"Learn to manage your stress" and other vague suggestions

It has been a long two and a half months that I have been away from this little blog, full of exams and placement and dissertations and hysterical all-night library sessions. Not entirely enjoyable I must say. Due to all this stress and upheaval I have been neglecting my diet and sleep patterns and general wellbeing and have found myself in quite a migraine-addled predicament. However, I though I would take the opportunity to write about how I have coped (or not coped) with getting through 5 years of university with a chronic illness. It is a topic a lot of people have asked me about so here goes:

1st year (1): My first year wasn't my proper first year. Having had my heart set on being an artist, my A-Levels were English Lit, Sociology and Art. I then went to art college, hated it and had a life crisis. For this reason, my first year of university was a 'foundation year' - a crash course in biology, chemistry and maths.

I went into the beginning of the degree process aware of my PCOS and having been diagnosed insulin resistant. I was following a healthy, low GI meal plan, taking exercise and trying desperately to lose some weight. I still had unexplained and somewhat terrifying bouts of ill health, often with tenuous or absent links to my blood sugar level, but I had no real idea about what that was or why. Anyhow, I managed to meet the entry requirements for King's and so progressed onto my actual first year.

1st year (2): My first year at King's started with a messy break-up which resulted in me losing a stone in about a month (not a good thing, contrary to my views at the time) and, for at least a week, if not two, I survived on a single KitKat each day (definitely not a good thing). At this point the (still undiagnosed) migraine reared its ugly head, as expected, but thankfully did not stick around all that long once life was back on track. Once the course began, I met the bunch of mad individuals I now call my friends (in fact I call them 'the pigs', but that is another story). After the initial grip of symptoms, I felt relatively well for a lot of the first year. 

At this time, I also had a great GP who quashed some of the earlier myths I had been told about my condition. He checked my long-term blood glucose control as well as some other markers, in order to see if I was, in fact, insulin resistant. I was not. However, whilst it was nice to know I wasn't insulin resistant, it did leave me in a complete wilderness with regards to this mystery illness. Usually, when people would say "Why have you gone a funny green colour?", You look like you might fall over!" "Why aren't you drinking?" I could reply with certainty, "I am insulin resistant". But now I had no answer. And whilst it had never been an answer to everything, it was a comfort blanket of sorts.

Now I was back to square one. 

2nd year: Oh second year. The worst of all the years. There is no doubt about it, my second year was absolutely horrendous, to the point where I nearly left university more than once. 

Firstly, I found the academic schedule was particularly tough. At risk of sounding like a spoilt brat, I failed my first ever exam in the November and did not know how to handle that at all. Things had got a lot more 'sciencey', and my extensive knowledge of Thomas Hardy novels and the fact that I use words like 'sciencey' were not proving particularly helpful. 

Health wise, I know that I must have been feeling unwell because I ended up seeing an endocrinologist (hormone specialist) in the New Year. Results of various blood tests and scans showed that my food wasn't getting where it was meant to, hence why I was getting severe abdominal cramps and swelling. It also meant that my insulin release was out of sync with my blood sugar; basically my body was ready for food but no food was arriving. This, at least explained the gastrointestinal and blood sugar side of things. 

I was given a course of medication which helped initially but then my body became used to it. There were no other options. On top of this, the overwhelming dizziness was still with me almost every day, I was exhausted, my hair was falling out and I missed countless lectures, completely unable to get out of bed. I was so cold I would often be in two pairs of pyjamas, 2 jumpers and in bed with an electric blanket on full, yet still unable to stop shivering. I also had to quit my job and start relying heavily on my parents, which I hated. 

I am aware that this supposed to be a post about coping with university, but I honestly didn't cope at all in my second year. I was completely miserable and did far from my best in most modules. I think if I had been younger I would have taken a year out, but having gone back to university at 21, with still no real money to call my own, I was just desperate to make it through. 

3rd year: Things stayed the same moving into third year, although the course began favouring my essay-writing preferences, with less focus on metabolic pathways and mathematics. I still regularly needed to nap on a regular basis and I was on a liquid diet (not the fun kind) a lot of the time to try and manage the gastroparesis. It was May of my third year that I finally received my correct diagnosis - right before clinical placement. Needless to say that said clinical placement was a bit of a struggle, and it led, without a break, straight into my fourth and final year

4th year: Hurrah! I have made it to fourth year. Hopefully my last (unless I catastrophically fail and have to repeat). Yet another clinical placement, and a dissertation to write means that stress has been continuing to mount, but has been slightly tempered by the knowledge that the course is almost finished.

The good bits: Despite all the health hassles I have enjoyed my university experience. I also think that the course I chose was particularly full-on in terms of its content and contact hours. It was potentially that little bit more difficult for me because I am not somebody who finds the sciences easy. The sense of achievement I felt when I progressed to each year was immense, and I feel proud that I have managed to do reasonably well despite my setbacks. Studying a healthcare focussed degree also meant a lot of my classmates and lecturers were very supportive and understanding. There were also many people in my class who had some form of illness, many far worse than my own. And we have all made it to the end. Also it is worth remembering that it doesn't matter if it takes you 3 years, 5 years or 10 years - a degree is a degree and it is a magnificent achievement regardless. 

Things to think about: I have had a minimal social life throughout uni and this is something I have just had to get used to. I have a very supportive group of friends both at uni and from home who accept this, which makes it easier.  I have always prioritised eating well and exercised where possible. I think this helped to keep symptoms at bay but it wasn't always enough. With the benefit of hindsight I wish I had taken more time to look after myself, even if my marks did suffer. Taking up yoga, taking time off and not striving for such perfection would have all helped.

So really, in terms of coping, I am not sure I am a shining example of how to. I am incredibly stubborn and determined but that is not always enough. You only have to turn to Instagram or Tumblr to find a plethora of slogans claiming that strength is about fighting and hurting and carrying on. But this is not a fight. Sometimes you need to stop coping, stop smiling and just breathe. It is futile to cope if you make yourself more unwell in the process. 

If you are starting university soon and you are living with a chronic illness please feel free to contact me if you have any questions - it can be really scary and I will do my best to be helpful! 


As an aside, without my NHS bursary I would not have been able to survive without working a part-time job for 3/4 years. This means I would have had to have tried to work in my 2nd year. You have just read about my 2nd year. You can probably work out my views on the bursary cuts.