5 things you will learn from studying with a chronic illness

Person standing on a bridge with birds in the distant
Person standing on a bridge with birds in the distant

If it’s one thing that you’re made more aware of with a chronic illness, be that physical or mental, it’s what you can or cannot control.

Each day your illness can dictate your life. For some, it's what or when you eat. For others, it's what you wear or where you can go. There are limits that are dependent on how your illness is affecting you on a given day.

You also can’t control how others react to your illness. You can mediate it, you can try your hardest to ignore problems, but illness has a sneaky way of paying you back in kind for every sign ignored, every care not taken.

If, like me, you’re studying with a chronic illness, it’s important to focus on the things that you can control, and to work on being kinder to ourselves for issues that are not our fault.

Here are five things you will learn at university that aren’t on any curriculum.

You will learn ...

Everyone knows where the university medical centre is: it's an imposing building with sterile white interiors. You will learn the doctor’s secretaries' names off by heart, notice when they get a new plant, and know the shifts the different receptionists take.

You will start to make jokes about it being your second home.

At first, they’re tinged with sadness, but then you’re belly-laughing with friends over it. Maybe some people wouldn’t find it funny, but life can be hard sometimes and it’s easier to laugh.

You will see many different doctors in the course of your degree, most of them kind. Some of them won’t be. You will get over your fear of blood tests. Know medical jargon, and know that when people ask oh, what's wrong then? that they didn’t actually want that much detail. But you had to research obsessively or the doctors would say that you are too young or you worry that they'd assume you’re trying to get out of an assignment.

You are not trying to dodge an assignment.

You wish, more than anything, that you could do the assignment. You will learn that you shouldn’t compare yourself to anybody else.

You never consciously thought that it was – in fact, the opposite – but when it comes down to calling yourself disabled, you struggle. With close friends, you test it out like a foreign word and it chokes your throat. You say you’re going to ‘student support’, not ‘disability services’.

You backtrack when that word slips out in conversation and somebody asks well, you don’t look disabled, so what’s wrong with you? You could rattle off the list whilst thinking about what groceries you need to buy, or what reading you have to do. You will learn to laugh when people say they don’t really know what any of that means.

You will learn to laugh, even when you’re angry that some professionals don’t seem to be listening. You have to laugh at the bad ones. But then you will learn how to explain your condition, even if sometimes you wish you didn’t have to. You will learn that some people will research it, and that some people will anticipate that you may need to sit down and rest before even you do. You will learn that some people will stick around.

That doesn’t mean that you should.

You learn your limits. You learn that it’s okay to cancel on things, that the people who don’t try and understand and make you feel small, less cool, less ‘one of them’ because sometimes you’re not able to go everywhere or do everything, don’t matter.

You will learn that the people who do care about you will come to your house when you can’t go out, and call you when they haven’t heard from you in a while. Call you when they’re just thinking about you. You will learn how to care for them too, but not at the expense of yourself.

You will learn that discussing how and why you may need extra help isn’t a bad thing. You will learn that you are not a bad thing, for being ill. Your friends will buy one another coffee when you go out, knowing that whoever buys this round, the other will pay next time.

You will begin to learn how to rest, and you will keep learning for the rest of your life.

You try and struggle without them, pretending that you’re fine because this is a lifetime thing you have. You feel a deep sense of shame that you’re not coping like the others.

You will soon realise nobody – really, nobody – is coping half as well as you think they are. They are all struggling in their own imperfect ways.

You will learn that your illness, the life you lead, isn’t fair; that the world does not want to accommodate or see you. You will learn that you have to be kind to yourself to make up for this disparity.

You will begin to ask for accommodations. At first you will be quiet, with many a plea that it’s okay if not, no really, I’m fine... but then you learn to be louder. More assertive.

You will use your extra time, you will ask for extra help, you will take your accommodations and you will learn to not feel guilty. Your grades will improve from this. You will learn to feel proud of yourself.

Regardless of your degree, you will learn many important lessons at university: how to write for different audiences; how to acknowledge the work of others; that you shouldn’t drink four cups of coffee after 11pm.

However, the most important thing you will learn at university is that you have a voice. You’ve always known you have one, but now you value it more than ever. You respect it.

You will use it to stand up for others. You will use it to stand up for yourself. To set boundaries, and to apologise for overstepping others. You will use it in class discussion, and to make friends at societies.

You will use it when an elderly man looking for directions asks which way it is to the voting polls. He tells you that he has to vote because he’s gay and he’s worried about his rights, and he’s been quiet for too long. You say, yes, you definitely understand that.

You have been quiet for too long, too. But you’re not now, and maybe that's the best thing university ever taught you.