How can you live out the full college experience with a chronic illness? Sin's Jennifer O'Connor shows us how it can be done despite the odds.

I have nothing else to give.

This thought crosses my mind at least five times during the average college day. Being realistic, every college student probably thinks that around week six of the semester anyway.

But for a student with a chronic illness, this thought, the concept of giving up, runs much deeper and holds an honesty which is, frankly, painful to discuss.

Personally, I got sick in the November of my first year of college. I’m not new to this. It’s now October of my final year and I have ignored exactly seven separate medical recommendations that I should drop out of college altogether in order to stop pushing my body and ‘fragile’ health. I may not be good at walking for long distances and I may faint when I stand up too fast, but ignoring professional medical advice is a skill I pride myself upon.

Funnily enough, today a friend told me that they never really believed me that I was that sick, because of how vibrant I am. And that is where invisible chronic illnesses can be a torment – you look fine, so people assume you are. When in truth, you’re just the best actor you know. The reality of how you’re feeling is starkly different.

Imagine this: you’re hungover, after running a 5k and you have the flu. That’s the physical symptoms that are happening ‘behind the curtains’ at all times, with little variation from illness to illness. They don’t switch off when you enter the college bar for pints or brave your first society event. Chronic means forever and the illness is in every breath we take.

Colleges try their best. Disability Support Services, elevators, assistive technology, essay extensions – it’s all there. But the bottom line is, it’s not enough, nothing will ever fabricate a college experience with good health. If you, reading this, have a chronic illness then it’s likely you have missed more parties or cocktail nights than you can count. Sports? Maybe, but rarely. Relationships? That’s a whole other kettle of fish.

From minuscule issues all the way to the obvious danger zones, college is like playing a game of dodgeball on a minefield. In heels. You can start the day as the star player, feeling like an expert at pain management and a total whizz kid when it comes to faking health. It’s now that you’ll probably make promises to meet up for drinks/dinner/that much-needed catch-up. But all it takes is one small screw to come loose before the whole machine is wobbling. This screw will always come loose, without fail and just like clockwork. And that loose screw might be caused by that extra ten minute walk from Arts Millennium to the Engineering Building or having too many lectures in a row.

Yet here is the important thing to remember (though I rarely do) – we’re in college. And for us, that’s like having ten First Class Honours degrees. The achievement is equal in weight. Never allow yourself to forget that you are doing college with both hands tied behind your back and being asked to do the same things to the same standard as everyone else. Cut yourself some slack – no one else will nor will they ever know how much you’ll need.

As recently as last week, I had two of my favourite lecturers ask me about my illnesses with genuine concern. After explaining the complications of looking healthy but having an illness with the same life-consuming effects as congenital heart failure, they looked horrified. They then proceeded to ask me how I wasn’t entirely depressed. And it is that which leads me my next reminder for you – you are the most resilient object on this planet. Sharper than glass, tougher than steel - we are the rock walls that do not erode, and please, do not do yourself the disservice of forgetting that.

Allow yourself to be all of these many manifestations of you whilst never feeling less than another for not having a typical college experience. You won’t be able to get drunk quite as often as everyone else, and sure you’ll worry that people will think you’re inconsistent when you turn down an invite again. Yet, in the grand scheme of life, what are those things but moments that are over almost as soon as they begin. The friends that matter won’t question you choosing your health. After all, your health, your recuperation, and your future all depend on you putting yourself first. So my advice is to shamelessly put you and your body first – there’s no other way to survive as fantastically as you have been up until now.

Story courtesy of NUI Galway's online student newspaper, Sin