your symptoms worse.

Having been a teacher’s assistant and being in charge of students I can tell you that most teachers (there are always exceptions) are very willing to work with their students. The key here is speaking with your teachers in advance, do not fail an exam after missing serval homework assignments and then go to your teaching saying you were sick. If you know in advance, as most individuals with chronic illness do, have a conversation and see how your teacher is willing to work with you. Also, if you have just started experiencing these symptoms and are in the process of being diagnosed they may be willing to work with that too, do not make the mistakes I always make and keep it all to yourself. You can also try speaking with your advisor about what your options are.

If speaking to your professors makes you uncomfortable another option is to reach out the universities disabilities services to see what their policy is and what they have for accommodations as well as what they work with. Most people look at disabilities services and think wheel chairs and attention-deficit disorder, but they are willing to work with chronic illness as well. There is nothing to lose by having a conversation with them and seeing what options you have.

Do not make the mistake of assuming that your professor knows why your grades are what they are and that you are struggling. Anyone with an invisible illness is very familiar with the phrase, “But you don’t look sick,” and this can be true. If you are struggling let them know, there is no way for them to help you with something they do not even know is a problem. Use the resources that the university has for you, make friends with classmates so you can get copies of the notes or see if there is a program at your university were they have students take notes to give to students with disabilities. You will never know if you do not ask. Being open and honest is key, and whenever possible, speak to the professor or disabilities services before it get bad – it is much easier to make a plan before the battle than during it.

Last and most important, do not compare yourself and do forgive yourself, two things that I have struggled with since the onset of my symptoms. When you have a chronic illness it is extremely isolating and tends to make the world feel like you are separate for everyone else and this leads to comparisons. Do not compare yourself to other students, do the best you can, and communicate with you professors. These things will help you be successful and remove the anxiety and stress that occur when you cannot do what you need to. Also forgive yourself, maybe you were having a flare day and couldn’t go to class or you did, and then did bad on a pop quiz. It happens some days. Just battling to get up and get a drink feels like war, but blaming yourself and being angry while allowed are not going to fix anything.

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