Education and Chronic Illness

Now let’s get something straight on the table before we begin. I recognise my privilege here, and understand that my experience is not universal. I’m not trying to speak for everyone, but I hope some parts of this post are useful, even if our stories are different.

I’m straight, white, cis (my gender identity matches the sex I was assigned at birth), and am fortunate enough to have family that could help me financially throughout my studies. These components mean that I likely have had easier access to services than some other disabled students. This absolutely should not be the case, but I recognise that as the system stands there are many others that are having different experiences to me. Please know that it is the system at fault, and not you. You are deserving.

Also please note that this advice comes from my failings just as much as my successes. I’m in no way claiming to be an all-knowing wise individual. I’m just a girl that tried her best, made some mistakes, and learned along the way. I hope the things I’ve learned can somehow help you, if not with your own studies then in reassurance that you are not in this alone.

In summary of my education and illness – I got sick when I was in my last year of high school (16/17 years old). I had decided I wanted to go to university to study fashion branding, and received a conditional offer that I could get my place if I received a B in my business management exam. Fair enough, but I was hardly ever in school and spent the vast majority of my time either in hospital or asleep at home – how could I possibly manage to get that B?

Well, that’s where my business management teacher came in. I doubt he’ll ever see this, but without sounding dramatic my entire life would be different if he hadn’t put as much effort into helping me.

He could see I was struggling, but that I was trying my best. He could see I was genuinely trying, and was genuinely interested, I just needed help. And so he gave it to me. He taught me things I’d missed over our lunch, allowed me to sit tests I’d missed in the staff room and ensured I was left in peace to do so.

If I hadn’t had got that B, I wouldn’t have gone to uni. If I hadn’t gone to uni I wouldn’t have realised how much I loved graphic design. If I hadn’t then gone to study graphic design This Thing wouldn’t exist. I’m so grateful he chose to help me in any way he could. Cheers Mr N.

At uni I went full time, but again I was hardly ever there. I genuinely believe I was in a hospital bed more than I was a lecture hall my first few years there. I was lucky that the subject I was studying was theory based and didn’t require much practical participation, ie: I could catch up from home. However, when I went back for third year I lasted 2 weeks.

After a mere few weeks I knew that this wasn’t possible anymore. There would be no catching up from home this time, I needed to sleep – and only sleep. So I took a year out and did just that. It was hands down one of the best decisions I have ever made. Present Jenny is grateful to past Jenny for being brave enough to admit she couldn’t do it. I’m proud of myself for that, more so than the pride I feel about eventually getting my degree.

After a year out I went back for a final one, and got my BA with distinction in 2016. It should have taken me 3 years, but it took me 4, and that’s okay. After that I went to college to study graphic design. With it being a smaller institution and a much smaller class I found it to be a far more accommodating and supportive environment compared to university. Again, I’m very grateful to the staff there, and their help made all the difference.

I completed my first year full time, but after that had to drop down to part-time. Again, I had to admit to myself that I couldn’t carry on in the way I had been. Again, I made a decision that was difficult but that I’m proud of. It was simply necessary, and that is not something I need to be ashamed of.

This year I received my Diploma, a year after I thought I would, and that’s okay.

I’ve learned a lot over the past 8 years, about my subjects as well as myself. There’s been a lot of tears (particularly in my final year of college) and I’m so glad it’s over. Having said that I’ve still enjoyed my studies overall, and I’m grateful for the experiences I’ve had.

I know sometimes people are in situations where they don’t feel comfortable or safe being open about their health problems, and for that I’m truly sorry. But my first piece of advice is, if you can, be open. Please don’t feel like you’re being needy or a pain by being clear on what you need. It is literally these peoples job to help you. Yes, sometimes teachers are better at it than others and put in the extra effort, but regardless you are deserving.

You are deserving.

Hopefully there are services in place to help disabled students in your establishment, there should be. Talk to them if you can, even if you don't identify as disabled. Whether you're suffering from chronic illness, mental illness, long term injury etc you're entitled to help. Even if you’re not entirely sure yet on what you need. I went to learning support in college and literally said “I have no idea if or how you can help me, but I just need everyone to know. I need everyone to be aware of my circumstance, and that I’m trying”.

At uni I received extra time in exams, at college there were no exams on my course but I received some extensions on deadlines. My poor attendance was pretty much ignored (in the best way) and I didn’t receive any harassment for not making it in - because everyone knew why. Again, I’m in a position of privilege here I know.

I’m so grateful that I was in a position to be open and I’m so glad I didn’t have to try and hide it. Truly I do not take that for granted.

My next piece of advice, and something that really helped me, was start everything as soon as you get the assignment/brief etc. Well, as soon as you’re able obviously. Even if the piece isn’t due for months, start it now and start it slowly. I used to try to cram the odd essay at the start of uni and then as my health declined I was forced to plan out more thoughtfully. Not an entirely bad thing really, my working practise is much more balanced and effective these days.

At college I never knew how my health would be in a few days, weeks, months and so I couldn’t bet on the fact I could do work in the future. That in no way means I’m suggesting you use up all your energy on studying when you can. I’m not proposing or promoting a boom and bust cycle here. The opposite in fact. Take things slow, your health absolutely comes first.

You come first.

Something that might take an abled student a week or even a (very long and tiring) day, may take you a month or several. That is okay. Any adjustments you make in order to benefit your health and well-being are entirely valid. Leading on from that, please remember to take care of your mental health too. Even perfectly healthy students can understandably struggle under the strain of stress and pressure. Everyone is deserving of help, and it isn’t a failure to need it.

Be mindful of how you are coping, be realistic in your personal expectations, and know that taking a “sick day” for your mental health is just as valid. Your brain needs the same level of care as your body.

On a final note, please know that if you can’t study, can’t finish etc then that is entirely valid also. I know sometimes people like to say that you can do anything and everything you put your mind to, but unfortunately that’s not true. Your story is entirely valid and so are your reasons for it not working. It isn’t that you didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t want it enough. That’s got absolutely nothing to do with it.

I didn’t want it more than you, that isn’t how it works. I’m not worth more because I finished, you’re not worth less because you couldn’t finish or couldn’t go in the first place. I know it’s so frustrating to have to take time out, or to drop out completely, or to not even have the option of trying. You are worthy regardless, and you hold so much value irrespective of your education.

I hope you know that, and that the people around you see it too.