College can be a hard time even when you are perfectly healthy, but when you have a chronic illness on top of everything, life can seem pretty rough. I had a lot of anxiety when I started college and was terrified about how I was supposed to live away from home and go to long labs and boring lectures, all while dealing with pain. It’s the middle of my second year and I’m still learning tips on how to manage school, but who isn’t? As for endo, I have a pretty solid idea of what I need to survive college. Everyone is different, especially because endo is different in everybody, but here are some of the main tips I would give someone to get through school with a chronic illness:
Remain open and honest with your professors
Depending on what school you go to and how big your classes are, it may be trickier to create a relationship with your professors. I go to a small college and I have a personal connection with all of my professors and I am so thankful for that. Even if you go to a larger university, it isn’t impossible. Most of the time, professors want their students to succeed. The better the average grade in their class, the better they look to the administration. On top of that, they are also people who are capable of understanding. During the first week of classes, I either send an email or stop by their open office hours and just introduce myself and tell them a little about my endo. For example, I might say something like, “I have endometriosis which can cause severe pain at any given time. I don’t expect it to interfere with my classwork, but I just want you to know in case I am not in class. I am not skipping because I think I have something better to do, I am probably laying in bed in pain.” My goal isn’t to make them feel sorry for me, but rather to get them on the same page so they are aware of my situation. I have not gotten a negative response yet which is great! I think it is important to remember that your professors are human and humans make mistakes.
Be honest with your friends
Friendships can be really tricky when you have a chronic illness. In high school, I felt so alone most of the time. My friends didn’t quite understand my issues. I do not blame them at all because I didn’t really explain anything very well. Once I got to college I made a promise to myself to find some people who I trusted enough to tell them everything about the social issues that endo can cause. I knew that not everybody would understand because that is a lot of information and stress that some people just don’t want to take on. However, the very first friend I made at college is the very best friend I have ever made. I was nervous though because he is very outgoing and social. Not only am I an introvert, but I also have endo. I decided that if this friendship was supposed to exist, he needed to know about my limitations. I opened up to him and he admitted he didn’t know the extent of my pain and stress, but now he completely understands what I am going through. Hearing someone validate my reasons for not going out or for canceling plans meant so much to me. I always worried about being a disappointment, but he made that guilt disappear.
When you are making friends, make sure they are people who will not make you feel guilty for not showing up or being as outgoing as they want you to be. You don’t necessarily have to explain everything to them, but make sure you are honest with them. Real friends will understand and continue to love and support you.
Use your resources!!
All of my classes have a “3 absence policy”. This is basically ensuring three days of absence without affecting your grade. After that, points are deducted from your overall grade. When endo-suffering-freshman-me heard this, I was terrified. “Only three days for the whole semester?? I missed 3 days a WEEK in high school!” However, these days, we have fantastic resources that can help you out with this problem. Most schools have a Disability and Accessibility resource for their students. These usually consist of people working with students with disabilities to assure their college experience goes smoothly. Endometriosis may not be considered a disability depending on where you live, but most schools will take a definitive diagnosis from a doctor as proof for accommodations. All I had to do is meet with a counselor at my school and get some papers filled out by my doctor to be registered in the program. I then had to meet with another lady who discussed the reality of what I can and cannot do because of my endo. I told her that the 3 day policy really scared me, so we drafted an email to all of my professors asking for accommodations. This was so helpful! For my health class that required exercise, my professor and I talked about my physical limitations when I am in pain. He and I decided that I would be exempt from the workout days in the class when I was in pain. We made a plan that I can send him proof of other wellness activities that I did outside of class for credit on those days. For example, stretching or yoga would give me my exercise credit for the day I missed and he wouldn’t count it as one of my absences. That was the biggest help because working out with endo can seem impossible.
Another option was video-taped lectures. Many professors will record their lectures and put them online for students. Obviously it is not a substantial substitute because you can’t always ask questions but if you need to miss a lecture, you can talk to your professor about watching it from home after it is posted. When I had surgery back in February, my chemistry professor even offered to FaceTime me during lecture so I could attend class from my bed at home. Technology can be so helpful!
