You are stronger than you think
As part of Young Epilepsy’s ‘Back to University campaign’, I will be discussing my experience of living with epilepsy and attending freshers’ week at university.
Freshers' Week is a seven-day programme where new university students attend both day and night events - it can involve a lot of drinking and late nights which can be daunting for someone with epilepsy. However, I have experienced fresher’s week twice and have gathered some useful information on how to have the best and most enjoyable experience whilst still being safe. I will discuss both of my freshers’ weeks and talk about how I coped with managing my health and starting university life.
I first experienced Freshers’ when doing an Art foundation at the University of Arts London and secondly when doing my degree at The University of Gloucestershire. Freshers' week is a daunting experience for anyone and I was certainly full of mixed emotions. Of course I was very excited about moving away for the first time, but with the excitement came a lot of fear. Also, I was filled with this worry and anxiety that my body wouldn’t be able to keep up with the busy and chaotic time of freshers. However, through taking one day at a time I learned how to adapt to university life.
If you are staying in halls of residence, which I was, the other students living there will be the first people you’ll meet and bond with. On the first day, once we had settled into our rooms, I made sure to communicate to a couple of my flat mates about my condition. I was in a flat of five and decided to tell two of the people living with me who I felt most comfortable telling. I know this is scary in itself but for me this was vital for many reasons. One reason was for safety, if I had a seizure they would know what was happening and had an understanding of what to do. I also explained to them, due to my medication side effects and seizure triggers, I might not be able to come on some nights out, I won’t be drinking as much as them and I require a good night sleep. They were super understanding and just wanted to make sure I was okay.
My main seizure trigger is fatigue so as freshers’ week is full of nights out this was scary for me - but I made it work by having a balance of socialising and resting. At university when you have a night out, people normally have pre-drinks at someone’s flat before going to the club. Personally, I learnt that for me a great balance was going to pre-drinks (where I could chat and make new friends) then most of the time I would head back to my room to go to sleep instead of heading onto the club or evening fresher event. Therefore I would not be putting my health at risk and get a good night sleep. This for me is a clear example of balance and compromising as you are still meeting people, interacting and making friends but still getting enough sleep. However, if I did decide to go out to the club, I would make sure I always stayed with one of my friends from my halls of residence. And if I started to feel tired or poorly, then thankfully one of my amazing flat mates would come home with me to make sure I got back safely. If I did go to the club, then the next day I would make sure I was set for a full day of rest as I knew how important it was to allow my body to recover. This meant staying in bed, having a day of watching films and letting your body recharge.
If going to parties and nights out aren’t your thing, then don’t worry as freshers has a huge amount of day events happening. Every university will have a daytime fresher’s fair which is an amazing place to make friends and join societies. The university will provide a wide range of different societies which allow you to meet people with similar interests.
When I did my art foundation in London, I would only drink a very small amount of alcohol. My neurologist had advised me if I was going to drink alcohol only have a small amount, for example one glass of wine or a beer. But personally, I found it doesn’t mix well with my medication - it would bring out more medication side effects and I would feel drunker quicker than everyone else. I was adamant if someone offered me a drink I would decline. However, you do get the occasional person ask why you are not drinking or joining in with the drinking game, and from my experience the best thing to do is just be honest and say something like: “oh because of a medical reason.” Or if you feel you need to give more detail add on that you are epileptic. I found most people would understand straight away and move on. Be strong and don’t give into peer pressure.
When I joined the University of Gloucestershire, I had stopped drinking alcohol completely due to not liking how it mixed with my medicine. So I did my second freshers completely sober. The way I managed to still be involved with freshers was by attending more day-time events. I still made lots of friends but I also made sure to create strong bonds with my flat mates. I learnt if they are going to be a good, true friend they don’t mind that you’re not drinking as your health is important to them. So even if you aren’t into the party scene and drinking, as I am aware through personal experience epilepsy can limit this, you can still go to so many day time events and make so many friends. Not everyone does drink and there will be other people in the same boat as you.
To me, Freshers’ was about planning and balance and always remembering to put your body and how you are feeling first. There is a lot of social pressure at university, but it is important to put your health first. If I felt like my body was struggling and in need of a rest, I would stay in and watch some films. I am a strong believer that it is important to listen to how your body is feeling and don’t allow the pressure to push your health over the edge. But most importantly have fun!
Here I will summarise with some quick tips for Freshers' week -
1. Be honest and open with your friends – make sure to communicate to the people you are spending freshers with that you are epileptic and what to do if you have a seizure.
2. Drink responsibly – It is fine to say no to a drink. If you are drinking alcohol drink lots of water too. You know what is right for your body so don’t ignore that.
3. Rest – make sure you get enough sleep. For me fatigue is a big seizure trigger, therefore I would always make sure if I had gone out the night before to get enough rest the following day.
4. Attend day events – so much happens during fresher’s week in the day too. This is a great place to meet people if you are not into partying.
5. Flat mates – making effort with flat mates is important as this can provide a great set of support for you!
6. Listen to your body – Attending pre-drinks but not going to the club after was a great way for me to make lots of friends but not do the full night out. This is a great balance!
7. Eat and drink lots of water – Fresher week is a busy week but it is so important to eat and drink well to keep your body at its strongest.
8. Stay with others – When on a night out and at fresher’s events make sure to stay with someone who is aware about your condition and to know what to do if you had a seizure.
9. Medical ID bracelet – This is a great way to feel safer when out with people who don’t know about your condition.
10. Have fun! - Epilepsy can cause you to need to plan a bit more but this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself and have fun at freshers!
