I am a part-time science student at the University of Bristol.
When I finished my A-levels, I was healthy and active, excited to start at the university.
The first year of my course was good and bad in equal measure.
I really enjoyed my course and made many friends but also suffered an episode of depression. By the end of the first long summer holiday, I felt that I was beginning to feel a little happier, although I was still not back to normal.
It was in the second year of my chemistry degree, around the time of my 20th birthday, that I came down with some kind of infection. I had a bad cough and felt generally very ill. This lasted a few weeks and it was my GP’s opinion that I had suffered a bout of glandular fever.
By the time this had mostly cleared up, the Christmas holidays were about to begin and I was relieved to have a few weeks to recover before starting the next term.
When the next term started, however, things did not go smoothly. I became progressively more fatigued as the days wore on and my depression came back worse as I found it difficult to attend lectures and had to spend more and more time alone, in bed, trying to recover a little of the energy which the day’s studying had drained from me.
Taking a break
In the end, I suspended my studies until the end of the academic year. The progress officer in the chemistry department was very sympathetic and my GP gladly provided all the documentation necessary for me to do so.
I spent until the beginning of the next academic year back at home, living with my parents, who were incredibly supportive. During this time I recovered a bit of my energy and received counselling for my depression.
In September I returned to Bristol and went to live in halls of residence, where I thought I might have a more stable and supportive environment. This was indeed what I found.
This was a great help, as I was retaking the second year full-time, without exam concessions or extensions on written work.
At this point, I had not been diagnosed with M.E./CFS – all I knew was that I was tired all the time and everything was difficult.
I survived that year of my degree, though found the end-of-year examinations physically difficult to deal with. Happily, I came out with good marks!
At this point I was on a four-year course, ending in an MSci qualification, about to embark on the third year of the course.
Diagnosed with M.E./CFS
At the beginning of my third year my GP gave me the formal diagnosis of M.E./CFS. Having this was a great help, as it meant that I could apply for Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) as well as exam-concessions and extensions on written work.
Unfortunately, by the end of the first few weeks of the new academic year, it was clear that the full-time workload was too much for me. I was just not physically able to deal with two full days of laboratory work a week.
Meeting with the progress officer for the chemistry department yielded a possible solution. I would switch to a three-year course ending in a BSc qualification and do the final year of this course over two years.
As the first two years of the four-year and three-year courses were identical, it was not a problem to make the transition.
Adapting my studies
In the first year of these final two years, I would attend all of the lectures from the third year BSc course and sit the written examinations for these, and in the second I would do my final year research project.
This worked out remarkably well, though it was still extremely difficult and I ended up taking one section of the lecture courses in the second year, alongside the project.
I really enjoyed working on my final year research project. I did a theoretical research project, which made it possible to work from home, when I needed to, and meant I was not standing up on a laboratory for hours each day.
When I had finally finished all my exams and handed in all of my project work, an incredible feeling of relief washed over me. It took me five years to complete a three year course but I was just happy to have made it to the end.
I was elated when I discovered that I had come out with a first class honours degree, despite all the hardships and pain I had to deal with.
Studying for a degree with M.E./CFS is a big commitment. I didn’t have M.E./CFS when I started, so didn’t get a chance to select my course and accommodation to fit with my health.
Fortunately, the university were able to modify the structure of the chemistry course to fit my needs and university accommodation was made available to me.
M.E./CFS made many things more difficult, not just academic work. Socialising and making friends was very difficult indeed after I became ill.
Students tend to socialise a lot in the evenings, at pubs and clubs – places and times that were not very compatible with my M.E./CFS. I did, however, make some very good friends in my time at university and managed to find other ways to socialise, such as inviting friends over to where I lived and going out for lunch/coffee during the day.
One year I lived in a house with one of my best friends, which made it extremely easy for me to see them!
Beyond the student ‘bubble’
There were some positive aspects of my unusual university experience. My different perspective allowed me to see outside and beyond the student ‘bubble.’ I made new friends through the shared experience of having M.E./CFS and I learned to enjoy spending time alone.
In addition, learning to adapt to my limitations gave me more self-confidence, which I think has equipped me well for life post-university!
For other people with M.E./CFS who are thinking of attending university, I have some advice to offer based on my experiences.
Advice for other students
Firstly, I think it is important to know that university is difficult - even for healthy people!
It is also very rewarding and completely possible to survive with M.E./CFS if you are prepared to sacrifice the time and energy for it.
It is worth getting in touch with the part of the university that supports disabled students early. At Bristol University this is called the Access Unit and was extremely helpful to me during my studies, particularly in helping me apply for DSA.
It is also a good idea to contact the relevant people in the department where your course is based to discuss your health issues and requirements.
In all this, it is very useful to have a note from a doctor that confirms your symptoms – this will help you apply for the necessary adaptations and help you need. It was not until I had this evidence that I could apply for DSA in my third year.
DSA funded equipment which aided me in my course, including a laptop computer, an over-bed table and a voice recorder.
Once you are at university, don’t be afraid to use the services that are available to you. For example, I found that the student counselling service helped me through several difficult periods.
Something that I have found whilst studying at university with M.E./CFS is that it is necessary to be clear and vocal about your needs.
Asking for help
Initially, I felt that I might be asking too much from the university and didn’t ask for everything that could have helped me, making things harder for myself. In reality, I found that university staff were more than happy to listen to me and help me with my requirements and limitations.
I think they were probably grateful when I was clear about what I wanted as this helped them do their job properly and meant that they didn’t have to guess what it was I needed.
Evidently my university experience was a good one, as I am still at the University of Bristol now!
I applied to do a PhD with the same project supervisor with whom I worked on my undergraduate project and was accepted on this, starting in October 2010.
Again, the university have been helpful and understanding, allowing me to do the PhD part-time and work from home when necessary.
I am still struggling with my symptoms but I am the happiest I have been in a long time and hope that perhaps one day my symptoms will disappear altogether.