What Chronic Fatigue Taught Me About Owning My Student Experience (Guest Post)

Note from Katie: Jenna Farmer has written two previous guest posts for My College Advice: "The Confused Graduate" and "How to Pack When You're Moving to College," so I was truly excited when she wanted to contribute another post. This one contains some incredible insights about student health and habits based on her own experiences with chronic fatigue and feeling alienated from her student experience and body. This guest post is a truly important one for anyone, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!  

Managing Chronic Fatigue as a Student: Getting Fit, Making it in School 

We’re all aware of the stressors that pile up on a teenager as he or she approaches college, like the pressure of getting good grades, studying for tests, writing admissions essays, waiting for responses from various schools, etc. So it’s hard to really imagine putting time and energy into anything else (especially if you’re an academic overachiever), much less a healthy eating and exercise program – but believe me, listening to your body and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a crucial part to being successful in the classroom. I know, because I learned the hard way. I almost crashed and burned my first semester in due to illness and poor diet and exercise decisions.

Here’s where I’m going to try and convince you why you should take your health and wellness seriously, and why it is the most important thing you will ever do (and not just while in college). It doesn’t matter if you’re suffering from an illness, minor to severe lack of energy, “brain fog,” or just can’t seem to focus when it comes to the classroom or taking tests – being healthy affects all these things, and can completely cure some of them over time.

The beginning

I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome about half way into my sophomore year in high school, and my life changed forever. I went from a happy 16-year-old living and breathing cheerleading and gymnastics, to a sullen teenager who could hardly get out of bed.

Although this illness was something that could eventually be managed (thankfully), there was no cure and very little research about what causes it, or what options were available to help manage it. I was exhausted all the time, and became depressed because I felt trapped inside this tired body that didn’t feel like mine. My brain and my body were strangers.  

Some of the textbook symptoms are:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Loss of memory
  • Loss of concentration
  • Sore throat
  • Unexplained muscle pain
  • Headaches
  • Unrefreshing sleep
  • Joint pain

It became increasingly hard to get up for school in the morning, and even when I did attend, I couldn’t absorb much of the material for long. Since this illness does not make you “look sick,” eventually teachers and classmates just wrote me off as being lazy, or worse, stupid. And being the overachieving perfectionist that I was (and probably still am), that type of judgment was more than I was prepared to handle at the time. I’d laugh it off or ignore it while I was in the classroom, but eventually it broke me down so much I would go home and just cry when nobody was around – I knew I wasn’t stupid or lazy, but was this what I was turning into without any say-so?

I missed over 180 days of high school from sophomore to senior year. I had been a guinea pig for at least four different types of anti depressants (a common treatment for the illness), and just felt defeated overall.

Despite all of that, I still managed to graduate on time with a 3.5 GPA, and got accepted to Rutgers. It wasn’t easy. I had missed so much time in the classroom, I ended up having to be homeschooled for a majority of my classes, and only for a few hours a day before I would lose focus. I even ended falling asleep for a portion of my SATs, so my scores were less than perfect to say the least.

Since I couldn’t focus long enough to take hourly exams, I had negotiated with my teachers to write extra research papers and do extra homework assignments to make up for the lack of grades. I spent my “insomnia” hours from about 12 a.m. – 4 a.m. researching and writing these papers, sleeping for four hours, waking up and starting again. I would take naps whenever I felt my focus waning, and survived with piles and piles of flashcards if I ever did have to take a test.

These old pictures show various degrees of exhaustion and discomfort with size, energy, and body 

These old pictures show various degrees of exhaustion and discomfort with size, energy, and body 

I knew if I was going to succeed at Rutgers, I was going to have to start making some changes, and pull myself out of this emotional hole I was in by any means necessary, even if I was pulling myself by the hair. I know a 3.5 GPA and acceptance into college wouldn’t seem like a failure by any means – and it certainly wasn’t. But there was always that voice inside of me saying, “I wonder how much more I could have achieved if I could remember more and wasn’t tired all the time?” or “how many more football and basketball games could I have cheered at if I wasn’t so weak and achy?”

