How I’m Surviving College with Chronic Migraine

By Sarina

Chronic migraine is notorious for disrupting plans, preventing individuals from working, and overall reducing one’s quality of life. When my migraine disease became severe in my senior year of high school, my college plans went straight out the window. I had been dealing with migraines on and off since about age 12, but high school marked my significant health decline and migraine increase.

Despite this, I was still determined to take college courses which ultimately led me to my local community college. Nearly three full years later, I am still working on completing my Associate’s degree. While some of my peers from high school have graduated with their Bachelor’s degree early or are “on-track” to graduate in 2020, my college timeline looks much different.

Attempting college with chronic migraine is a feat all its own and there are a few things that help me to succeed academically despite living with a constant headache. 

1. Obtain Disability Accommodations

Prior to starting my first semester of college, I contacted the school’s Disability Support Services (DSS) to find out what documentation they needed to get me accommodations. There is a misconception by many that disability accommodations put disabled students at an advantage over others. This is the exact opposite of the truth. My accommodations put me on the same playing field as my peers and set me up for success.

A few of my accommodations that directly assist me as a student with chronic migraine are:

1. Reduced emphasis on attendance;

2. Additional time on tests and in-class assignments; and

3. Testing in a quiet room.

Many professors count attendance towards your final grade which is a nightmare for individuals with chronic illness(es). Reduced emphasis on attendance doesn’t mean I can skip class whenever I so please, but instead permits a few more absences throughout the semester without hindering my grade directly.

Additional time on tests and in-class assignments is an accommodation I use in every course. There have been many times that I have no choice but to take an exam with a migraine. Extended time allows me to quite literally stop for ten minutes and vigorously rub my head in hopes of not completely failing the exam. Brain fog with migraine especially affects me, therefore having additional time is incredibly helpful when my brain is running on little to no juice.

Lastly, on the topic of testing, testing in a smaller, quiet room is a godsend. Like many migraineurs, sounds are a trigger for me. Though I almost always wear noise-cancelling headphones during testing, being placed in a smaller, quieter room reduces the chances of me being triggered.

2. Enroll in Online Courses

Though I do have accommodations that aid me in my on-campus courses, sometimes getting on-campus is just not possible. For migraineurs having difficulty getting accommodations, online courses can be especially helpful as well.

Most community and four-year colleges offer a variety of class modalities as well as semester lengths. Online courses can range from a full semester (roughly 16 weeks) to a shortened semester (six to eight weeks). Though extended screen time is a trigger for many, online courses offer individuals a chance to continue their education at home, at their own pace. My first few semesters of college consisted of mainly on-campus courses.

However, as my health has continued to decline, online courses are my saving grace. If getting out of bed is simply not possible, or by the time I am able to get out of bed it is much later in the day, I can still work on my online courses. Most colleges offer the same courses on-campus as well as online, with a few exceptions. That being said, nearly all of the courses I take are online.

One thing to note: online courses, especially the fast-paced ones, require a lot of self-motivation. If you are someone who learns best in classroom settings, online courses may not be the right fit for you! Online courses allowed me to continue working on my degree when I truly thought all hope was lost, though.

3. Reduce Course-load & Take Time Off

The quantity of courses I take at a time is incredibly important as a chronically ill student. I cannot take more than three courses in a semester without my body tapping out. Due to this course-load restriction, I am several semesters “behind” in comparison to my high school peers.

Knowing your limits as a chronically ill student is something I cannot stress enough. You know yourself the best; you are the one living in your body. Do not let an academic counselor or advisor convince you to take more classes than you know you can handle. My DSS counselor is incredible and helps advocate for me almost weekly. As stubborn as I am, sometimes I have no choice but to take time off. Accommodations, online courses, and rescue medications only help so much. When my migraine becomes intractable and I am fully disabled by it, taking time off is the best option for me. It often feels like I am “failing” or “falling further behind,” but health must come first. More often than not, taking a semester or two off has allowed me to get a better handle on my health which ultimately helps me do better in the next courses I take.

Chronic migraine has taken a lot away from me and has definitely caused a lot of detours in my life plans. Whether it takes me two more semesters or two more years, I am determined to get my degree!

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