Confessions of a Chronically Ill Overachiever

January marked five years since my RA diagnosis. It’s been a long road. Over the last couple of thousand days, I’ve received additional diagnoses and tried many remedies. I’ve gotten my hopes up and lost hope more times than I can count. Still, my life is mostly one continuous flare. And I have a confession.

I’m over it. ALL of it. The bone-crushing pain and the soul-shattering fatigue, of course. But also the endless planning, the constant balancing, the “perfect diet” quest, the pharmaceutical cocktails, the restrictions, the endless doctor visits, the guilt, the embarrassment….the end of carefree days. Most days, I can barely fit into my shoes. During the rare times I feel relatively “good”, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The relentlessness of chronic illness has taken a tremendous emotional toll on me, on my loved ones, and on my life. That’s inevitable, I suppose. But here’s another confession.

I believe I am making it worse.

I’ve been on this earth for 41 years. For all of that time, I’ve been a planner, a doer; what is commonly referred to as a Type-A personality. I face my setbacks head on, I stay positive, and I keep pushing.

Balance = more visits to beautiful Alaska! Photo credit: Jessica Hawk-Tillman.

Finding Balance = more visits to beautiful Alaska! Photo credit: Jessica Hawk-Tillman

And that’s the problem. I have been treating RA, Hashimoto’s, Sjogren’s, Fibro, tachycardia, and food allergies like temporary setbacks. In my mind, they’re something I need to push through so I can “come out stronger” on the other side. Case in point: In late 2011, I pushed myself so hard that I caught two viruses back to back. My body shut down, and I needed a central line and vasopressors to save my life. I had sepsis, spent days in the ICU, and was off work for 10 months. It should have been a wake-up call to me. It wasn’t.

In conversation, I would tell you that my expectations of myself are different than they were before I got sick. In my head, they are. But my actions continue to reflect my lifelong attitude toward any obstacle. “Forging on” is leading to crashes, disappointment, and feelings of failure. And if I want to do more than survive, I need to change.

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up. Quite the contrary, actually. I understand that while I need to keep a positive outlook, it must be balanced it with the reality of my daily challenges. I understand that I need to keep pushing for better health and new treatments, without pushing myself over the edge.

The amazing Toni Bernhard spoke about this very phenomenon in her most recent article. She discusses “positive thinking” vs “mental contrasting”, and wow. She nails what I’m trying to say above. Before we continue, please take a few minutes to read her thoughts at the link above. Go ahead, I’ll wait. 🙂

I’m now reevaluating every aspect of my life with these 3 questions. What’s my goal? Given my health, what are the obstacles I may face? How do I balance positivity and the reality of these obstacles, so I can reach my goal?

  • My work life today looks almost identical to my pre-RA days. The pattern of my days and weeks is predictable. I push myself during each work week, collapse most every night and weekend, and feel guilty and disappointed in myself when I do. Afraid to ask for accommodations at work. Afraid to say ‘no’, despite my body’s screams. Now, I’m speaking up. I’m requesting accommodation. I’m working with my manager to ensure my work allows me to contribute meaningfully, while keeping some spoons in reserve more often than not.
  • As we all know, doctors, pharmacies, and insurance require lots of extra energy to manage. They’re necessary, but I’m looking for ways to be a good patient and optimize these tasks. Here is one service I’m currently investigating. I’m pretty intrigued by the possibilities.
  • I’m opening myself to using assistance on long outings, remembering that I won’t enjoy myself (nor will Lora and Bear) if I am focused solely on my own pain and fatigue. Canes, rollators, and even my wheelchair are friends, not enemies. I’m even considering a motorized scooter.

This process is raw, and frankly, it’s a bit scary to share. But we’re all facing it. And I’m thinking it might be less scary if we do it together. So, I’d love to hear from you. What are your confessions? What changes are you making? What have you realized? Does “mental contrasting” resonate with you?

It’s taken five long years, and lots of lessons, but I get it. In that spirit, here’s one more confession:

I am chronically ill. It is not my fault, and it was not my choice. Still, there is a fulfilling life out there for me. It just looks different than the one I had before. I accept this, and I will do the work to live it. Every day.

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What Am I Worth?

Recently, I had an informal dinner with a member of my new leadership team, who we’ll call Victoria*. The subject of layoffs came up. It’s no surprise that the tech company I work for is cutting back its workforce, so we were discussing it and the potential impact on our business. I immediately thought of my own experience in July 2013, when my role was eliminated as part of a broad reorganization.

