Living with a Chronic Illness Abroad

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Katlyn Clarke
December 23, 2023

Here I ramble about how to feel good as new when managing a chronic illness or just when you're feeling a little under the weather! 

Funks happen. And sadly, they will also happen abroad. A funk can happen when you wake up one morning and just feel a little off, you feel a little less like yourself, and on top of it all, you cannot figure out why. For a week or so I was feeling really down and I couldn’t get to the bottom of it. Sure, I missed my friends back in PA but I loved the connections I made in Amsterdam. And while I’d been having one of the best experiences of my life here, it’s natural to feel a little unsettled and blah sometimes. It’s good to remember that two things can be true at once: you can love being abroad and miss the comfort of where you came from, even if it’s hard to admit.

In addition to the natural ebbs and flows and high and lows to being abroad, I also live with a chronic illness, which might surprise a few people! I've never been privy to talking about it, but as this article will detail, being abroad changed that for me. I'd also like to acknowledge the privilege that I have in living with an illness that no one can see. I am granted the choice in telling others that I do have a chronic illness, and many people with chronic illnesses or physical disabilities do not have this choice. In addition, everyone experiences different symptoms, even if you have the same illness as another person. Your symptoms and their severity may differ widely from others—don't invalidate yourself! 

Although my illness is physical, it affects my emotions and mental health as well. So those living with and managing illnesses, this one's for you! I have never wanted my chronic illness to define me, if anything, I like to view it as complementary to who I am and what I can do. It challenges me, and I struggle with it everyday. But instead of beating myself up for having an illness I cannot change, it's just aother reason to pour into myself even more. My illness will never go away, so I have to make it the best it can be! I cannot change my diagnoses, but I can change my perspective on it. And before or during your time abroad, I invite you to do the same. 

It took me a long time to develop this mentality, and things are easier said than done. Since my diagnosis five years ago, I don’t think I fully appreciated the routine I built for myself in college: my diet and foods I ate everyday, the ways I manage and maintain my symptoms through exercise, medication, doctor’s appointments, and beauty practices. And the biggest thing: the way my support system works through family and friends. Before I went abroad, I could manage my illness on my own with the help of my family. A few of my close friends knew, but overall I was fairly confident about the ways I coped. 

Then I went abroad. During my time in Amsterdam, I realized I needed a lot more support to manage my chronic illness and the symptoms that come with it than I originally thought. I didn't talk much about my chronic illness because I didn’t feel a reason to. I had viewed it as a negative thing about myself for so long, or something that I found draining and exhausting myself, and I didn’t want to project my feelings about my own chronic illness onto others in that way. Going abroad taught me that I can talk about my chronic illness, even if others cannot relate. I don’t have to be positive about it all the time, yet sometimes being down on myself and throwing a pity party just is not helpful. And those with chronic conditions will know: you are really the only person who can help you. Complaining will not fix anything, so why not try to do more yourself and find things that you can rely on to make you feel good? What also gave me perspective was reminding myself that, as we know, many people have chronic illnesses. While mine would act up abroad, it is not all of me, and many other people are struggling through situations much worse than mine! 

Here’s some things I noticed while abroad and how to help yourself if you feel the same—

If you have a chronic illness and are nervous about traveling abroad, I hear you! But you can do it as long as you’re willing to make those extra changes for yourself to accommodate your lifestyle abroad, it will just take some additional time and effort.I found that I had heightened mood swings while abroad, and my emotions were harder to control. Pack the medication that you need for the entire duration of your trip, and try not to miss days. Going abroad can feel like a weird, extended vacation and it’s hard to not treat it like one. But again, maintain those routines and continue setting medication alarms and reminders if that’s what you usually do. Remember that you can have relaxing days! When abroad, you might feel pressure to go go go, all of time. You don’t have to be that, especially if your symptoms are creeping in or you just need time for yourself. Everyone needs a break once in a while. 

Right when you arrive, whether you live with a chronic illness or not (just especially if you do), determine your priorities and what you need to live a healthy and relatively happy four months. IES Abroad will put out resources for therapists, and again, therapy is much more affordable abroad! You’ll have time to research counselors and there’s also a staff member at the center who can help match you with the right fit and contact the counselor on your behalf to begin appointments. Going to the gym is also a huge factor for me and regulating my symptoms. You can ask the IES Abroad staff what gyms/exercise classes they attend, how they best get exercise (maybe biking to and from class will do it for you!), and also student discount options. Lots of local universities have gyms by one of the campus locations. Just a disclaimer: the conditions will not be perfect. You might not find a therapist as good as your home therapist. The gym might be a little more pricey, and overly crowded. Every day may not be your best day. This is okay! You might need to make other sacrifices in order to accommodate the same lifestyle you had in America. These changes will not put you in the exact place, but when you strive to take care of yourself and implement the same routines, it will be worth it! 

Extra note:

As I got closer with my friends abroad, many of us started opening up about chronic conditions, going to therapy and our mental health. This isn’t something I was used to doing with others so often, and especially people who I haven’t known for long. Yet, I found it really thoughtful, reassuring, comforting, and validating. Just texting a friend abroad: hey just checking in. Or how’s your mental health been? can be huge. It might feel weird at first to ask these questions if you’ve met them recently, but the further into the program we were and the more my friends hung out, it brought us closer together because of talking about these things. If you're still reading this: you can do this! I'm thinking of you, and your family and friends are too.  You will probably cry a lot (I did haha). And it was mostly because I couldn't control how my illness was making me feel, and because many of my friends didn't know yet. But that's why your friends are who they are! Pick up your phone and call them. 


Things to do to help you feel good as new: 

Journal: write yourself some affirmations! Consistency with this adds up to making yourself feel like you’re hitting your goals or making little improvements. Or you can write about the little things that make you smile and recap your day good and bad. 

Take a walk, or try another form of exercise

Go Outside!!

Make yourself a full meal

Call a friend or family member from home: chat about how they're doing if you don't want to talk about you, or focus on a little positive thing that added some brightness to your day

Check up on a friend from your program—get out of your own head. 

Create a new playlist 

Remind yourself that  these feelings won’t last forever 

Celebrate little victories and don’t be too hard on yourself 

Some things you might need to force yourself to do. For me, this works, especially when I just want to be alone and I know that will not be helpful. In order to fully help yourself, sometimes you need to make yourself uncomfortable to lift yourself up

In the end, you know yourself best! Trust yourself and focus on one day at a time. 

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Katlyn Clarke

Hi! I'm Katie. I enjoy iced matcha lattes, sunset walks, and Bernedoodles! I'm a huge book lover, and will easily pick up the newest summer romance. I also have a knack for crafting playlists for friends and could listen to the same song all day!

2023 Fall
Home University:
Franklin & Marshall College
Creative Writing
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