Enough With the Sick Day Humblebrags

All my life, I’ve been surrounded—some might say afflicted—by troopers. You know the type: they can work through anything, raging fevers and hacking coughs be damned. Industriousness in the face of illness is a point of pride, and rest is for other, presumably weaker, people. Their insistence on being out and about when they’re contagious does cause some cringing from those around them, but discreet disapproval is nothing to a long-time trooper.

The trooper’s crowning achievement? They haven’t taken a sick day in ten, twenty, thirty years. Perhaps they did, once, but it was life or death, so that’s forgivable—just barely.

I’ve sat self-consciously among these trooper types, growing progressively guiltier as they list the ailments that didn’t stand between them and their work. Shifting restlessly, I’ve listened to them condemn people who choose to take sick days, trading anecdotes about rampant abusers of the system. I’ve begged the universe to disperse my atoms as they called for bonuses that would reward employees for refusing to use their allotted sick leave. No one stopped to consider what that might mean for people like me, even as I sat in their midst. Most irksome of all, no one stopped to admit that not needing sick days said less about their work ethic and more about the privilege of a healthy body—something many of them took for granted.

The idea that we shouldn’t come to work sick is gaining ground, though it’s cold comfort for people who don’t have the privilege of paid sick leave. Employees are encouraged not to expose their colleagues to contagious illnesses, and sick day guilt is finally being acknowledged as a mainstream issue. Doctors are calling for an end to sick notes, citing the valuable time wasted, the germs needlessly spread to vulnerable patients, and the hefty bills employees and students with common colds are left to pay. (A few months ago, my poor partner paid $40 for a sick note.) As a student whose migraines were not well-managed, I dragged myself to walk-in clinics and hospitals when I should have been at home, resting and suffering in peace. I, too, have paid pretty pennies for slips of paper that declared what I already knew: I had a migraine, and I needed bedrest. Hoops must be jumped through, and HR departments must be appeased, but that doesn’t make the system sensible.

Sick day guilt persists. Employees who should be resting will sometimes work remotely. They take calls when they should be sleeping, or answer emails from a doctor’s waiting room. People lucky enough to have access to paid sick time still have concerns about job security, workloads, and cover-offs. Despite cultural acceptance of self-care and work-life balance, feeling terrible about staying home is practically a cliché. Even when employers actively encourage time off, many employees–and I include myself among them–feel more comfortable toughing it out.

Aside from the usual bugs that strike everyone each winter, I deal with chronic pain in my neck, shoulders, and back. The pain typically manifests as nagging headaches, stiffness, and muscle aches. Occasionally, nausea, watering eyes, and disorientation will join in, making it difficult to focus. When the pain peaks, which isn’t often, thank goodness, I struggle to find words, concentrate, and even orient myself physically. Spurred by sick day guilt, I have insisted on working during those severe pain days, even when it meant bouncing off doorways or making silly errors. Anyone with sense could see I ought to be resting, not working, but growing up around all those proud troopers had left a powerful impression.

I hit my lowest point while working a summer job. A combination of emotional stressors and a new medication made my migraines spike, and I woke one morning with a leaden feeling of wrongness throughout my entire body. I got on the bus, limbs tingling, and realized I was getting yet another migraine. I crossed a busy intersection to access my office building, but was so dizzy I couldn’t identify which way was forward. When I tried to climb the steps into the reception area, my feet failed to make the appropriate motions, and I fell. Twice.

When I got to my office, I immediately began working, hoping I’d be able to make it through the day. By the time a colleague found me an hour later, I was draped over my desk, green and shaking. While a kind stranger drove me home, a bucket cradled in my lap, I understood that if I didn’t change, I’d be unable to work at all. An emergency hospital visit a few days later confirmed it: the guilt was unsustainable, and so was the trooper mentality.

Nowadays, I manage my pain much more consciously. I have several coping mechanisms I can use while at work, and I know how to ask coworkers for help and support. I take care of myself at home so I can function well at my job, and take the odd sick day without too much dithering about whether I deserve the time. This approach has meant I suffer less pain in the first place, and manage it more successfully when it does come along. My current work environment is a balanced one, and when I go several weeks without a severe pain episode, I feel lucky, not proud. I am not special for not needing sick days as often as some other coworkers do, and I know it.

Abandon the sick day humblebrags, and recognize that illness is not a moral failing. Avoid bringing that nasty flu into the workplace unless you’re positive your coworkers can’t get along without you. Stay home when you can, and strive for real, lasting recovery. If people take sick days around you, reserve judgment. Don’t treat your lack of need for sick leave like a badge of honour. If you have the option of taking paid sick time, coming to work when you’re unwell means you are either very stubborn or very dedicated. It doesn’t necessarily place you above your colleagues.

