Chronic Illness in College

This weekend I was in Southwest Virginia in a town called Blacksburg, Virginia where I spent four wonderful years going to college at Virginia Tech before graduating in 2015. I have family who currently lives in Blacksburg, family who grew up in Blacksburg and family who also previously attended and some who currently attend Virginia Tech.

Basically, Blacksburg is my second home.

Virginia Tech football

While I was there I experienced overwhelming nostalgia for my college years – having little responsibilities, living down the street from all of my closest friends, waking up & going to bed whenever I wanted, etc. However, my time in college was different from my peers in one particular way: I went through college dealing with chronic illness.

I had to adapt in certain ways my peers did not have to. Some nights I didn’t feel well enough to go out, sometimes my migraines sent me home early from football games, I usually had to skip out on hikes or long outdoor activities, sometimes I fell asleep in class even when I tried my hardest to stay awake (thanks, narcolepsy) and so many other situations during which I had to adapt to or avoid because of my chronic illness.

But the key word here is adapt.

I want to share some of my tips & tricks for adapting to college life when you have a chronic illness. I hope these can in some way help students who are preparing for college or who are currently in college who need someone to just understand for once.

For Classes

  • Speak with your professors at the start of the semester/year.
    • It’s important for them to know that sometimes things come up unexpectedly (like the surprise migraine) and if you speak with professors early on, you can work together on a plan for if that occasion arises. Your professors want you to succeed!
  • Sign up for classes, when you can, that have online lectures available.
    • If you can’t make it to the in-person lecture, maybe they have an online version you can watch so that you don’t fall behind
  • Schedule classes so that you have breaks in-between.
    • You may need time to rest in-between or extra time to get to class from class.
  • Don’t pull all-nighters.
    • They aren’t worth it!
    • Often times, when we deprive ourselves of sleep, it makes the pain so much worse and longer-lasting.
  • Schedule classes during times that are best for you
    • If you have narcolepsy like me, early morning classes are near impossible.

For Leisure & Student Life

  • Make migraine kits – one for at home, one to keep in your backpack
    • It’s always important to keep things like extra meds, water bottles, etc. in your backpack so that if your symptoms get worse while you are on campus, you are prepared.
    • Don’t underestimate the value of things like a sleeping mask & ear plugs (for if your roommates are having people over but all you want to do is sleep) or things like bedside meds (for when the pain is too bad and the thought of getting up to go across the room to find your meds is totally out of the question.)
  • Don’t try to over do it
    • If you know the long trek across campus will cause your symptoms to flare, catch a bus, call an uber, ask a friend to drop you off. It’s OK to need assistance.
    • If you know that drinking or socializing will push you over the edge because your pain is already creeping up on you, listen to your body! Don’t overdo it.
  • Keep some of your favorite movies & shows queued up on Netflix, always have snacks in the house & buy some comfy pillows & PJs
    • Some nights you will have to stay home when your friends are out. Make sure you have the necessities for a perfect movie night in or a successful self-care evening. This will distract you and also help you take care of yourself.
  • Plan a night in – your friends will understand that sometimes it’s too much for you to go out and if they’re your good friends, they will enjoy just spending time with you! Plan a game night, movie night, etc. for a Friday – the perfect activity after week of classes & studying.

But most of all, have compassion for yourself. It’s OK to need a little more help than others or do get things done at a slower pace or to need different adaptions & exceptions than those around you. College is a time for learning not only on an academic level, but on a personal level. You are learning more about yourself in those four years than you can imagine. Have fun. Be present. Enjoy yourself. There’s no other time like it.

Napping In Public & Not Letting Pain Cancel My Plans

This weekend I made a quick weekend trip away with my little brother to Duke University! He wanted to visit the campus & my Virginia Tech Hokies we’re playing them in a football game that weekend, so it was a win-win.

We enjoyed walking around the campus (I’ll admit, it was beautiful.) The weather was great, sunny & breezy & not too too hot.

But as luck would have it, I ended up with a bad headache about an hour or so before the game was supposed to start. I wasn’t surprised by the pain, because we had been walking around for hours in the sun (and the campus isn’t flat, so there were lots of going up & down hills/stairs.)

Walking up stairs, exhausted, out of shape

My exertion headaches have always been ruthless & I haven’t been able to find any treatment that has helped them. So I always just have to suck up the pain if I want to participate in certain outdoor activities.

Because my brother is so patient & always supportive, he was ok with us sitting down and relaxing in the student center for about an hour before the game. We managed to find a place where I could nap for a short bit, because I knew at that point, only sleep would help decrease the pain I was feeling. So that’s what I did, I shamelessly napped in the Duke University Student Center. But honestly, it helped! I felt a lot better when we got to the game and I was able to enjoy the experience with my brother & create those memories with him. I didn’t want to let my pain stop me from being able to do that.

Moral of the story: Listen to your body & do what you need to do to lessen your pain. Getting awkward stares while you nap in public is worth feeling good enough to enjoy whatever event/evening/etc that you had planned! And don’t be afraid to ask the people you’re with to adapt their plans to help you feel better, because trust me, they want you to feel better too!

Shout out to my brother who encouraged the public napping & who is always willing to adapt plans to make sure I’m feeling ok💛

Duke university