It’s an honour to share the words of ‘Our Pippa’ on M.E. myself and I today. While I have no experience of the education system or employment whilst chronically ill, Our Pippa does and she has worked incredibly hard to share those experiences with us. For anyone about to start Higher Education or contemplating that next chapter, Pippa’s your Go-To-Gal.
Pursuing Education and Employment with a Chronic Illness
My name is Pippa, and I’m a writer and a blogger. I’m originally from Sheffield and now live in York, where I also work in communications consultancy in the charity sector. You can find more from me at Life Of Pippa, and on Instagram at @lifeofpippa. You can also shop my books and eBooks here!
During my first year of university, I was your typical student: studying hard, partying harder, travelling the country with various sports teams and for dance competitions, volunteering, working towards an honours degree and generally living my best life. By the same time the following year, I was struggling to stand up on my own.
I’d been battling for answers to my mystery symptoms since the age of 15, but it was only when my health significantly relapsed and I was struck down by an onslaught of debilitating pain and fatigue, that I was finally diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS). Naturally, all this took place during my very first year of university, just as my young adult life was beginning.
With plenty of support and adjustments, I managed to continue my studies and graduate, but heaven knows it wasn’t without its challenges. Adapting to life as a newly disabled student, especially one with an invisible illness,I often felt lonely, isolated, and like nobody else in the world could possibly understand what I was going through. I distinctly remember being shocked at what little support was available and how much I had to advocate for myself, how hard I had to fight for what I was entitled to, and how exhausting the whole situation seemed. Being a student can be a tough time for any young person, but dealing with a fluctuating health condition adds an entirely new dimension of difficulty.
Despite all this, however, it’s safe to say that my time at university genuinely formed some of the best, most rewarding years of my life. Therefore, I decided to compile everything I’d learned into what went on to become my debut non-fiction book – University and Chronic Illness: A Survival Guide.
Before now, there was no comprehensive guide that chronically ill people in the UK could pick up if they were considering becoming, or preparing to become, students themselves, much less one written by somebody who’s experienced the process first-hand: somebody who knows that your reasons for going to university often stretch far beyond only the lectures and textbooks.
Therefore, University and Chronic Illness: A Survival Guide is a chatty and relaxed, yet balanced and informative resource: one that’s sincere and realistic about the challenges of studying with a fluctuating health condition, yet one which will hopefully empower future students to make informed decisions and to really get the most out of their time at university. I’ve sharedmy own personal experiences and struggles that many others are likely to relate to, as well as universal tips and tricks that will hopefully make life a little easier for future students. Essentially, this book is made up of all the things I wish I’d had somebody to tell me back then.
It was also during my final years of being a student that my thoughts began to turn to what would happen after university life: how I would find employment opportunities that I could manage alongside my fluctuating health condition. I knew I was ‘well enough’to work in some capacity, but far from able to pursue a typical 9am-5pm occupation that involved leaving the house and being around other people every day.
Still adapting to the constraints that my health had imposed on my day-to-day life, back then I didn’t think I would have the luxury of choice over what job I went into; I thought I’d simply have to take whatever I could secure. By then, my self-worth had taken a serious battering. Everything had been overshadowed by my condition and the struggles of navigating an inaccessible society, and I was yet to fully realise that I still had all these valuable skills to offer.
Entering the world of work, and my experiences over the last few years, have been varied… to say the least! You can read about my personal employment journey in more depth in this blog post, but four years on since graduating, we’ve almost come full circle. I’m proud to say that I work freelance as a writer and blogger, and that I work for Astriid: a charity that matches talented chronically ill people with inclusive employment opportunities and supports them with their career development. In a way, we’ve almost come full circle.
I sacrifice so much in order to pursue my career, and there’s so much I’m yet to learn. I’m constantly paranoid that people look at my social media and think that I have it easy, that everything gets handed to me, when that’s far from the case. The simple fact is that I’m a hard worker who’s learned to get a little creative in finding and pursuing opportunities. When amazing things happen, I want to feel that I’ve earned them.
All of that said, I really do love my work. I’m excited to check my emails and delve into new projects, and being able to do so in a way that works for me and my health is more than I ever could have hoped for. Given the current climate in particular, I’m not naïve to what a privilege that is. I only hope more chronically ill and marginalised people are able to pursue similar paths in the future, and rest assured, I’m doing what I can to help make that happen. If you’re currently seeking work, you may find my blog post on finding accessible work with a chronic illness a helpful starting point.
Above all else, I want to have an impact. I want to help other people get their foot in the door. I want to make sure that other chronically ill individuals also have a fair shot at chasing their dreams. It’s about time the world realises just how much we have to offer.