A Letter to Every College Kid or Grad Student Living With Chronic Illness

At age 11, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. At age 17, I was diagnosed with celiac disease. And, at age 21, I started grad school to earn an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. You might think that, after living with a chronic illness of some form for over 10 years, I'd have it "all together" in grad school.

The truth? I don't. One month into grad school, I'm still trying to learn how to juggle the demands of my writing program with the demands of my chronic diseases. And, considering that, as of 2012, half of adult Americans (roughly 117 million of them) have some form of a chronic health condition, I know I'm not alone. 

A Letter to Every College Kid or Grad Student Living With Chronic Illness

This post is dedicated to grad students who, like me, are trying to balance papers, teaching and managing one or more chronic illnesses. This post is for the college students who envy their "normal" classmates. Even more broadly, this post is for anyone who is scared that their chronic disease will keep them from achieving their dreams. 

And, like all letters, this post begins the same way: 

Dear fellow spoonies,

I know how frustrating it feels when you have to deal with medical issues that other college students can't even imagine. As an undergrad, I was hospitalized for celiac complications and wrote one of my final papers from a hospital bed. Even over four years later, as a grad student, I envy the peers who seem to have it so "easy." The students who don't wake up feeling like zombies after three days of non-stop teaching and classes. The young men and women who don't have their schedules partially designed by the pills they need to take and self-care activities their bodies needs to thrive. 

A Letter to Every College Kid or Grad Student Living With Chronic Illness

I also know about the isolation often triggered by being "different" than the average college student. My fellow grad students bond over stories of 3 AM visits to Taco Bell and late nights at the bar. I can't eat at the places they love or join in on arguments about which pizza restaurant really is superior. Because I take sleeping meds for insomnia (one of my main fibromyalgia symptoms), I'm also rarely able to stay out after 9 PM if I need to drive myself home.

And I know that your chronic illness may feel like a 5-unit class you can't drop. If you have celiac disease, food allergies or a chronic disease that requires a special diet, you can't just pick up food anywhere; you need to spend extra time (and money) meal planning and prepping. If you have fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue, getting less than 6 hours of sleep and functioning like a normal human probably isn't an option either. And, sometimes, all of these extra responsibilities make you want to scream that life isn't freakin' fair.

A Letter to Every College Kid or Grad Student Living With Chronic Illness
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Despite the challenges that chronic illnesses can cause in college or grad school, though, I also know four important facts...and you need to know them, too: 

1. You are stronger and more loved than you might realize. 

You - more than anyone else, perhaps even your doctor - know what your body needs, and you can do your best to give your body all the food, sleep and extra care it cries out for. And if you need help, more people are available than you think, from your college's Disability Resource Center to best friends willing to bring you Chipotle on bad days. (Or join you on an epic girl's night out on the good ones!)

2. You don't have to share the same struggles to be friends with someone. 

Sure, I might not be able to fully enjoy pizza parties or share my own "wasted midnight munchies" stories. But I can find people who also love moving their bodies through long walks in grassy fields. I can attend get-togethers for the company instead of the food. And, slowly, I know I can find a group where I feel like I belong.

A Letter to Every College Kid or Grad Student Living With Chronic Illness

3. You can have bad moments and even bad days - as long as you don't let them outshine the good times. 

Give yourself that extra half an hour to lie in bed, your whole body tired and achy. But also go to that college social, play pool (though you haven't picked up a pool stick in over six years) and spend way more time than you planned just talking and laughing with people who feel just as lost and hopeful as you. What do you really want to remember when you look back on the (school) year: the moments your chronic disease got "in the way," or the moments you fully enjoyed life, chronic illness be damned? I want the latter - and I try to focus on creating more of those moments every day!

4. Most importantly, know that with the right preparation and determination, you can still kick grad school's ass. 

Make meal prepping a form of self-care by watching your favorite TV series or an epic movie while you work. Go to the social events you feel well enough for, but don't feel guilty for choosing a good book over a night out when you need to. Be honest with yourself - and others - about how you're struggling and what changes would help.

A Letter to Every College Kid or Grad Student Living With Chronic Illness

And, as often as you need to, tell yourself this: As powerless as your chronic illness can make you feel at times, you have the power to choose how your chronic illness will impact your college experience. You can view your illness as a constant obstacle that keeps you from living and loving college life to the fullest...or you can see it as a small bump in the road.

The truth is, I will never be a "normal" grad student. I will always have to take a few detours and extra pit stops to live happily and healthily in grad school. But the mindset I apply to these detours - at my best, a mindset of self-love and acceptance and patience for myself and others - can make all the difference. 

So keep advocating for yourself. Keep believing in yourself. Keep working toward whatever dream is pulling on your heart. And know that, through both the challenges and successes of being a college student with a chronic illness, you are not alone. 

A Letter to Every College Kid or Grad Student Living With Chronic Illness

After all, as much as this is a letter to you, it also a letter to - and a reminder for - me. 

Much love,

Casey Cromwell 
AKA Casey the College Celiac 


  1. What an encourager you are! I love that you are living life to the fullest and encouraging so many in your path. You go girl!

  2. Some wise words here, Casey, and such an inspiring post for all of us.

  3. Learning a lot about fibremyalgia recently x such a tough one as it is not discernible from the outside. Well done on enjoying college life and getting the best out of everything!

  4. Wow. Such beautiful words! Though I don't have a labeled chronic illness, I was sick a lot throughout my schooling. I had to miss a lot of days due to the sickness. These are all wonderful things to remind those who are dealing with chronic illnesses. You will most definitely kick grad school's ass! I wish you the best of luck!

  5. That sounds really hard. Being an adult who struggles with food sensitivities and slight anemia and now sleep apnea in addition to PPA which has morphed into GA...I can really relate to a lot of these things. Sometimes I just can't even imagine going out and socializing even if I should. Great post. You just gotta keep trucking on! You'll be glad you did- at least that's what I keep telling myself!


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