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Back, but not really: chronic illness at Notre Dame

| Friday, October 8, 2021

Chronic illness has complicated a lot of things in my life, but this semester, it has taken more of a toll than I anticipated. I wiped out another week of illness with doctors appointments, trips to the pharmacy and more lozenges than I could keep track of. 

Long Covid” and other post-viral complications are not uncommon in the general population, but various media outlets and messaging have spread the idea that COVID is just not that big of a deal among college-age students. This was especially true early on in the pandemic. It is only more recently with the onslaught of the Delta variant that we have learned about the increased risk to younger adults

These new data, in combination with the lack of longitudinal studies on COVID’s effects, say, months or even years out, made me incredibly apprehensive to return to campus. There has been this widespread and somewhat unspoken fear among young people with comorbidities and immunocompromising conditions that we are still very much not out of the clear. Taking a gap year last year may have protected me from catching COVID while unvaccinated, but obviously I have since returned to campus and have become quite ill. 

The combination of post-COVID lingering symptoms and additional viral has not been kind to me. I doubt the winter cold and flu season will be any kinder. I am constantly reminded that we are not “post-pandemic.” Is the worst over? That is very much a possibility. The unshakeable feeling I have experienced while sick this semester is that we are back to campus and to a sort of sense of normalcy, but we’re not truly back to “normal.” Maybe new exposure to the germs of college is exacerbating my health issues. Maybe I just did not pay attention to how sick I was before. These are questions I have thought about in various clinics and urgent care waiting rooms.  

With all this being said, I am encouraged that I am not alone. The University Counseling Center will be hosting a new therapy group of individuals who face “invisible illnesses.” There is support for students who do not fit the traditional archetype of “sick” people who are navigating rough waters often alone. Sara Bea Accessibility Services and the Center for Student Support and Care are also supportive bodies for those looking for help.

The experience of the “invisibly” and/or chronically ill is still one that is placed on the back burner, so to speak. Masking as an immunocompromised person amongst a mass of unmasked, supposedly “healthy” classmates and individuals does call a sort of new attention to me. I know it raises questions in some and inquisitive looks in others. Am I actively sick? Am I contagious? Am I too fearful of illness?  In a way, masking makes my invisible illness very much visible. Maybe even too visible. Coming to terms with these suppositions of health is another task that falls on the invisibly ill. As if the illness and lifestyle changes, accommodations, and disadvantages were not enough.

How do we lighten this load? On an individual level, I would impel those without chronic illnesses to approach others from a place of compassion. Try to combat the personal biases, assumptions, or stereotypes you may hold toward people who mask or people who may be suffering from chronic illness. Do not expect answers from the chronically ill. Health is incredibly private and personal. 

To those among us who are also struggling with chronic and/or invisible illness, you are not alone. There is support out there and your struggles and experiences on campus matter.

Alexa Schlaerth is a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame pursuing degrees in Chinese and philosophy. As an Angeleno, Alexa enjoys shopping at Erewhon Market, drinking kombucha and complaining about traffic because it’s “like, totally lame.” Alexa can be reached at [email protected] over email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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