Food&Drink Editor Lydia Waller, discusses her experience of being ill at uni and shares her best advice on how to deal with it
The most common offering of comfort to someone who is ill, is usually the phrase ‘get well soon,’ which usually offers a genuine wish of a speeding recovery; although there comes a slight complication when a recovery is not near-in-sight. Everyone’s medical histories are different, and very hard to compare and talk about on a general landscape, but one thing we do all share is that we are students, and it is hard to be ill at University. From the common cold to more complicated ailments, it can be difficult to try and stay afloat in the multi-faceted experience of University life.
Second year was a fresh start for me, as it is for many. A tumultuous first year of uncertainty meant I was excited for a year of living with people I had chosen to live with and modules I wanted to study. After five amazing weeks of doing all the sports and societies I wanted to do, a new illness had set it. Not to go into the details of what my condition is or meant, but in essence it involved a lot of pain and not knowing when I would be able to do or attend things or know when I was getting better. This pervading sense of uncertainty with long-term illnesses and even short time ailments, can be crippling anxiety-inducing in the University experience. From the get-go there are a hundred and one boxes that we feel need ticking in the ‘successful University experience criteria,’ and the pressures to still show people we are active and enjoying University, are exacerbated by social media. Instagram was a killer for me, feeling like I still needed to seem active for friends to know I had not dropped out or stopped going out, pervaded my psyche- particularly when I had to go home.
It seems like such a menial worry, social media performance when you’re ill, but it is the most active and ubiquitous, making for the most effective anxiety in your day to day life. However, after speaking with friends about my worry, of them thinking I was being boring, had no social life or was preventing them from going out, my worries were slowly dismantled. Talking to your friends is one the most important things to do when ill. Guardian writer Harriet Swain also notes when talking about being a sick student that you need to, ‘Grab the most dependable classmate, housemate or passerby.’ You need totalk to the people immediately accessible and tangible to you. These are the ones who can do ‘anything you need,’ genuinely, as so many people offer this phrase to you when you’re ill. And it is not because these people would not actually do it, but it takes such a mental and physical effort to contact those further away from you, to do the favours you need imminently doing.
My house mates were the most amazing support when ill; after weeks of getting more and more extensions for my essays they offered to read them and cut them down when words over, offer seminar notes and summarise readings for me, so I didn’t go into panic about how much I had missed. These are pragmatic things that genuinely help someone who is afraid of being out of University life for an unknown amount of time; the mental effort to try and stay afloat can be utterly draining and it is small acts of help like this that are genuinely effective.
Small acts of kindness did remind me that I was supported and thought of whilst I wasn’t at Uni physically, which also quelled any worries of being forgotten and fears of missing out. All these worries, if they sound irrational and dramatic, are totally legitimate and sometimes the worst thing someone could say is, ‘don’t be silly.’ There is nothing silly about being worried, frustrated and scared about missing out- it is an incredibly raw human vulnerability, accentuated by our omnipresence on social media and the first way to dealing with these anxieties, it to accept them.
My mind would fly to the extremes when I kept relapsing and missing more weekends and days off of University; I would have to defer, drop out, then be left with no one to live with in fourth year, these were all instant thoughts and I would just get so het up about them. And the best response anyone could ever give me was, ‘I know’ or ‘I understand,’ which my closest friend did. The last thing I wanted to hear from someone who was fit to attend all of their classes was ‘don’t be stupid, it’ll be fine.’ The first step to getting over these intrusions in my University career, was by claiming the frustration and narrative as mine.
Amongst all of this, though it be the last thing you want to do and incredibly effort-consuming when ill, it is very important to stay in contact with Welfare tutors. What a lot of people don’t realise is that you can miss classes as illnesses occur and then contact absences later, with a list of all classes you missed and evidence of why; you do not have to deal with the admin amidst the complications of current illnesses. Welfare are there to make it easier for you, not to scold you for missing school. The paperwork seems a bureaucratic faff at the time, but it can be sorted when things settle down or you get a break from your circumstances.
One consequence of my condition was that I have not been able to drink since November. As students, we can all appreciate that alcohol serves as quite a central part of socialising; from society drinks, to going out with friends or just a pint at the quiz, being the only sober one amongst care-free, intoxicated friends, did prove initially difficult to me. After the initial woe-is-me phase of being the single sober in the group, you do gradually come to terms with the greatest lesson of being ill in the bubble of Uni- perspective.
Multiple discussions with friends, in and out of Uni will illustrate this to you, that people really don’t care if you’re drunk, only if you’re comfortable. When managing my symptoms my friends and I chose a night-out that was slightly smaller, dance based but casual and not too intense. Lots of honest dialogue about worries and how others felt, I did begin to feel more comfortable with the idea of going out being the only non-drinker and unsurprisingly, had the best night. You hear it a lot, ‘you don’t need alcohol to have fun,’ and as students we can dismiss this as we know the enjoyability of lowered inhibitions in big, dynamic environments, however it is true, as long as you are comfortable with the circumstances. The big lesson to learn with being ill in a huge social pool like at Uni, is that the circumstances are yours and only you can tailor them and benefit from them.
My big revelation about being ill at Uni, particularly with a lack of end in sight, came when in Hospital. This is not to say that you have to be admitted to Hospital to realise this, anywhere in this big beautiful City will teach this; this being that everything else can wait. I met so may incredible women on my ward, and as we are young adults, I was thrown in with women of all ages. People with Stage 4 cancer, women who had relapsing illnesses since younger than me, people who had been off work and way from children for months. They all told me that they understand my upset because you shouldn’t be ill ‘at your age,’ life is just beginning and we are bursting at the seams to get going with all the opportunities available to us in one place here at University. But they all said, it can wait, you must take each day as it comes. Nothing is more important than health; no reputation, no essay mark, no desire to prove yourself. The strongest mark you can get from experiences like these, is self-sufficiency in your mentality. Learning to overcome initial frustrations, look at the wider world around you and remind yourself that nothing is going away. If you need to defer to make the most of your degree, so be it. All the better for you to cherish and relish in the opportunities given to you at Uni. If you miss out on things, it really isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. Life throws challenges at you, unprecedentedly, all the time.
Ultimately the lessons learnt from being ill at University, are about owning those initially anxieties and frustrations created from a genuine presence of FOMO. Learning how to access those close to you, in order for friends to be of a useful help and as well as emotional support; it is a balancing act of learning how to find stability and perspective on your own, as well as recognising, cherishing and learning, what it means to have true support from strangers and friends. Illness and physical barriers in life are fact for all, it is not a personal injustice but a fact of human experience. But I learnt that it can be the most enriching lesson, far beyond any academic lesson. One that only 2am morphine induced conversations with other middle-aged women on IV drips can teach you, stories of living career dreams to then be brought to a halt by Cancer can teach, only friendship bracelets made by your 20 year-old friends, cups of tea when you didn’t ask for them, honest tears and anger to your parents and tutors, can teach you.
There is no format to being ill, you have to own that it is hard and from then on, you will find peace with your circumstances, that only you can learn, in your own time.