Chronic illness at university


Sometimes you're just too sick to go to class; missing one class isn't a big deal. But when you have a chronic illness, you have to skip class more often than is allowed. Worse than skipping class, though, is dealing with your classmates when they don't believe your illness is genuine. 

Most people around me know what a migraine is, and they have some idea in their heads of what having one feels like. A headache, but worse, right? Maybe more concentrated, maybe more intense for a while, but it goes away eventually, so it’s not a big deal. Chronic pain is almost always invisible for those not experiencing it; everyone knows what pain feels like, so it’s assumed that pain on a chronic level is just the same thing, but with a prescription for painkillers. I’ve had chronic migraines since I was 16, and the first thing I’d classify them as is very firmly “a big deal”.

When I get a migraine, it feels like my brain is shutting down, or like I’m about to pass out. I get lightheaded, any source of noise or light makes the pain worse, and my jaw starts throbbing. Or my sinuses, or the base of my skull, or my temples: chronic migraines can take many forms. Some people have an aura before they have a migraine, usually a vague visual hallucination taking the form of waves of light spreading across your vision, or a sensory aura that numbs your limbs for 10 to 20 minutes. It’s essentially a sign that you’re about to be in a lot of pain, a way for migraine sufferers to know beforehand that they need to get to a quiet space soon. Mine usually involve some sort of loss of vision, called a scotoma; it looks like a blurry spot in the middle of my field of vision, like there’s an area that just lost focus.

The strangest things can trigger a migraine: getting up too early, getting up too late, blinking too fast, doing a cartwheel, the smell of gasoline, the sound of a truck horn, a too-bright laptop screen--and these triggers differ for every migraine sufferer. Needless to say, going to class with a migraine is basically impossible. I’m in my last semester at college, and my phone’s predictive keyboard has memorized the absence note I write to all my professors at least 3 times a semester:

Dear X,

Unfortunately I can’t come to class today as I have a debilitating migraine. I’m sorry for the short notice; I’ll make sure to get the notes from someone in class.


UCU’s absence policy is notoriously strict. Missing over 25% of class sessions for a course (roughly five lectures) results in an automatic failing grade. The process to obtain learning accommodations for chronic physical illness is a long and arduous one. In the midst of that process, though, the thing that bothers me isn’t the lack of support from administration, or the pain itself: it’s the fact that everyone around me assumes I’m overreacting. Last semester, I missed two consecutive weeks of a class, and when I showed up to the next one, a classmate remarked, “Oh, wow, you’re here. No ‘migraine’ today?”

I’m grateful that those who underestimate what chronic illness sufferers (referred to as “spoonies”, after Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory) do not face the pain that some do every single day. I’m glad that people aren’t suffering themselves, and that they are able to handle the stress and workload of being a student and young adult without having to add chronic pain to that. But, a word of advice: do not assume your ignorance grants you knowledge. The experiences of those other than you are not yours to provide commentary for. We’re stronger than you think, and more resilient than you give us credit for.

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