I’m Bethany Dawson, a placement year Politics and Sociology student at
the University of Surrey, and co-founder of BVisible: a not-for-profit
organisation dedicated to bringing illnesses that are out of sight into mind.
Since I knew what University was – and since deciding it was
the path I wanted to take – I had a very idealistic view of what it would be
like; friends around every corner, whatever food whenever I wanted, an overall
new lease of life to sit alongside my new-found independence. As the first
person in my family to go to University, I didn’t have many people around me to
inform me otherwise. I particularly had nobody with a chronic illness telling
me their experience of University.
When I arrived at University, I was – simply – a bit of a
mess. The strong, independent, persona I prided myself on having was falling
whilst I cried to my mum and told her I didn’t want to go (and if that was you,
or is going to be you, that’s absolutely fine!). I’d had a tough few months,
with complications with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome resulting in emergency
surgery in the middle of my A-Levels leaving me assuming my grades weren’t
going to be good enough to even consider University. When I got my grades back
and I’d surpassed the offer from the University, suddenly I was off.
I struggled to navigate University, in truth, I think a lot
more people have this problem than care to admit. I had the regular first-year
undergraduate problems: I had never studied Politics (which constitutes one
half of my joint honours) and felt very out of my depth, I was away from home
for the first time and felt homesick, and about one month in, started getting
really bad flare ups of my arthritis. This was tough in itself, I was in too
much pain to concentrate on my studies, I couldn’t go out with my friends, and
I felt rubbish. I came to the conclusion – at the end of my first year – that I
needed a walking stick. This wasn’t a choice I made lightly, but my condition
had reached a point that I couldn’t walk without an aid. So, I bought a bright
blue, marbled stick, and it helped. However, it meant that my relationship with
my body – which was already rocky – began to get worse.
A change of pace – getting my walking stick
I’d never loved my body. I’ve always been relatively short for my family, rather soft around the edges, and having acne from the age of 10 was slightly less than confidence boosting. Getting a walking stick, especially at the grand old age of 19, left me feeling less than fantastic. I felt as though I was being looked at, as suddenly, the invisible illness I had lived with for years was being noticed by the people around me. I had many more questions coming my way about my condition, I had more people staring at me; I had much less self-confidence. This period acted as a catalyst for a massive dip in my self-esteem. I started counting calories, forcing myself to exercise even in bad pain, and gave up completely on the idea of loving myself. I didn’t see the point in loving a body that didn’t appear to love me back.
My second year of University brought a heavier workload,
more responsibility (as I had to get myself a job and I had been elected as an
officer on our Students’ Union), more opportunities, and the realisation that I
should be proud of myself. I barely got through my A-Levels, and my health – as
well as significant personal problems arising in my first year – meant that I
didn’t see myself progressing through University. But, suddenly, I was doing
well. And for better or worse, I realised it was my body that had got me there.
Giving thanks to my body
This realisation didn’t mean that I was suddenly a frontrunner
in the game of self-love, or that my issues of body image, a rocky relationship
with food, or anger directed at my illness immediately dissipated. What it did
mean, however, was that I started to see my body for what it was able to give
me: the resources to get me to where I needed to be, as long as I had the
reasonable adjustments in place. One of those adjustments, for example, is
using a laptop in exams. This is super important for me, as my condition means
my hands get rather stiff and painful if I write a lot, so using a laptop
ensures that I can write as much as anyone else during an exam. Make sure you
get in touch with your learning support/disability support unit at your
University for help organising all of this! This such adjustment meant that the
pure sadness I felt over the reduced ability of my hands was lessened, because
although the problem was still there, I could overcome it with this small
Body positivity with a chronic illness isn’t easy, I still
struggle to really love this frame when I’m in pain, or when I have to use my
stick because the pain is too bad, and this article isn’t supposed to make you
feel as though you, when you finish reading, will be your body’s biggest fan.
The message here is you can be, and you should be, proud of yourself for
getting to whatever point you’re at; in life, in your academics, where ever.
With that pride, have recognition that your body has also got you to that point
even if it posed some hurdles along the way.
I’m grateful for my body. I won’t be throwing a party for my arthritis or PCOS, and I will wholeheartedly hold my hands up and say my life up until this point would prob ably have been a lot simpler without my poor health. But I can sit here and say, happily, that I wouldn’t be in this position: with good grades, about to start an exciting placement, a blossoming not-for-profit, and the most wonderful friends and family, without my body. I keep that in mind when my self-confidence takes a dip and I need to work on my self-love. Do the same for yourself, as all of your achievements have been made with your body taking you to them.