We’ll all have days when we feel as though taking a day of rest is not an option. We have too much to do. People are depending on us to be present, and we’re confident we can handle the discomfort. I’ve been there, and I’ll be there again. I’m not going to miss a file audit meeting or workshop because my pain is a bit worse than usual. It’s okay to be a trooper, at least some of the time.

But, as we overcome physical limitations to be present, let’s do so with the awareness that staying home is a valid choice, too. Let’s acknowledge there will always be those who abuse the system, without demanding that everyone lose out because of a few bad apples. Let’s stop expecting people to be impressed by a sparkling attendance record. Let’s shift our focus to performance and productivity.

Oh, and let’s take a crack at conquering that sick day guilt. Health is not a sign of strength, and illness is not a sign of weakness.

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Counting My Spoons: A Life Lived in Pain

It’s easy to be philosophical about blindness. I don’t have to stretch much to say it’s opened doors I never would have discovered if I were sighted. Blindness has compelled me to meet interesting people, acquire specialized skills, and develop a readily adaptable spirit. It’s not always fun—not even mostly—but it’s not without its upsides.

I am not philosophical about the chronic pain I’ve lived with for almost ten years. A decade of tension pain and migraines has weathered and exhausted me in ways I’m still attempting to put into words. If blindness is like the common cold, interfering with everyday life but easy enough to accommodate, chronic pain is like the flu. Just when you think you’re finally feeling strong enough to conquer your to-do list, or socialize with friends, or get some writing done, it sweeps over you, leaving you in a nauseated heap. At that point, there’s nothing for it but to slink off to bed, cancelling plans and sowing disappointment as you go.

Often enough, I can hack it. How else would I manage to hold down a job and maintain some semblance of a life? On most days, I grit my teeth, slather on the peppermint oil, and plaster on my smile. I carry tissues for when my eyes water with the pain, and can occasionally be found slumped over my desk with my head in my hands, but I can usually be depended upon to seem healthy and energetic.

Usually.

If you’ve ever spent any length of time with me in person, there’s an excellent chance I was fighting pain. If you’ve tried to arrange a phone call or coffee date with me, I’ve probably pulled out at the very last minute. If you’ve worked with me, you’ve seen me press my fingers into my forehead when I think you’re not looking. If you ask, I’ll say I’m fine. Most of you know I’m full of it, but it would be far too awkward to pursue the matter.

Loved ones have received text messages like “I’m not in pain today!” People who know me well have seen me cry, throw up, or lash out when my headaches are stronger than my resolve to seem normal. Managers have heard a dozen variations of “I need to leave early,” or “I need to sit quietly in this corner until this backs off.” On the very worst days, they get “I’m sorry. I tried, but I can’t come in today.” Housemates and partners have sent me back to bed after I’ve insisted I’ll be okay. Each time feels like a battle I’ve lost.

My fiancé deals with the brunt of it. No part of our relationship is untouched by the unpredictable whims of a body in pain. Dates are postponed, and postponed again, and eventually forgotten altogether. Dinners are skipped because my migraine has sapped me of my hunger. Harsh words escape because while my control is exceptional, it is not perfect, and pain makes me feel as defensive as a wounded animal. Domestic duties are shirked, and I watch guiltily from bed as he sorts laundry I am too sore to hang because I can’t reach above my own head. Many a time, he has cooked, cleaned, and run errands while I cuddle my heat wrap and take enough Excedrin to make an elephant tremble. I interrupt intimate moments, rolling away to hide angry tears; I am too tired, too sore, too weak to participate. Through it all, he is incredibly understanding, but the inequality is its own kind of pain.

And then there are the good days: days when I’m thrumming with energy, ready for anything. During these rare days, sandwiched between “okay” and “terrible,” I sing, clean, write, and tackle all the tasks I’ve left undone. I squeeze every moment of life I can into these precious pain-free days, balancing my enjoyment of the freedom with the knowledge that it never, ever lasts. My good days fool everyone into believing I’m all right. Unlike me, they still have faith that it’ll stay that way.

The crash, after a string of good days, is the worst.

I count my spoons with care, trying to account for the unpredictable. Do I spend this “good day” doing housework or writing? If I only have the energy for one social gathering, but I’ve booked two, which should I cancel? Which friend would I rather upset? Whose disappointment is easier to bear? Which task can I afford to push back? Since work is normally my top priority, and getting through it each day is costly, what should I do with the few hours before bed?

Know this, dear reader: my heart is so much bigger than my energy. My desire to connect with you, return your email, meet you for lunch, text you when you’re lonely, help with your creative project, is infinite. My ability to fulfill that desire is decidedly finite. If I’ve missed your call, cancelled our plans, failed to meet your deadline, ruined your good time with my exhaustion—I am truly sorry. I want to do better. If I had enough spoons to make everyone happy, I’d use them, because all my friends and all my family members and all others who depend on me are worthy.

