College | Coping | Daily Life
College is a huge transition, ESPECIALLY if you are living on campus or going out of state. And ESPECIALLY if you have a chronic illness. My downfall was allowing my illness to become my identity. I became the “sick girl” on campus and it was hard to deviate from that role. That does not have to be your story. Let’s ease the anxiety and ramp up the excitement!! Hopefully, these tips and conversation prompts will be helpful to you as the fall semester quickly approaches!
My words of wisdom for anyone preparing for college would be…
I would encourage you to be transparent about your symptoms and how they impact you, and how it may impact your friends, or perhaps other students you have to do group work with. Sometimes our chronic illness can make us look flaky, moody, exhausted, or a ton of other things we don’t actually feel. If you say “Hey, I’ve been pooping all day. I feel so dehydrated, can you get me a bottle of water?” That is so much easier than hunched over a table trying to pretend to be normal, right?
You will find your people and I bet you’re going to find other students with chronic illnesses that can relate and connect with your experience. When you’re chronically ill, it can be isolating or lonely – so get involved in something. Maybe something low energy if that is more your speed. Community colleges have clubs too! You may just have to be a little more intentional about finding the clubs there, depending on the school.
Every school (in the US) has a disability support center. Maybe you do not need academic accommodations right now, but would it hurt to make contact and have documentation on hand, if needed? Every school is going to be a little different, but it would be worth it to make contact with someone as a go to person if needed. The campus support services will have even better resources for you that are specific to you and your school. Just check it out, at least for information sake.
When I was in school and struggling, I saw a counselor at our campus wellness center and it was my saving grace. I had a place where I could be understood and it was convenient for me being on campus, which is always helpful with a chronic illness. It was a service for students, so there was no cost. Please check out counseling and mental health resources on campus. Make this part of your self-care routine.
If comfortable, be upfront from the start and let them know if you may be out for any upcoming doctor appointments, sick days, or flares. The more the professor knows about the challenges of your condition, the more flexible they are likely to be about extensions or collaborative solutions.
Heating pad, first aid kit, heated blanket, cooling blanket, fan, heater, medical supplies, comfy clothes, emergency puke bags from the hospital, Medication box, comfort snacks, sound machine to block noise, sleep mask, and anything else that increases your comfort.
Get all your prescriptions beforehand. Schedule your doctor appointments when your school workload may be less. Collect information about local urgent care or hospitals beforehand. Know where you are going to store your medication or supplies the day you move in.
If fall has started and you haven’t found your on campus crew yet, connect with your people at home or elsewhere. Maybe that is your GIrls With Guts family, biological or chosen family, friends, or a counselor of some sort – do not isolate.
Don’t pretend to be fine. It’s okay to be struggling to find friends, or missing home, or fear about others not understanding your medical needs, fear of failure, etc. All of this is normal and it is okay to say you are struggling. It’s okay to say “I don’t need you to fix this, I’m just adjusting still.” It is going to get better and easier in time, I promise!
Have “quiet time” established with your roommate (nonverbal indicator, or scheduled time).
Let yourself get that B instead of an A. If it means taking care of yourself, let yourself slack off. If you are struggling just to stay afloat, consider allowing the goal to focus on graduation and not GPA. Remember, this is when accommodations may come into play if there are medical factors preventing you from completing work on time or to the best of your ability.
When you can’t meet the goal, change the goal. Remember this mantra : Small achievable goals. When you hit the small goals, move on to the bigger goals.
It can be confusing or overwhelming trying to figure out how much information or what information is appropriate to tell a new roommate. Some of us are very open and I would recommend slowly revealing the details of your illness or your journey, especially if this person is “typically healthy” and may need a slow introduction to really process your experiences.
If you are the opposite and really don’t like sharing the most intimate details of your life, that’s okay. However, I would challenge you to, at minimum, share with your roommate(s) how your illness may affect your living together, or how it may impact them directly. When I was in college, I moved into an apartment with four other women. One bathroom. One toilet. The girls would be doing their hair and make up in the morning and I was too embarrassed to poop in front of them, so I walked to another building to poop every morning. It was miserable and there were a lot of close calls. Please don’t be me. Please don’t live in shame. Your roommates can’t understand what is happening or be considerate to you or your needs if they do not know what your needs are or how your illness impacts you. Your roommate may assume you are “fine” until told otherwise.
I want to let you know I do have a chronic illness. This is what I think would be helpful for you to know right now…
What is your bedtime routine?
How often would you like to have guests over?
What is your preference for a bunk bed?
What is your energy level like?
On my bad days, my symptoms may look like….
On those bad days, I’d appreciate it if you… (Give me space, leave the lights off, be in the room with me, but doing separate things, etc)
What are your thoughts on locking the door? (If you have prescriptions on hand, you want to make sure they are secure. Ya know, besides general safety of course.)
If I ever pass out or go to the hospital, here are emergency contacts I would like you to call…
Hopefully, this provides some helpful information and tools to use to make your transition to college as smooth as possible. When and if you are feeling anxious, try changing all the negative “What if” thoughts to positive. What is the downside to being excited? What if these are the best years of your life?
You got this. Congratulations, again.
Read More About College and IBD and/or Ostomy on our College LifeStage Page, which includes links to more blogs, a list of additional tips, and information on how to obtain accommodations.
Jessica Plummer was diagnosed with Crohn’s during her sophomore year of college in 2008. Now, she works as a mental health therapist in Maryland and volunteers with Girls with Guts.