As part of Young Epilepsy ‘Back to University campaign’, I will be discussing my experience of living with epilepsy and moving away from home to university for the first time.
Moving away from home is an exciting stepping stone in life but can also be very daunting, especially if you have epilepsy. I first moved away from home at eighteen to go to university, this was a huge step for me. I was full of mixed emotions. I had a lot of anxieties about it to do with my epilepsy, such as: “How was I going to manage moving away from the safety of home and look after my epilepsy? How was I go to lead a ‘normal’ university life whilst balancing my health?”But I learnt as I went along and through my experiences how to manage. I will share my advice on what made it easier moving away from home to university whilst managing my condition, epilepsy.
Before choosing the university, I would do research into their student support services (disability support). I specifically chose The University of Gloucestershire because it had been rated high for their amazing disability support/student support services. I had read many great reviews online from previous students. It is very important to me that they have a strong understanding disability support system in place. In the past I haven’t had this and it makes a big difference to your education and wellbeing when the support is good and they understand you.
I would also meet with the disability team before moving to the university. This is to communicate with them what support you require from them, the university and what they can do in advance to make you feel more comfortable. For example, I expressed how important it is that it is explained to my lecturers about my condition, how it affects me and to share any of my concerns or worries. To have the support set up and someone to go to when you are in need is of great help.
I was aware the disability team had sent an email to my course leader about my condition. But I also set up meetings with my course leader and tutor to inform them about my epilepsy and how it can affect my learning. I think talking face to face and being honest is the best way to gain their understanding. I have learnt how important it is they understand what you are going through, so they can be there to support and guide you.
Another important thing to organise is signing up to a new doctor in your university town. Have an appointment with them to discuss your medical history and your epilepsy. Also it is important to set up your repeat prescription. For me these are two key things to organise at the start of term or even prior. Top tip: The more you organise before you move to university the easier and more comfortable you will feel when you arrive.
Next for me was being open and honest with friends about my condition. This allows me to feel safer and more comfortable in a new environment. I would always make sure to tell my closest flat mates and friends in my lectures about my condition: how it affects me and what to do if I have a seizure. I also gave my parents contact details to my friends. This made my parents feel more at ease about me being away from home. I felt reassured that if I was to have a bad seizure and needed to go to hospital, my friends could let my parents know right away.
For me it is important I eat regularly and healthily. Before leaving for university I literally only knew how to cook an egg and that was about it! So the summer before I moved my parents taught me some healthy, simple meals to cook which was really helpful. Also I brought an easy student cookery book. When I cooked, I would always tell one of my flat mates that I was cooking, then they would cook with me or chat to me whilst I cooked, just to be safe, in case I where to have a seizure when preparing or cooking food. I believe after eating a good warming cooked meal you can get a lot of comfort from that and feel better in yourself.
Getting enough sleep is an important part of looking after my health. This was a big worry for me when I was moving to university. What I have learnt is be strong and listen to my body. There is a lot of peer pressure at university. So you learn the importance of declining going out or a late night if you are tired and rest is needed. Sleep is so important. You feel a lot happier and settled when you had a good night sleep. I learnt my friends understood if I wasn’t going out and needed to rest because they knew about my situation.
Also, most first year students choose halls of residence. This is a great way to get into university life and make friends. However, I have learnt depending on the bedroom you have this can be noisy. Therefore when applying for you room communicate with the university accommodation team that you need a quiet room, away from the kitchen, main road, entrance door, lifts and not on the ground floor. Knowing you have a quiet, non-noise disturbed room really helps with settling in to university life; it is reassuring to know you can get a good night sleep.
Choose halls or accommodation nearest to your university campus. This depends on if your university is a campus university or not, mine weren’t. But I made sure my halls where near to the campus. This was because if I felt ill during a lecture or was tired after a day of university, I was comforted that I didn’t have far to walk back to my flat.
Take care of yourself, your mental health and take some time to go on a walk to the park or do some exercise. I joined the gym in the second year of university; this was a daunting prospect for me as I am not a sporty person! But I wanted to do it for more for well-being. Having found a routine of going to the gym in the morning, when I didn’t have lectures, really helped me settle and contributed to a healthy mind. Doing some form of exercise, yoga or meditation can help you settle quicker; stress is a seizure trigger for me and having exercise as a stress realise was a great help towards managing my epilepsy.
Overall, I learnt I am at my happiest and most settled when people around me understand my condition and know what to do if I was to have a seizure. These people include my flat mates, my friends, my lecturers and my disability support team. Establishing an environment where to feel safe in and having a support system in place is key.
Here are some of my top tips for moving away from home for the first time to university -
1. Accommodation – notify the accommodation team that you are epileptic and require good sleep for your health. Then they can provide you with a quieter room for example, not near an entrance or main road
2. Take care of yourself – sleep well and get fresh air. All these factors will help towards settling in and feeling good.
3. Meet with disability support – make a meeting before you start to communicate the support you require so they understand your situation.
4. Open days – visit the university, see their support team and accommodation to see if it will be suitable for you and your epilepsy.
5. Be honest with your friends – tell them about your condition and what to do if you have a seizure.
6. Sign up to a local doctor and pharmacy.
7. Make your university room feel like a safe haven – decorate your bedroom with lots of photos of friends, family and made it feel homely.
8. Make sure your lecturers/teachers are aware – it is so important teachers are made aware of your condition and how it affects you. Help them to understand you.
9. Eat well – learning how to cook the summer before university was a big help to me!
10. Choose halls near your university campus – this will help with fatigue and it is comforting knowing your room is only walking distance away!
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