October 4 2017

Things I learnt as a university student with a chronic illness

In a bit of a departure from our usual content, Durham Student is looking at a different university experience for a change. Lorna Reeve provides some insight in to living and studying at university with a chronic illness.

1.Things Change

When I came to Durham, I would probably not have really considered myself to be a disabled student. Now, I am a part-time wheelchair user and walk with a stick all of the time. I embrace the label of a disabled student, as my college’s Disabilities Rep and Welfare Officer for the Students with Disabilities Association. I am working hard to raise awareness and support people with all manner of conditions or disabilities throughout the University and beyond, confronting ableism and changing expectations!

Before I came here, I thought getting a wheelchair would be giving up, but the freedom it has offered me and the choices of being able to do my physio instead of pushing my body to walk in mal-adaptive ways, these things have been the greatest changes in my life.

In other ways, things are often different to what you expect when you come to University. It’s important to remember that there is no ‘right’ way to ‘do’ University life and people have such different experiences. In this way, it’s essential to avoid having immovable expectations and to be open to change, which often turns out to be much more positive than you expect.

2. Different isn’t bad

Before I came to Durham, I thought I knew about all the ways people differed: race, religion, sexuality, gender, disability and onwards. I thought I was able to pass as ‘normal’ despite my mental health issues, but I found out so much more over this year and there isn’t a normal- differences are to be celebrated! I’m from a very white middle-class area, something I didn’t even really consider until seeing the range of people I met when I went to Sixth Form. The groups of people I engaged with when I came to Durham amazed me in so many ways, the strength of so many people is awe-inspiring, and slowly (very slowly!) I started to appreciate all the ways that I was different, especially with regards to my chronic illness. It took me all of first term to be comfortable saying I was disabled. It took me so much longer to say “You know what, I’m proud of all the ways I’m different. I learn completely differently; my timetable and schedules are unusual; and I have a million and one ‘strange’ quirks. But I am proud and happy to be living the way I am!”

3. The world is not a wish-granting factory

Thanks to John Green who seems able to get into my head sometimes! Learning that, actually, the world isn’t always going to be the way you want. Many people are very sheltered living at home (although, back to point 2, learning about the lives some people have before University can be very interesting, whilst also upsetting). A lot of people have all their food cooked, clothes washed, dramas averted, by well-meaning parents.

Coming to University is often a shock to the system, having to fend for yourself, as such, and not having things handed to you on a plate. However, the way I talk about this is slightly different. I’m still shocked at times by how much of our wonderful city is completely inaccessible. When I’m in my wheelchair and not able to manage getting out much, almost every café in Durham becomes inaccessible; not to mention the cobbles and the hills our city is so famous for. It’s often distressing to realise that actually the world can be very difficult to navigate and life is not always easy. But this leads me to my final point.

4. People are likely to be lovely!

In almost the complete antithesis to point 3, people are usually great! Whilst the city is inaccessible, the people are not! Through living in college (Trevs– by far the best, in my humble opinion 😉) I have met so many people who have been so wonderful with my, sometimes interesting, health.

From my first panic attack on the first day of Freshers’ Week, where a wonderful frep took me to a quiet room, calmed me down and managed to get me into my first formal dinner; to the unexpected person who helped me back to my room safely after I collapsed at an A Capella rehearsal. Also, kudos to the guy who I met for the first time whilst very unwell after fainting outside a lecture and talked complete nonsense to for a very long time before he was able to make me sleep (my chronic illness often makes tired feel as if I’m drunk, you can imagine the fun of that)! I’ve met so many more wonderful people than I have bad, and even when I’ve had negative experiences with people, there’s almost always been someone immediately coming to help or support me. A number of these people I now consider my friends, despite our slightly odd ways of meeting, I can help them in a number of ways (I’m well-trained in active listening and support roles, as well as being an expert proofreader and sounding board!). That’s another important point, even though your health may be unreliable, you have so much to offer the world and friendships- even if this is in non-traditional ways.

Overall, my experience of the first year of Durham, whilst immensely stressful and difficult, has been positive. I’ve got through it, and out the other side so much more positive and grateful for all I’ve had and all I’ve received through the year. My wheelchair has made things easier, my friends have been wonderful, and I’m now working to support other students, as Welfare Officer for SwDA! If you’d like to chat or have any questions about Durham life with a chronic illness or disability, please feel free to email me at lorna.reeve@durham.ac.uk