When you type the words “chronic illness college” into google, you get 252,000,000 results in 0.58 seconds. The first title to pop up is “Guide For College Students Living with a Chronic Condition,” followed by “28 ‘Hacks’ for Going to College With Chronic Illness,” “12 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Going to College with a Chronic Illness,” and “Surviving college with a chronic illness.” I had planned to make that number 252,000,001 by writing something very similar until I tried reading a few and realized how irritating they are. To start, there’s the dramatic, anxiety-provoking titles and dumbed-down language that makes you think you, the person actually managing the disease (and doing a great job) are stupid. Then, there’s the fact that many of them are written by people who have no actual experience on the subject. And finally, the real source of my frustration is that most of these articles lie. A chronic illness is not a packing list, and it can’t be tackled by checking off boxes or pretending to be “normal.” Teaching people that it can be is wrong.
I know this post won’t be on the first page of google when someone like me types in “chronic illness college” and hits enter. I know they’ll instead be bombarded with the same numbered lists of “must haves” and “must knows” that make them feel like their entire existence is being reduced to a step by step problem. I know that they may choose to follow one of those lists because it seems like the logical thing to do. But if I’m going to spend the time changing that 250,000,000 to 250,000,001, I want my 1 to tell the truth: that there is no “guide” for going to college, or high school, or camp, or anywhere with a chronic illness, because there’s no guide for living in the first place.
So, instead of using my 1 to make a list, I wrote a letter. It’s addressed to the me-from-the-past that was swamped with college applications and wondering how I was supposed to handle having Crohn’s on top of all the regular college mess. And in a sense, it’s also addressed to everyone who’s been in her shoes, past, present, and future. But if that isn’t you, feel free to read it anyway. I know it won’t get as many views as the 250,000,000 links above it, but I’m glad that it’s out there, and I’m hopeful it will find the right people.
Dear past me,
Hi. It’s current me. I know future me will look at this one day and think that I’m a massive idiot, but she’s not around right now so it’s all good. You’re nervous. You’re tired. You’re so tired. So am I. It’s almost like we’re the same person!
But you know what past me? All that nervousness and all that tiredness doesn’t mean what you think it does. It doesn’t mean you’re taking the wrong path, and it doesn’t mean you’re going to fail. It doesn’t mean your expectations are too high and that you aren’t capable. I know you’re stressed about the future, and school, and where you’ll end up. You’re thinking about how you’re going to have to start all over with new people and new teachers and new systems and it all seems like so much, and you’re just tired and you don’t know how you’re going to find the energy to make it all happen.
There are so many extra meetings, and extra forms, and extra accommodations, and extra details to figure out just because you have this thing. This thing that takes up so much time and energy and attention. And it’s not fair, because most people don’t have to deal with any of it. But there are also extra clubs to join, and extra people to meet, and extra support to receive. There is extra appreciation to be had, and extra naps to take, and extra reasons to take care of you.
You’re right, past me— college has plenty of things to be nervous about. You’re going to have bad days. You’re going to have hard weeks. You’re going to make mistakes and forget things. You’re going to have to make sure your fridge actually works so that your $17,000 medicine doesn’t get ruined :). You’re going to to have to remember when to take it and to save a day after for the side effects. You’re going to have to be careful with germs and try not to get sick. You’re going to have to explain things to people, and explain them again when they forget. You’re going to have to be okay with people not understanding. You’re going to have to be okay with sleeping more. You’re going to have to be okay with missing out. But guess what? You’ve done those things before, and you know that none of them last forever.
No, past me, I don’t know all the answers. I don’t know what the best heating pad or supplement powder or meditation app is. But I don’t need to know them because I know you. I trust you. I know that you can open up to people and still set boundaries. I know that you can be independent and still ask for help. I know that you can push through a bad day and still know your limits. I trust that you will take care of yourself, and I trust that you will surround yourself with people who will care about you too.
Yes, pas me I am nervous. Maybe even more than you are. But I’m excited nervous, because college is just a piece of regular life. And we’ve been doing just fine at that as it is.