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8 Aspects of Being a Student With Chronic Pain at University

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Being at a university comes with its own challenges: learning how to cook for yourself, managing your own money, motivating yourself to do work. But having a disability or chronic illness can make this list that little bit longer.

1. It’s difficult to tell all the new people you meet about your condition.

It’s Fresher’s week and you’ve met at least 100 new people. You know you won’t see most of them ever again and that’s fine, but there are those who you will – people in your courses, in your flat or halls and those you’ve connected with instantly. When is the right time to tell them that you might spend the next three weeks in bed? Or that you might need them to pick up something you drop because your back pain prevents you from doing so? Or ask them to tie your shoes?

2. Your new friends are having to sacrifice for you when they barely know you.

These new friends you do make are having to get to know what it’s like having a friend with a disability or chronic pain. They may have to take the bus with you into town instead of walking, costing them money they wouldn’t usually have to spend, or they might need to leave 20 minutes before they usually would because it takes you that much longer to walk anywhere. It could be they have to carry your stuff, watch out for you on nights out, learn your medication routine. Any which way, it can be so difficult watching people do stuff for you, no matter how “easy” it may seem for them.

3. You’re asking a lot from people who owe you nothing.

This is made worse by the fact you’re all only 20 and no one likes to feel like a burden.

4. Missing school or work is annoying and not “lucky.”

You might have a flag next to your name on the register which means you “get away with” not being in lectures, seminars, labs, tutorials, etc. – your attendance is not something you can be penalized for. For those who don’t understand or know you, you can see why they might think it’s a blessing – you can miss school as much as you want and not have to go to a hearing or be kicked out. But it isn’t. Not going to a single law seminar since before Christmas, not knowing what your sociology essay is even about because you’ve missed all the lectures or not even knowing who’s teaching you politics because you haven’t made it to any of the tutorials is exhausting. If anything, you end up having to work twice as hard because the days you do feel well enough to get out of bed are spent meeting tutors and catching up with all the lectures and work you’ve missed. I’d do anything to be able to attend everything.

5. You miss nights out, pub crawls, shopping trips and parties.

The inevitable time will come when your chronic pain hits you with full force. At this time you’ll probably end up shutting yourself into your dorm room and not really leaving it for a week or two. You let your friends know your pain is bad and you won’t be able to join in much, but of course it sucks. You can’t expect them to drop everything – they want to enjoy the “best years of our lives.” You miss out on your favorite club night, exploring new bars and pubs, trips to Five Guys, the movie theater and the shopping mall and you miss your friend’s party. You have to try and explain to people outside of your immediate friend group why you’re not able to go, which is exhausting. You’re often met with “Oh right, get well soon,” even though you’ll have this illness for the rest of your life, or “But we’ll be sitting down in the cinema, you won’t need to walk.” Well yes, but I do have to get dressed, walk to the bus stop, sit on the bus for 40 minutes and then sit, without being able to stretch, for about two hours. It brings you down but you power on because “there will always be next time.”

6. It is so isolating and lonely.

You can’t expect people to always go out of their way for you. It is difficult to always ask for help too. You don’t want your friends to stop having nights out just because you can’t, but at the same time, you’d love them to offer to have a night in with you or have a movie evening. Most of the time this won’t happen. You’ll sit in your room thinking about the times you could go out and how lonely you feel. Even when your pain isn’t the worst it has been but it’s bad enough to warrant a day off, you feel like you’d drag the mood of any social event down because being in chronic pain or having a disability is difficult to accept sometimes, and this can affect your mental health. The isolation you often feel just perpetuates this more.

7. You meet some amazing people.

There will be some people who make life a little bit unbearable sometimes. For me it’s people in clubs who push me or people who ask why I’m always out of class but feel uncomfortable when I tell them – no fault of their own. But there will be people whom you’d never have met if it wasn’t for your chronic pain or disability. Whether these people are fellow illness warriors, welfare officers, the friends who stick with you through the tough times or even the person you’ll probably never see again who helped you pick up your shopping bag when you dropped it, no questions asked. These people make you realize that no matter how low you feel or how much pain you go through, you are never alone. In fact, you probably have the most number of people who are willing to go that extra mile for you than you ever had before or will have again.

group of college friends

8. You’re still at college and having an amazing time the other half of the time.

When your pain is under control and you’re feeling good, you’re studying a subject you love, you get to go on great nights out, visit new places, meet new people, spend time with the people you know will be your friends for life and, most importantly, you’re independent and you love life.

College has taught me so much about who I am and how I cope with my pain. Life isn’t without its struggles, but it’s so worth it.

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Originally published: April 10, 2017
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