exhausted student laying on a desk with a pile of books on their back

Painful But Possible: Being A University Student With AS

Between classes, exams, and all-nighters, being a university student is stressful and exhausting. One year into my university career, I was faced with a new challenge that made being a student even harder — I developed ankylosing spondylitis. After that, every class, exam, and all-nighter was combined with horrible pain. I had to learn to keep up with the demands of university while experiencing pain, fatigue, and side effects that make even small tasks difficult.

It's hard to stay focused

One of the main difficulties is staying focused. No matter how motivated I am to study or how disciplined I am, the pain stops me. When I sit down to read a textbook, I have to fight to focus on the words on the page instead of the pulsing pain in my back.

I wish I could put all of my mental resources toward academics, but instead they are used to deal with pain. Sometimes, I have no choice but to leave the library, because the pain is taking all of my brainpower. Other times, when I absolutely must prioritize schoolwork and sit in the library all day, I suffer the consequences: extra pain and extra painkillers.

Deadlines are tough

Another difficulty is meeting deadlines. Being a university student requires planning and time management, but unfortunately, my AS doesn’t operate in terms of my assignment deadlines or exam schedule. This disease is extremely unpredictable and seems to worsen at the most inconvenient times.

Often, I plan to spend an entire day studying, as is required for a university workload. I plan all of my tasks and set goals for the day, but none of that matters if I wake up in too much pain to move. Instead of heading straight to the library without a second thought, I waste valuable time doing things to ease my pain, before I can even consider studying.

I can't sit for very long

Writing exams is another aspect of school complicated by AS. University exams are usually 2-4 hours in length, and anyone with AS knows that sitting for that long will undoubtedly worsen the pain. Fortunately, my university provides me with accommodations that allow me to write my exams in a separate room, so I can take breaks to walk and stretch. These accommodations are also there in case I experience a flare-up, in which case I can receive assignment extensions.

I had to do a few things to manage

There are a few important steps I’ve taken to help me handle university life with AS. First of all, I am fortunate to receive effective treatment from my rheumatologist. I also mitigate my symptoms with proper exercise and diet. Secondly, as I mentioned before, setting up academic accommodations was extremely helpful.

I would highly recommend that any student with a disability contact the accommodations department at their school; even if you don’t need certain accommodations now, it is good to have them in place for when a particularly bad day comes along.

I listen to my body

Another important factor is listening to my body and knowing its limits. If necessary, I will miss class due to pain or prioritize sleep over studying. It’s challenging to strike this balance, but without balance, I wouldn’t have made it this far. Lastly, I have to remember to take school at my own pace. University is a huge undertaking and AS is an unpredictable monster, so I must be kind to myself.

AS has added suffering and stress to an already stressful life stage. I feel frustrated and helpless when my illness takes a toll on my academics. However, I am proud of myself for continuing regardless. When I am handed my degree, it will mean so much more to me, knowing that I earned it while fighting through this pain.

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