Lessons They Don’t Teach in College


I graduated from UC Berkeley in 2008. I learned about media theory, personality psychology, and the politics of developing nations under communism. I learned how to write a 40-page research paper while copy editing at the student newspaper, doing media internships, and publicizing events for the campus feminist organization. What I didn’t learn was how to deal with the malaise of chronic, debilitating pain. It is one lesson that professors don’t teach, and it’s one that I hope nobody is forced to learn in their life — yet it’s one that I have spent the past year struggling to grasp.

Jess Dell in New Zealand

After a small injury morphed into a much more serious chronic issue, I began experiencing agonizing constant back pain that worsened with sitting, as well as sharp shooting pains throughout my arms and legs, and tingling at the bottom of my feet. The pain was a grotesque cloak, weighing me down and robbing me of the life that I had known. I had worked throughout New Zealand on my own after college, and now I needed help with basic tasks, including lifting my laundry or a pot of boiling water. My doctors wrote letters so I could defer my acceptance into graduate school for a masters in international politics at the London School of Economics. I achingly put my career dreams on hold as I focused on getting better.

I thought that I would be able to stay positive throughout the ordeal. I have an amazingly supportive network of family and friends, I have access to excellent medical care, and I have always been a really cheerful person. If anyone should get through this with their “chin up” I reasoned that it should be me. However, this perfect amalgamation could not lift my spirits when the pain was just intolerable day after day.

Then last week I was fortunate enough to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to get a more accurate diagnosis (it was myofascia and nerve pain, essentially). It was an emotionally and physically draining week, and my mom and I collapsed into our beds in the adjoining hotel at the end of each night. Each day I was tested for something and while in the waiting room and hallways, I was surrounded by other people enduring physical hardship. People were hooked up to respirators, people were in wheelchairs, and people were bald from chemotherapy. It made my heart ache with compassion for others that were suffering, since at age 23 I now identified more with it than I ever had before.

However, the entire time I was at Mayo, I also felt something else that I hadn’t always felt at home: comfort. When I am at home with my family, who has seen me crippled over in pain, they lift my spirits. But there are other times when I’m not surrounded by people that know my situation. Pain is invisible. Unless I am visibly wincing, or if people notice the cushion I tote around to sit on, they would not know I am in a lot of pain. In the past year I have had multiple incidents at a part-time job in which a customer — who didn’t know about my health — was rude to me about something trivial that was not my fault. It caused me to burst into tears, for I can hardly take any stress on top of the physical stress. But that’s life. People have moments where they can take out their anger on others, and we need to have a tough skin to deal with that. Yet it’s hard to have a tough skin while in pain. I admire people that do, but I’m not there yet.

But I didn’t have to be there at Mayo. At Mayo, everybody knew that everyone around them was suffering. They didn’t know to what degree, and they didn’t know what it was from, but it made a difference in how they treated others. People went out of their way to be kind to others. The woman at the Mayo café made me a special dish that I had wanted. Anytime my mom and I looked lost getting to a building, someone would come up to us in an instant to direct us where to go. People were kind and gentle to other people that they didn’t know. It was its own Utopia. There was a comfort there in sub-zero Minnesota that I have not always had at home.

I have less patience now for people’s temper tantrums with trifling matters. There have been times when I have wanted to shout at people, “just be grateful that you are healthy and not in pain!” Not many answers to life’s problems lie in screaming at people, so I always calmly smile at them. However, I didn’t have that problem at Mayo. Nobody I saw got upset if their food took a long time to get to their table. Nobody yelled at unsuspecting people. There was an aura of calm that I imagine is felt in the Dalai Lama’s temple. But this aura of calm can happen here. If people could try to remember that many ailments in addition to pain are invisible — someone’s sister is dying, someone just lost their job, someone’s home is getting foreclosed, and if they could remember that before they become irate at something petty and take it out on someone, then life would be a lot more comforting to those that are suffering. It is an adage that we must treat others how we want to be treated, but I discovered its truth this last year.

I learned a lot in college, but it was not until this past, very trying year, that I learned some of life’s most important lessons.

Editor’s Note: The following was written by Jessica Dell of Kentfield, California

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4 Responses to “Lessons They Don’t Teach in College”

  1. Janet Says:

    I too suffer from pain and agree with soo much you have eloquently expressed. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Golda Dwass Says:

    Jess: I thought this was beautifully written. I relate to so much of what you write as I have lived with many of the same symptoms. it is so hard to talk about chronic pain. You have so much insight especially for someone your age. I really hope and pray that you can continue on to graduate school and find some relief from your pain. I hope I can see you this summer.

  3. Linda Rockey Says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. You have now learned some life lessons which will be invaluable to your life. I understand the calm you felt at Mayo Clinic. If only we could bottle and sell it. It is an experience that is hard to describe but you said it beautifully. Wishing you a life of health, happiness and compassion.

  4. Brooke Says:

    I love it!!! This is one of the most insightful articles I’ve read in a long time. I’m glad you’re sharing this incredible experience with the world.

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