I felt like high school was a blur (maybe even more so for your ‘average’ student), and at the time, I had a lot of regret for health issues that were seemingly out of my control.

Time management – where to start

I’m not going to say my illness is anything like what other college students could be going through, but if you do have a medical condition that hinders your abilities in any way (or even if you just suffer from being tired all the time), I would say the first area needing adjustment would be your time.

I spent a great deal of time feeling sorry for myself, and doing the whole “why me?” act. A lot of this probably had to do with the medication I was on, but even so, there were better ways to utilize what little downtime I had between classes and studying.

  1. First things firstget over the ‘feeling sorry for myself’ stage as quickly as possible: Why you have whatever illness you have won’t likely be answered in this lifetime, so you should accept that and start asking a better question – “what can I do to fix it? Or at least, make it more manageable?”
  2. Figure out how to manage your time: You’re likely going to be like any other college student, balancing study time, class time, possibly part-time job time and social time. This can become especially hard if you have any other mental or physical ailments working against you. For me, the first step was creating a list of what I was capable of at the time, and what I knew was too much. Then, I made a list “down the middle” of what I could work on to get me towards the “too much” column.
  3. Get off any questionable medication: This is not always an option for some people, I realize. But if your doctor has turned you into a guinea pig and trying out three, four, five medications and nothing has worked, and your illness or condition doesn’t NEED medicine, it will probably be more effective to try an alternative method.
  4. Eliminate any toxic people from your life: As much as you may hate to admit it, that best friend you had from high school might not really fit perfectly into your life as you transition into adulthood. There are some people that, while they mean well (maybe), just aren’t a good fit for your personal development. If you can pinpoint who these people are and let them go early, you will be ahead of the game when it comes to finding a balance between healthy and happy. Remember, healthy starts with your mind, and if you have too many people clogging it with negative thoughts or influences, it’s going to be that much harder to clear it out.

None of those things were easy for me, and it took me the entirety of my first semester chock full of epic fails to get it anywhere close to right.  I weaned myself off medication by myself (not recommended, please consult a doctor before doing so), which resulted in plenty of mood swings and tired days where I had absolutely no mental or physical drive to get out of bed. My head felt like it weight 50 pounds every time I’d try to get up, and a lot of times I would just slump back down.

But the next day I lifted my head all the way up and got out of bed. And the next. I may have missed some classes, and didn’t do as well on tests during that time, but I was actually starting to feel like myself again, even if it was a mere 10 percent.

Study Strategies 

For studying, I could only absorb material for about an hour, after that my brain seemed to fog over and turn to mush. To tackle this, I had every color highlighter you could imagine, and post-its to match. I would categorize each section in my textbook that would be on an exam, and only study one color at a time each day for about an hour. I would start this system at least two weeks in advance of any exam, so I could go over each color two or three times before the test. Since my short term memory wasn’t great, I sometimes also added one last cram session two hours prior to any exam, reading all sections from start to finish. After every study session, I allowed myself 20-30 minutes with a non-school book, or a little TV before settling down for sleep. Eventually, my brain would start to associate specific colors with the corresponding information correctly.

In class, I had to re-learn how to take notes effectively. I started out with bringing my laptop, and would speed type everything my professor said verbatim (or close to it), and later print out these notes and highlight the key points using the same system. I later started taking notes with a pen and paper, because I wrote slower, and absorbed the information less robotically. It resulted in me being more present in the lecture, only writing down the necessary information, and creating less highlighting work later on. I know this is probably a weird concept now with laptops, iPads, etc., but it’s worth a try.

My first semester closed with me just hardly reaching a 3.0 (if I’m being honest, it was a 2.8), which felt abysmal to me. But then I stopped and looked around. I was completely off anti depressants, I started going back to the gym, even if it was just for 30 minutes walking on the treadmill, I had rid myself of a handful of so-called friends that never really supported me, and I taught myself how to succeed in the classroom with no help from anyone else. Even if I did fail a test, I beat myself up about it for a few minutes, then regrouped and started figuring out what I could do next time to fix it. And I was hopeful that it could only get better from here.

