A person sits at a desk, writing a paper with their right hand, and holding a pill with their left.

Reflecting on my University Experience with Chronic Pain

Many hours in the library later, the day is finally here — I have completed my undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Arts, Honours Specialization in Psychology. If there is any acceptable time to boast, it’s now, so I’ll add that I found myself a place on the Dean’s Honours List in every academic year. How did I manage a successful university career alongside my chronic illness diagnosis? Truthfully, I don’t know.

I began my degree at 17 years old, healthy and pain-free, but by the end of my first year — specifically, the day after I moved out of my on-campus residence — my ankylosing spondylitis set in. Unfortunately, the stabbing pain I felt turned out to be more than the hangover ache I suspected — it became the chronic illness that wove itself through my next four years, dragging me to agonizing lows and unexpected victories.

University and pain went hand in hand

Four years later, it’s hard to separate any of my university memories from my pain. The “university student” version of myself only existed for a few months before becoming synonymous with the “chronically ill” version of myself. They are intertwined, whether I like it or not. I learned how to navigate the world as an adult at the same time as learning how to be chronically ill.

My second year of university was spent limping between social events and cracking jokes about my painkillers to mask my grief, as I split my time between hospital waiting rooms and physiotherapy clinics in search of an answer. My third year kicked off with an excruciating cut from my varsity figure skating team that my body could no longer keep up with. My fourth year was spent learning to advocate for myself and coming to terms with my chronically ill identity. And in between, I limped home from parties in tears, wrote exams in burning pain, and faced disheartening ignorance from people close to me.

Being a student with a chronic illness is complicated

It wasn’t easy. University is challenging enough on its own, and adding a chronic illness diagnosis to the mix complicated things further. Often, I was jealous of my pain-free peers. I longed for my body to function the way it used to. I wondered how different my life would be if chronic pain never became a factor — but because I didn’t know any differently, I kept going. I had no choice but to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Somehow, I managed to achieve impressive grades, gain lifelong friends, and even work summer jobs at Disney World — a pretty great university experience, if you ask me.

In the process, I learned a lot more than just Psychology — I learned how resilient, dedicated, and optimistic I am. I learned to truly appreciate every good day. I suffered in a way that makes me confident I will survive whatever comes next. If given the choice, I don’t think I would trade any of that for a “normal” university experience.

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