autoimmune illness as a student | GUEST POST

After being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, I was amazed at the amount of support from the online community in giving me different resources.  Because of this, I am doing a series where other bloggers with autoimmune diseases share their perspectives.

I was diagnosed with Arthritis in the winter term of my 2nd year of university, so late 2014. It came down as a shock. I’ve had academic ambitions for a long time, and was working in a cafe to make that happen: losing my job as a result of my health, and finding myself on disability benefits because bed-ridden at the age of 25, and for a condition that everybody thinks affects only the elderly…I’ve never thought I’d ever have to face something like that. It was one of those moments that can make or break one’s faith. In my case, it was happily the former, as I faced some of the most challenging times in my life.

Arthritis affects the joints of my hands, knees and back mostly. It can be anything from pain in the hands to the point I drop things, to not being able to sit down or put on my own clothes, or even leave the bed at all. I had to sleep on the floor for a week once because the mattress was too soft.

My life was turned upside down and I was faced with the inevitable and rather sad truth that things were never going to improve: the condition can be managed, but not cured as of now. Maybe it’ll change in the future, but my life in the months that followed became a search for coping mechanisms that would make my life a bit more normal. Maybe even easier, but not always.

The first step to be able to keep up my routine is to know it’s OK if I’m not. It sounds counter-intuitive but there is no point adding stress by making staying on routine the top priority. Studies are being made on the relationship between stress and arthritis itself, and the connection between stress and sleep. Being rested is even more important when your energy is limited, nobody knows it better than I since I have developed a proper caffeine dependence trying to hold everything together. Auto-immune diseases also affect our immune system, which means we get ill more easily and have more trouble fighting it off, so we can’t beat ourselves up to achieve a standard that is likely unattainable for a healthy person, let alone someone whose body is starting the race at a disadvantage. We can’t afford to make it worse, so we need to be kind to ourselves.

Another way to be kind to oneself is through what we eat. The Arthritis Foundation recommends a Mediterranean diet to help fight inflammation. It can be hard to avoid processed foods when you’re tired and in pain and just want to collapse in bed rather than stand in the kitchen making your dinner (I currently have 4 take-away bags to dispose of myself), but it’s one of the simplest cuisines and it means you can enjoy a wood-fire pizza as medicine. There are also a lot of hacks to maximize the times of better health to make it easier when you flare up, like cooking in bulk and freezing it. I have to admit regardless of the recommendation my diet would be largely Mediterranean anyway because regardless of living in a city with so much diversity in food and loving things from Japanese to Mexican and everything in between, that’s the food I grew up with and first learnt to cook, so it’s like my Linus’ blanket.

At last, the other major aspect of wellness is exercise. This is probably the scariest one for me. Since I was a child I’ve been excluded from P.E. on medical grounds whenever the order of the day was running, although I would often ignore it if a fun game was going to be played. I’ve never been able to go as far as I wanted as a rhythmic gymnast. It’s counter-intuitive for me that I have to keep active when it feels like every movement is a Herculean effort. I’m very self-conscious about exercising in public so I’ve downloaded an iPhone app with different Yoga workouts. It’s strongly fitness-based and without the eastern spiritualism that people associate with this practice, and for which it’s broadly criticized and found unacceptable for Christians. Finding myself with limited options that are geared towards building strength and flexibility while also be demanding enough to keep a healthy weight not to put even more strain on my joints, it’s served me well so far. I can do it around my schedule without adding any more fixed hours to it, and I can do it from the privacy of my home.

I used to be able to attend 2h+ workshops, but now a solid 20 minutes workout, especially one of those made specifically for weight loss, is a great achievement for me. It can at times seem very little, especially when your Facebook timeline is full of people checking in their 10K runs, but when you have a chronic illness what is normal life is already a battle so I should feel proud of what I can achieve.

I’m hoping to graduate with at least a 2:1 (which in the British system is the 2nd highest class for a degree) while a working student as well. It sometimes means long hours in a library to meet a deadline, even if sitting down for that long isn’t advisable. My university goes to great lengths to support students, and I’m too young to be defeated already so I work really hard to keep on track despite the circumstances. I might use a computer to sit my exams but other than that I’m doing the same as everyone else. Throughout my illness I’ve been clinging to my identity in Christ as to never feel like I’m less than everyone else. I refuse to see it as a limitation, and it’s just a small part of the person God made me to be. Never has Philippians 4 resonated with me as much as the past couple of years.

Alessia is a final year student at Birkbeck College, University of London, where she reads history while being an interior designer to make ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the world. She blogs about faith, politics and life in the big city at www.theblondpond.com .

  • Thank you for this post, Alessia & Autumn! I think autoimmune diseases are not discussed as much as they should, and especially how they impact one’s life as a young adult. I can imagine living with an autoimmune disease can be scary!

    • If I hadn’t read up on a lot of my symptoms, I don’t think I ever would have known about mine. I knew something wasn’t normal, but I have limited medical history. Having a diagnosis to tell me I wasn’t going crazy was so helpful for me!!

  • Thank you for this post, Alessia & Autumn! I think autoimmune diseases are not discussed as much as they should, and especially how they impact one’s life as a young adult. I can imagine living with an autoimmune disease can be scary!

    • If I hadn’t read up on a lot of my symptoms, I don’t think I ever would have known about mine. I knew something wasn’t normal, but I have limited medical history. Having a diagnosis to tell me I wasn’t going crazy was so helpful for me!!