So I ask everyone I’ve hurt, everyone I’ve disappointed, everyone I’ve let down: forgive me. I am getting better at this pain thing, but I am still learning. I don’t always distribute my spoons wisely. I overestimate my strength and overbook myself. I make promises I fully intend to keep, and need more time than I thought because work and basic housekeeping and mere survival take precedence. On good days, I sometimes forget to be careful, and pay for it on bad days. And, readers, I know you’ve paid for it, too.

No, I’m not philosophical about pain. I can never pretend it opens doors, or enhances empathy, or makes my world a richer place. Mostly, it just makes every little thing I do harder and more complicated. It turns an organized, driven person into an unwilling canceller of plans. I’m nothing if not adaptable, though—thanks blindness—and I’m slowly learning to count those spoons. I’m learning strategies to keep the pain from taking over my life. I’m becoming more accurate in measuring my energy levels and prioritizing what really matters.

In the meantime, I ask for patience, not only for myself, but for everyone you know who lives a life in pain. No, we’re not always fine, and no, we can’t always tackle what needs tackling.

But we love you. We’re trying. We’re playing the worst of all juggling games, and we are so, so tired.

But by God, we’re trying.

 

Let’s Get This Over With: A Love Story

One year ago today, I met a new friend for a casual evening of food and conversation. We had exchanged several text messages and met a couple of times, but we didn’t know each other very well at all. I assumed him to be a stand-up guy—we had a few mutual friends who vouched for him—but that’s all I knew. When asked by friends and family whether this outing was a date, I protested that I was still grieving over the devastating dissolution of a 4.5-year relationship (absolutely true) and was in no state to be dating anyone, much less a mere acquaintance. As the evening progressed, however, and an innocuous meal turned into an entirely too romantic walk along the river valley (the sun was setting, the atmosphere was intoxicating, we didn’t really have a choice in the matter), I realized, quite abruptly, that this was, indeed, a date.
Uh-oh.
Faced with the prospect of opening myself to a new person so soon after being mistreated by someone else, I began to panic. I couldn’t possibly be ready for this! I had so many problems! My mental health was at one of its lowest points, and that’s saying something. I was perpetually exhausted, (I had new-job syndrome), and was nursing emotional wounds that are still healing. My moods were unpredictable. My emotional landscape felt jagged and chaotic. Most days, it seemed as though I was being held together by threads so frayed and fragile they’d snap at the slightest provocation. I was an undeniable mess—not an appealing or interesting mess, the way a million colours scribbled on a page can be beautiful in their own nonsensical way. No, I was more like the mess you shove hastily into your closet when company comes knocking—the kind you pretend doesn’t exist and continually refuse to sort out because it’s too daunting. If you opened that closet door, you know everything would come tumbling out.
That, dear reader, was the version of me trying to decide whether I was prepared to pursue a new relationship.
Certain that I had stumbled into a misunderstanding and determined to set the record straight, I did what any sensible gal would do on a first date: I sat down on this near-stranger’s couch—and an attractive stranger he was, too—and told him everything that made me undatable.
Yes, that was my first-date strategy: reveal every conceivable shortcoming, cover every awkward topic, explore every taboo, and excavate any past mistakes that would disqualify me as a suitable girlfriend. Lay it all out, get the unpleasantness out of the way, and he’ll balk, right? Surely telling him all about my multiple disabilities, my mental illness, my dubious track record with romantic relationships, my spectacularly poor choices, my insecurities, my unwillingness to ever have children, my overwhelming fear of failure—all of these would definitely scare him off, yes? In the name of honesty, I dredged up everything I could think of that would make him retract his interest so I wouldn’t have to deal with big, scary decisions.
In short, I handed him every reason he’d ever need to call it quits before we’d even begun … as one does.
Those of you who don’t know me very well may think you know where this is going. He was caught off guard, improvised some polite and sympathetic response, and led me gently to his door. When a woman implies, without an ounce of subtlety, that she is a disaster on legs, just thank the universe she’s not wasting more of your time.
Those of you who do know me realize that’s not quite how it happened. Instead, he sat quietly and listened while I gave him my spiel. He asked a few respectful questions, provided the odd empathetic comment here and there, and waited patiently until I was finished.
“So…okay…I’m sorry I dumped all this on you, but I really need to know. I need to know if you can handle all my … stuff. Otherwise, there’s just no point. Anyone I’m with has to be okay with my disabled, chronically ill, foolish self.” (For those of you fuming at my excessively self-deprecating portrayal of disability and chronic illness…just hang on. I’m getting to that.)
“Yeah. Of course. I think it’s great that you told me all this now. It’s brave to tell me, and it’s good information to know.”
As it turns out, not only did this remarkable creature have a disability of his own (moderate and mostly invisible), he was happy to explore romance with someone who had a handful of fairly serious problems, as long as I was willing to be honest about them. Exposing everything in one go, on day one, had the opposite effect you might imagine. Far from deterring him, it encouraged him to trust me and seemed to make me even more attractive to him. With everything on the table from the get-go—and yes, for those wondering, he did reciprocate by telling me many of his own struggles that night—we went into our tenuous relationship knowing there would be few surprises and no unnecessary anxiety about whether we were putting on a good face for each other.
Naturally, there were some who were horrified by what I’d chosen to do.
“You talked about all that stuff on the first date? Were you actually trying to scare him away?”
“Well…yes.”
On the other hand, many others were pleased to hear that my impulsive strategy had worked, and a few even confessed they’d like to try it for themselves, perhaps more gracefully than I had, but with the same unflinching sincerity.
“It would be kind of nice,” some said, “not to have to worry about them ‘finding things out.’” The slow reveal, especially with invisible disabilities and mental illness, can be even scarier than spilling it all out at once.
There was another latent benefit to depositing my life story into the lap of someone loving and respectful: I was reminded, once again, that my disabilities, illness, and various other attributes don’t make me undatable. They may present significant challenges, but they are not objects of shame, ridicule, or guilt. Choosing to date me even with full knowledge of my broad range of atypical challenges was an act of faith, perhaps, but never of charity. My partner wasn’t doing me a favour by agreeing to “handle” these things. I wasn’t “undatable,” and never have been.
Today, as I celebrate my first anniversary with a partner I have come to respect and adore, I appreciate the many ways in which our story could have veered into much darker territory. He could have been repulsed by what I’d disclosed. He could have promised he would handle it and realized that wasn’t a promise he could keep. He could have used the sensitive information I gave him to do me harm. Any number of catastrophes could have resulted from the way I handled our first date. Reeling from exhaustion and pain, I wasn’t in the most stable state of mind, and I fully acknowledge that if I’d been in a better place emotionally, I may have dealt with this differently.
All this has taught me that the recipe for a healthy relationship requires trust and forthrightness from the very beginning. Even if you don’t present your prospective partners with bulleted lists of all your issues—and I don’t generally recommend that you do—it’s essential that you feel comfortable around a person you’re planning to date. Romantic relationships place us in vulnerable positions, and if you don’t think your partner could handle how ill you get during migraines, or how much help you need when trying to identify objects you can’t see, you should keep looking. In the meantime, remember that while there may be many people out there who aren’t right for you, you deserve to find someone who is.

