Chronic Pain at Swat is Real, Let’s Talk About It

When it comes to students with disabilities, Swarthmore falls far short in offering resources and support.

That, at least, has been my experience. I entered Swarthmore last year as a pretty healthy guy with the normal basket of anxieties and enthusiasms. I was excited about developing friendships with people who wouldn’t let me get away with unexamined opinions, yet intimidated by Swarthmore’s rigorous academics. While the gap year I took before coming to Swarthmore gave me a quiet confidence about navigating residential life, I still feared the culinary wrath of Sharples.

These concerns were largely dissolved about six weeks into my first year, as a pain condition caused by musculoskeletal problems abruptly emerged from nowhere.

Take a time you have felt ill, perhaps you had the flu or a broken hand. Imagine that it dragged on and on, for weeks and months. Then add in the lifestyle of Swarthmore. You walk past carefree frisbee throwers as you trudge to Sharples, try to concentrate through demanding seminars, vainly impress inauthentic smiles upon your dinner company. Next add multiple weekly physical therapy and acupuncture appointments you have to drive ten, twenty, or forty miles to get to. Finally subtract most of the friendships you’ve made in the first weeks and months of your time here.

At first, it feels like some ugly appendage suckered onto your body. But after the calendar starts flipping, and September turns to March, the pain blossoms from physicality and into identification. Your ambition, optimism, idealism, love for the outdoors, and big ideas withers. Your hopes and personality simplifies to the level of a grotesque caricature.  

I realize that this is a depressing portrait, but I think it’s important for people in our community to recognize that chronic pain—and other medical conditions—have a significant role on campus. Being sick is still stigmatized. Even if it wasn’t, sufferers are still often unable to advocate for themselves. As a result, the profile of pain on campus is nearly nonexistent. I don’t think I have heard of a single campus lecture on the topic of disability, nor do I think I’ve heard a single student initiate a conversation on the marginalization created by disability. Issues of class, race, and gender are rightfully some of the staples of a Swarthmore dinner conversation. But pain is like a tree that falls and no one hears. As the trope goes, does that mean it doesn’t exist?  

While discourse is validating in and of itself, its absence has real reverberations. My PE instructor insinuated in an email that I may have been skipping his classes for reasons other than illness. He reported me to a dean when I sent a firmly worded response. Another professor rebuked me in an email, writing “Classes take priority over extracurricular activities,” when I asked if I could change sections in an introductory class to avoid conflict with doctor’s appointments. A member of the administration literally raised her voice at me when I insisted that I would need a car on campus to get to my doctor’s appointments. She maintained that Swarthmore had very few available parking spaces and I agreed to the consequences of that when I enrolled.

The lack of campus awareness of students with illness has created an atmosphere where this behavior is permitted. While the majority of my interactions with my professors have been positive, I’d still like to see enhanced faculty awareness training and administration-sponsored lectures on illness. The creation of a student support and awareness group could even further combat the invisibility of chronic pain.

I think the lack of visibility has percolated into policy. Take the PE requirement. This might come as a surprise, but every student has to fulfill the full PE requirement. If you’re wheelchair bound or, like I did, face chronic pain, the physical education department is willing to work with you to modify the requirement. But that almost seems besides the point.

Generalized physical education is practically irrelevant to someone who has specific health needs. It even has the potential to exacerbate health problems, as my PE class did before I withdrew from it. PE is a big expense of energy for students whose vigor is already constrained. Isn’t the responsibility of balancing illness, which in my case entailed hours of work every day, with demanding academics a challenge enough?

I’d also like to see a formalized role for social support and mentorship in the administration for students with pain conditions. A.L. Chen ’18, another student fighting pain conditions, noted that she was able to find faculty who supported her, but only on an ad hoc basis. There isn’t any designated person to go to for practical tips or coping skills.

At this juncture, I am skeptical that I can enact meaningful change by myself. I want people to reach out to me with their experiences and thoughts. If you are having trouble coping with illness, if you have had a serious illness in the past, or if you just think pain is an issue worth discussing, it would be great to hear from you.

Inevitably, people will suffer from chronic pain at Swarthmore. I hope we can make the journey easier for them.

You can contact Max at mweinst1@swarthmore.edu

Featured image courtesy of Colin Kerrigan.


