Since I first started complaining of experiencing Fibromyalgia symptoms such as chronic pain at the age of 7, attending school has progressively become more and more difficult. Now, 12 years later, I experience constant widespread pain and fatigue. Despite the constant pain that is undoubtedly made worse by me attending university, I still love studying.
I’m the kind of person that enjoyed attending school as a child, and since I’ve been signed off work by my doctor, I feel like I’d be incomplete without study. Distance study could be an option for me since I become exhausted easily, however, I find that I don’t have the same motivation to complete work that I have when I attend classes at a campus.
I find that I have the mindset of if I travel into university, I may as well make the trip worth it by getting as much work done as possible. Plus, despite how boring they can be, I love the vibes of lectures and tutorials.
Please keep in mind that since I live and attend a university in New Zealand, some of these tips and tricks may not be applicable internationally. However, I hope that some of these tips and tricks are helpful to any students with chronic illness who may be reading this article.
Don’t Discount The Option Of Part-time Study
When I was first applying for university, I didn’t want to think about part-time study. I thought that because I (barely) managed full-time study through high school, I should be able to manage full time at university too. Basically, I was in denial. I thought that studying part-time would mean that I wasn’t coping as well as I should be and that I would be less of a student.
Luckily, I was turned down for the full-time program I had applied for, so instead, I had to do a part-time, four days a week program for a year to see if I would cope with the difficulty of the classes. While I did pass my classes during that year, the four-days-a-week schedule was very stressful and caused my health to go downhill.
Due to this, I had to dismiss the full-time program as an option for the next year, despite it being the only program that would give me the qualifications I need for my dream career. When I first had to come to terms with this it was a little heartbreaking. It felt like my dreams and aspirations were crumbling down around me. I now am studying part-time, three days a week in a completely different field. And while this is still difficult for me, I am far more comfortable attending university than I was before.
Contact Disability Services At Your Institution Of Study
When I first started applying to universities during my final year of high school, one of the first things I did was check out their Disability Services and the application process. I had been under the high school equivalent, which, I was told, considerably increased my chances of being accepted by the service. Being under similar services at high school gave me insight as to what to expect and what assistance I may be able to ask for.
The application process was pretty simple. I was given a form to fill out, which required not only a doctor’s input as to what assistance I required but also allowed me to write a paragraph myself about my chronic pain and how it affects my studies. I also attached some notes from my Chronic Pain Clinic Physiotherapist, who I had been seeing for the past two years at that stage, to add further context to my application.
Disability Services has helped me with many things. They have made sure I have a supportive chair in the classes that allow it, and exam considerations such as rest breaks (due to my back pain) and extra time (due to me having Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in the wrist I write with, and brain fog causing concentration issues). I definitely recommend checking to see if this is an option available to you at the institution you attend.
Don’t Be Too Self-conscious To Use A Walking Aid If You Need One
I have been using a walking cane since I was 16. Before that, I had been using crutches constantly to help cope with my hip, knee, ankle, and back pain. I switched to a walking cane because crutches became too harsh on my back and shoulders, causing too much pain to make using crutches worth it.
Being a young person who uses a walking cane, there are times when I can become very self-conscious, especially around other people my age. As you can imagine, this left me very anxious about the prospect of using my walking cane at university. However, I realised that I do need the walking cane to get through the day without collapsing from pain and exhaustion, so I decided that what other people thought of me didn’t matter.
Since my pain levels fluctuate, I love using a walking cane that folds up. This means that I can pack it away in my bag when my pain levels are lower, and then bring it back out when my pain levels are high.
Set Daily Or Weekly Study Goals Instead Of Schedules
Many students like to create an hour-by-hour schedule for completing their assessments and studying content from their lectures. However, when you’re in constant, fluctuating pain, this may not be manageable for you. For me personally, setting a schedule would be like setting myself up to fail, because my pain levels are never at a constant level (unless I’m having a really bad day and the pain is constantly high).
So, say I schedule an hour of study for 4:00pm. I may be feeling ok that morning, but by 4:00 I may be so tired and sore that I can’t concentrate. Instead, I like to set goals such as reading a chapter of a textbook a day leading up to an exam or aiming to complete a certain amount of an assignment within a certain amount of time.
During a particularly bad flare, I may not be able to achieve these goals, but when I’m not in extreme amounts of pain, these goals make studying while in pain achievable.
Keep Your Medication On You
I’m often guilty of forgetting to do this. While I take two large sets of pills first thing in the morning as well as at night, I also take pain medication during the day if required. I find it is far better to have my medication with me and not need it than it is to need my medication and not have any on me.
Since I travel two and a half hours each way to get to my university, the chances are high that I’ll need medication at some stage during the day. Being in too much pain can seriously affect my ability to pay attention in class and take notes, which in turn can put my grades at risk.
For this reason, it is imperative that I don’t forget to pack a sleeve of pain pills in my bag. I also love taking a small tube of Voltaren Emulgel with me to university. It is great for massaging acute aches and pains and works especially well on the swelling I get in my wrist.
Explore Your Campus And Find A Place You Can Rest In Between Classes
If you don’t live on campus and suffer from fatigue, this tip can be incredibly useful. My favourite space to rest at university is a room in the library that has couches and large bean bags. If a bean bag is available, I can put all my stuff down, lay back, and relax. This space also allows eating and drinking, so I can eat lunch and chill in this space.
This tip may seem extremely obvious to people, however, I am often guilty of not drinking enough. I personally like to pack a water bottle that is at least one litre in my bag. While staying hydrated isn’t going to cure your symptoms, it does help with your overall feeling of wellness.
Use An Online Editor For Your Essays
This is honestly a life-saver when it comes to handing in essays. Often when a deadline is looming and I’m finishing off my assignment, my stress levels rise, and as a result, my pain and fatigue levels also do too. This can lead to me experiencing brain-fog as I write, which can result in anything from grammar mistakes to me writing utter nonsense without realising it.
Using a free online editor program such as Grammarly, I can detect any grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors and correct them.
It’s very easy to think you can push through your pain, but then you may end up pushing yourself too hard. It can be so incredibly tempting to “boom and bust”, this, however, can cause more harm than good, especially to your health. For the good of your health and grades, try not to take on too much work at once.
While attending University is definitely a struggle, I absolutely think it’s worth it. It gives me a sense of purpose that I may not have otherwise, and a chance to socialise and expand my knowledge. I hope these tips are useful to any students with chronic illness, and I wish you all the best with your studies.
About The Author
Amy Clements is a 19-year-old who has lived with chronic pain, the result of Fibromyalgia, since childhood. In her teens she was diagnosed with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome in her wrist, which was the result of a netball injury. Amy lives in New Zealand and studies Business part-time at University. She enjoys reading novels and writing. She especially enjoys writing about her experience with chronic illness.