Since I just started in my current role 2.5 months ago, I thought I’d share my story with her….part of the “getting to know you” process. Back in 2013, I felt fortunate to be offered two alternate positions immediately, a rare luxury among the 17 affected people on my team. I knew I’d be taking one of those two roles, versus looking for a possible better fit. You see, I had returned to work from disability in late 2012. While I was out, my role was backfilled. When I got my doctor’s approval to return, I was “on the clock”. I had only 30 days to find a new gig. Needless to say, I was not anxious to repeat the uncertainty of that experience less than a year later, even with the offered 60 days of search time. After I explained this — my story with a happy ending — she paused thoughtfully for a moment. Her response left me speechless.

“I’m surprised they would offer you a choice like that, since you were just out on disability.”

Stunned, I immediately launched into my complete company resume, ticking off each accomplishment. Presumably, Victoria knew about my career successes, and brought me onto the team because of them. Her comment made me feel that I had to defend myself. That regardless of my achievements, my disability leave downgraded my stock as an employee.

I’m proud that in that moment, I defended myself. But I reacted from my back foot, extracting every bit of evidence of my professional worth. Here’s what I wish I had said:

Victoria, I have spent most of the last decade dedicated to our company. I take great pride in the work I do, and in what I have accomplished here. For more than half of my 8.5 years, I have also battled Rheumatoid Arthritis. I have won awards, received promotions, and regularly earned the highest review marks possible, both pre and post diagnosis. I am an asset, and my work earned me the choices I was given. My disability status was not, and should not be, a factor. Your comment suggests that I should have been given fewer options simply because I took company-offered leave when I was too sick to work. That is horribly insulting, both to me and to our company.

I realize that people make mistakes, that they say things without thinking. This did not feel like that. My view of Victoria, and of my place on the team, immediately changed. I am having a hard time believing that my experience won’t be affected by her view that “disabled = less deserving”. It seems assumed that I cannot produce the same level of results as my peers, because I have physical limitations. I wrote awhile back about my typical “Brains versus Brawn” response at work. Until now, it’s been largely effective, and has allowed people to get more comfortable with my disability. But for the first time, I’m concerned that I am viewed as an anchor, not as an asset.

* Pseudonym to protect her anonymity

Brains Versus Brawn

I love this article by Christine Miserandino. It’s amazing to me how differently we spoonies are treated at times. I relate completely to Christine’s story in this article.

First, a disclaimer: I am blessed to work for a great company with fantastic people. I am grateful every day for what I have. Flexibility and modifications allow me to continue working at the same career I enjoyed for 15 years prior to my diagnosis. I am now officially a “home office” employee, so I can work with my feet up or from bed when I must. I can often flex my hours, taking breaks as my eyes or joints require. I have set limits on my travel, which every manager I have had has respected. I am fully aware that at some point, all of this may not be enough, but for the last 5 years, I have mostly made it work. Pun intended. Duh.

That said, people have changed with me. When I first “came out” with my disease at work, things were suddenly, and subtly, different. Colleagues hesitated to include me on meeting invitations and virtual teams, concerned that they were “putting too much on me”. Managers tiptoed around me, offering a placating “How are you DOING?”, complete with the pitying look and the ever-present, but unspoken “Are you still going to be able to do your job?”

This is by no means a universal reaction, just one I never witnessed until I was “out” with my chronic illness. When it occurs, I know those who do it have the best of intentions. They just aren’t sure how to handle the new, sick me. They aren’t sure what to do when they see me attending events, shuffling gingerly to my seat, juggling my food at the buffet along with my cane, or sitting my wheelchair. To help them understand, I started offering up a smirk and this one-liner:

“The company hired me for my brains, not my brawn, and my brain hasn’t changed.”

As a self-declared nerd and as someone who, ahem, is not known for lifting heavy objects, I usually get a laugh. More often than not, it helps my colleagues feel more comfortable with my illness. I know I’m lucky to work in a career where this response can be both funny and true. If brawn was a big part of my job, as it is with many, I would be unable to perform in my former capacity. Though I most often utter it at work, this line is also effective with my doctor, with friends, and with family.

It’s not a perfect response, but when faced with others’ trepidation about my illness, it does the trick for me. Do you experience these moments? If so, what techniques work for you?