My next semester? 3.8.

Taking care of yourself

Learn from your mistakes, academically and otherwise. I made plenty. Although I was working towards improving my quality of life and making the most out of my collegiate experience, I did things very wrong. I didn’t eat right. And no amount of academic success will matter if you don’t take care of your physical self – it will eventually affect your mind, and shut down.

After changing habits--more energy, more strength, and more comfort in my body 

After changing habits--more energy, more strength, and more comfort in my body 

I never got enough sleep and simply ignored it and blamed it on my illness – I ‘accepted’ the fact that I’d never get a full night’s sleep again. I’d go from eating maybe only two salads a day with four or more cups of coffee, to cramming on-campus fast food in my face while rushing to class.

Break the delivery pizza and ramen noodle stereotype now, as soon as you can. See a nutritionist if possible. I still get angry with my doctors for never suggesting that changing the way I eat could completely change the way I feel – 8 years of my life (from high school to college) would have been completely different. I know finances are tight in college, but feeding your body and brain with healthy and balanced meals will be the best investment you ever make if you’re struggling.

Fuel your body

Extreme diets: In college I went from one extreme to the other, a diet laden with bad fats, salt and caffeine with very little exercise, to a diet of pure roughage coupled with overexertion at the gym two times a day (a lot of times, missing class to go).  Please don’t think that either of these options are good ones.

Caffeine: Though I’ve been out of college for quite some time now, I’ve only just kicked coffee as of four months ago, due to another health issue. It was difficult at first (I love Starbucks and Dunkin’), but I got over it, and so can you. It may give you the jolt that you need after an all nighter, but it really just promotes brain fog and addiction if you’re drinking it too much. I’m not saying to part ways with that coveted pumpkin spice latte forever, but I can guarantee you, if you’re drinking a grande with a double shot every day just to function – there’s more there than just tiredness. Your body is telling you something, and it isn’t “I need that chemical-laden pumpkin syrup”

“But how can I possibly study without my energy drinks and coffee?”

Trust me, you can, and I wish I did. All energy drinks and coffee do for you is fog your brain. If you want optimal brain power, you have to eat “brain food.”

Fit fam: Luckily for your generation (at the risk of making myself sound ancient!), fitness has become a culture, so jump in! Learn everything you can about superfoods and what makes your body function properly. It may be hard to change your habits at first, but once you do, the results will be exponential.

Learn from your mistakes

I may not have gotten everything right in college, and it took me a lot of up and downs after that in the real world to finally say, “OK, enough is enough” when it came to fixing my health. But, I was lucky enough to find some great people a few years ago at my gym that have helped me completely turn my life around, and there are no amount of ‘thank yous’ that could ever be enough.

If I felt the way I do now in college, that time would have been a completely different experience for me. So if it still can for you, do it!

I cut out almost all process foods, including refined sugars. If I can’t pronounce the ingredients on the label, I don’t buy it. I drink minimal alcohol, and a gallon of water a day. If you start there, I promise you’ll start seeing amazing results – and I’m not just talking ripped abs/nice-looking body. I mean internally, because that’s what’s important.

So far, I’ve lowered my blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides (they weren’t terrible before, but are at much better levels now). I’ve lost close to 30 pounds since I got to my heaviest, and my energy is indescribable. I can successfully complete five to six workouts a week without any trouble – something I haven’t been able to say since early in high school. 

If you need help and don’t know where to start, ask a friend, talk to people – or even contact me (jennalcalder@gmail.com)! I’ve been inspired by others so much so that I’ve turned health and fitness into a side project to pay it forward to those who have helped me so much. Let me help you if I can! I promise you, the effort is worth the reward; you’re worth the investment to yourself.

Jenna is a writer and graphic designer for Movers.com and a graduate of both Rutgers and the University of Miami. Please leave comments, questions, feedback, and personal stories in the comments section below! 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like "7 Coping Strategies for Doing Depressing Research," "Sunday Dinners: Not Yo Mamma's Porridge," and "Coping,"