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How to Navigate College with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

9 Strategies to help you cope with college when you have ME/CFS
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College student with chronic fatigue syndrome

I entered college in the fall of 2010, after having ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis / chronic fatigue syndrome) for about two years. I threw myself into difficult classes, signed up for extracurriculars, and did my best to live like a normal college student, despite my ME/CFS symptoms. The strategy worked for a few weeks, until I could no longer run on adrenaline. I found myself floundering mid-semester, trying to balance an intense class schedule while managing a chronic illness.

By the second semester, I realized my strategy of not telling my professors about my serious health problems and then scrambling to catch up on material when I started missing classes was a serious mistake. I eventually learned how to balance school and still keep up with my ME/CFS treatments, and the rest of my college experience was dramatically different. You don’t have to compromise your health in pursuit of academic success.

9 Tips for Navigating College with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Here are some tips that can help you navigate college successfully despite your ME/CFS:

  1. Disclose early and often. At the beginning of each semester, I met with each of my professors during office hours. I would detail my diagnosis, its implications on my academic life and what accommodations I would need as a result. It’s critical to have early meetings with your professors and their teaching assistants (TAs): if something comes up mid-semester, they’re already aware of your health conditions and won’t be blindsided by your requests for accommodations.
  2. Contact your housing support and see if you can get a single dorm room with a doctor’s note. If you have allergies and are in a building with no AC, ask for permission to bring a window AC unit.
  3. See what transportation accommodations you’re entitled to. I had a car on campus, so through my disabilities coordinator and doctor, I was able to get a disabled parking pass. My class attendance increased dramatically after this, and I arrived at class ready to take notes, rather than completely exhausted from walking or biking to campus.
  4. Figure out when you are most alert or most awake, and schedule your classes accordingly. I was not a morning person, and 8:00 a.m. classes would never have worked with my ridiculous sleep schedule. Even 9:30 a.m. classes were tough, so I did my best to pick classes in the early afternoon.
  5. Balance your academic schedule. Take a combination of online and in-person classes, if available. Give yourself breaks throughout the day: one semester, I scheduled three classes back-to-back on the same day, and spent all fall regretting it.
  6. Take advantage of your college health center, and see what ME/CFS treatments you have access to. In my case, I had a functional medicine doctor who practiced at my university’s health center. I also could take advantage of counseling, mindfulness classes, a lab for all my bloodwork, and a pharmacy.
  7. Consider therapy support. If you’re at a large research university with graduate programs, you might have access to free or low-cost therapy with supervised psychology grad students. By working with a therapist, I was able to develop a much more manageable strategy for surviving college with ME/CFS.
  8. Be honest about how your classes and networking will achieve your long-term goals. I took tough classes and focused on demanding career paths. I didn’t take the time to explain to professors that after graduation, I’d need to find something flexible in the event my health didn’t improve as I had hoped. I wish I had taken advantage of the career guidance and support to help me develop my career as a writer and freelancer.
  9. Keep the big picture in mind. Academic and career success are secondary to health, but staying healthy doesn’t necessarily mean being antisocial. Find a balance between getting adequate rest, but also maintaining social support. I made sure to have dinner with friends at least once a week, which meant I wasn’t completely cut off from the world. There were semesters when all I did was study and sleep, and the lack of social life did not make my health better. Similarly, getting perfect scores on exams didn’t give me more energy. Know when it’s ok to get by, and save your precious energy for what really matters.

Rachel Horton is a freelance writer and researcher based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She was diagnosed in 2008 with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia, and now saves her energy for sailing and dinner parties. She graduated with a degree in Economics from Indiana University, and now applies her analytical skills to finding new treatments and experiments, which she chronicles at https://chronicfatiguesanity.wordpress.com/. Follow her on Twitter @cfsanity.

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