Remain honest to yourself
A big part of college is the social aspect. You are on your own and making new friends, and want to have fun in between studying. Sometimes when I am feeling good, I make big plans for the next couple of days. Then, those days come around and it’s just not going to happen. This ends with me feeling disappointed in myself. A big thing to remember is, be honest with yourself while planning social activities. If three friends ask you to go out at different times, it is okay to say no to one or two (or even all) of them. You need to make sure that you are not overdoing it. The same goes for classwork. I recommend not taking a super heavy course load and getting a job and joining a bunch of clubs as soon as you start college. Take courses that are good basic college courses and that you find interesting enough to keep up the motivation. Getting a job might be something that you need financially, so if you do, try to find a job that will allow for homework to be completed during your shift. I have so many friends that work at the library and they can get a majority of their homework done during work. That will save time and energy. As for clubs, it is important that you try to branch out and try new things because you are finally on your own and trying to discover your passions and hobbies. Clubs are a great way to do this. However, before joining, make sure you are aware of the time commitment and make sure you aren’t overdoing it. When the semester started, I was taking 16 credits, working 13 hours a week at the gym as a lifeguard (which doesn’t allow for homework time) and doing research for 6 hours a week. Week 4 came around and a panic attack hit me. How was I supposed to get through my hard classes when I barely have time to study? After discussions with my therapist and my parents, quitting my job seemed like the best option. The important thing is that I sat down and had to have an honest conversation with myself about what I can and cannot handle. Once I did that, a weight was lifted off my shoulder and my grades started improving.
Try to eat right for your body
This tip is the hardest for me to remember myself, but eating right is such an important thing, especially when you have a chronic illness. Food is one of the few things you have control over when you are ill. You can choose what you put in your body, so knowing what you should and shouldn't have is a good idea. I know that when I eat sugar I usually have more pain and acid reflux. I also know that I need to limit my acid intake for my interstitial cystitis. Avoiding foods that make your symptoms worse is such an easy way to feel your best. It doesn't require any medical intervention.
Most kids in college, especially their first year, have some kind of meal plan. Eating right at the school cafeteria can be so challenging. Luckily, schools are becoming more aware of the different food limitations that people have, so there is usually a gluten-free option or a vegan option. For me though, there is an abundance of foods I cannot have. Most cafeterias have a wide selection of pasta, bread, cookies, and ice cream. All of which are my favorites. However, they contain so much sugar and are the top 4 things that make my symptoms worse. Living at home and buying my own groceries (more like my mom buying groceries) makes avoiding these foods way easier. The main tip I have for people who struggle with this is when you see something that you want, but shouldn't have, literally say to yourself, "if I eat this, my stomach will hurt." It seems silly but it really helps.
Get into a schedule
I am the kind of person who needs an itinerary or nothing will get done. I used to use my calendar on my computer, but honestly, it was so much more satisfying to see my day written out on my planner and to be able to cross things off as they were completed. When it comes to making a schedule, figure out your classes and work shifts as soon as possible. Having the same schedule each week really helps get your body into a rhythm. This can help both physical health and mental health. However, going back to being honest to yourself, if your schedule looks too crazy, decide what needs to change and make changes. After quitting my job, I felt so much better because I had more time and energy.
Getting into a schedule doesn't just involve classes and jobs. Make sure you schedule time for friends or other social events, and time for yourself. I make sure I know what time on Thursdays I can take a nap because, without it, I am dragging through the rest of the day. I also know what days I have dinner with friends because, without my scheduled dinners, I would probably never see my friends.
Another great thing to put in your schedule is things like when to take medications or what time you are going to exercise. I have a little checkbox every night at 10 pm and when I take my meds, I check it off. It is a habit to take my meds, but I put it in there just in case I forget--and because checking off a little box brings me so much joy.
Lastly, it is okay to take a day off!!
After all these tips on how to function in college, the most important tip is probably to remember it is perfectly okay to not function for a day. A few days ago on Saturday, I woke up and I just was not okay. My depression was weighing down on me and I couldn't get out of bed. I live with four other girls, and I love them, but I am the kind of person who needs to cry to let my feelings out so I can feel better. However, I hate crying in front of other people, so I have not cried since school started. With all the stress of school and exams, I could feel all of my feelings waiting to explode. I spent the whole Saturday crying in bed watching “This Is Us” (which makes me cry too, but I love it). I woke up on Sunday, and I felt like a whole new person. My body had a chance to recover from months of staying up late studying, and the reset button on my mental health had been pushed.
While it is okay, maybe even healthy, to not be okay every once in a while, I do want to emphasize that if you haven't been okay for a while, or you find that you feel that way many days a week, you need to talk to someone. Whether it is a parent, a friend, a therapist, or even a willing stranger, just talk to SOMEONE. Depression and anxiety can be debilitating, but there are many sources out there to help you get through it.
I decided to start a blog because my mental and physical conditions are constantly changing, and I want to help encourage people with similar experiences, and let them know they are not alone.