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8 comments

  1. 7
    Heidi says:

    I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in high school I’m a junior this year at Swat. I’ve never experienced any stigma or difficulties with academics as far as having an invisible disability goes. I can relate to the difficulty w the PE requirement, I should be done but because I missed three out of two classes I have to retake a fifth credit. I spoke to my PE instructor at the beginning of last semester about my fibro and he said something along the lines of “so what? that shouldn’t matter.” I didn’t know other students were struggling with chronic pain on campus. It’s definitely not something that gets discussed often. I would love to see a pain management counselor or some sort of support group as resources for students. Do we even have physical therapist on campus? The only places you can go for pain management are far away. I was driving like an hour away to get massages last semester.

    1. 6
      Ellen ( User Karma: 6 ) says:

      I like the idea of a support group. As a junior on leave this semester, I think it would be helpful for students to have a community in which we can all relate to each other’s experiences as a commonality between us. I have been lucky enough to have had PE coaches who understood my chronic pain and even offered to allow me time off and make up lost days later when it got too bad. I think it’s terrible that your coach didn’t understand your circumstances and just completely dismissed your request.

      On the topic of physical therapy – I remember going to Worth and being told that I could see if the sports physical therapist could see me, but that it would probably not be allowed. And that I could check their website for nearby PT locations. I remember that after this summer I wanted to return to school and try to find physical therapists nearby, but I couldn’t fathom having to carve out at least two hours in a day, perhaps twice a week, for traveling by public transport + the appointment itself.

      I, like Heidi, wasn’t aware that other people struggled too. Of course, how could we know unless we all shared these issues out in the open? They’re invisible and most of the time, we are so accustomed to living with the pain that it’s almost “normal”, unfortunately. But I am grateful to the author of this article for bringing this topic into the spotlight. Hopefully we can get more of a conversation going around this.

      1. 2

        Ellen, I’m not sure what the requirements are (if there are requirements?) for being eligible to use PT at Swat, but I what I can say is that Worth told me the same thing, and since then I have made extensive use of the PT office in the field house despite not playing any sports. If you haven’t already, you could try reaching out to Marie Mancini directly when you get back. Marie has been incredibly welcoming, helpful and supportive of me despite my not being there for a sport, and I’m not sure what I would do without the various exercises and therapeutic stretches she’s helped me develop. Hope you’re able to experience the same. 🙂

  2. 4
    Anna Livia "AL" Chen '17.5 says:

    It is so wonderful and refreshing to know that I am not the only one struggling with this, and to have another making themselves vulnerable in order to raise awareness and, hopefully, effect some change. Let’s all continue talking about what we can do to support each other and everyone else whose bodies and enjoyment of life are suffering. Our health may remain stubbornly dreary but not all of this has to be so lonely and miserable.

  3. 3
    anon says:

    Thank you so much for this. Often, those people around sufferers of chronic pain become dulled to it–another class missed, another injury to work around–and start to lose sympathy as they become annoyed. It’s so important to increase visibility, especially considering the PE requirement. As adults with years of experience with these conditions, we should be able to judge for ourselves what is best for our bodies, without a school administrator with a quota to fill scolding us for our supposed laziness.

  4. 3
    William Fedullo '16 says:

    Hey Max – have you heard of the Disability Rights Pennsylvania? They’re a legal non-profit organization that, as their name suggests, does legal advocacy to advance rights for people with disabilities. Even if you’re not inclined right now to seek legal remedies to address your your situation, it’s probably good to have in the back of your pocket.

    http://disabilityrightspa.org

  5. 2

    Shout out in solidarity to anyone else whose chronic pain is frustratingly *unpredictable*.

    Not knowing whether or when you actually need to ask for help can lead you to never ask for it, even in cases where you could definitely use it.

    Thank you for your vulnerability in writing this, Max. I know the Sharples trudge, especially in the winter.

  6. 0
    Amanda says:

    Hey all!

    I just wanted to quickly put in a thing on the mental health side:
    You can get accommodations for mental health.

    But yes, seeing more support around this would be good. I personally have had an excellent relationship with the admin/faculty/staff about my own issues, but I hope we can come to a point where everyone has this.

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