A Conversation With Keri: How fibromyalgia Changed Her Perspective On Blindness

During my first year of university, I was afflicted with brutal and frequent migraines. Since I already suffered from chronic tension pain, this new development was a devastating blow. I began to experience stroke-like symptoms; I missed classes and struggled to meet deadlines; I shuddered to think what might be wrong; and I refused to reach out.
While I have been able to detect the source of the migraines and manage them well now, I’ve never forgotten how cripplingly disabled I became while under their power. Blindness had always made life challenging, but I’d never been so completely incapassitated by broken eyes. Invisible disability, which so many people fail to understand, taught me a great deal about myself and others. I learned never to underestimate pain, or assume I knew every battle a person might be facing.
Keri suffers from chronic pain–pain that can be far more disabling than any form of blindness, and she’s graciously agreed to share her story with us.


Q: Can you tell us a bit about your life before chronic pain began to affect you?
A: It was nearing the end of September back in 2014, and my life was pretty typical. I was in my second semester of college, I had a great boyfriend, and life was good. I was happier than I had been in a long time, even though I had lost my sister just two months before. I was hopeful about my college studies, and ready for Christmas break like any other typical college student.

Q: When did you first realize something was terribly wrong?
A: It was a Wednesday night, and I was relaxing on my loveseat, and gaming after a typical day of classes. I was happy to be free for a little while from boring things like Experimental Psychology, and to be doing something I love: gaming. Suddenly the calves of both of my legs started hurting. I have a high pain tolerance, but I was almost in tears. I stood up to get a few alieve, thinking it was just some kind of bone pain or some such, but it was no bone pain I had ever had. As soon as I stood, the pain got twice as bad, and if it wasn’t for the loveseat right there, I’m sure I would have ended up on the floor. It was disabling, and the worse pain I had ever experienced. I only made it through that night quite honestly by the grace of God, and my boyfriend staying on the phone with me for a good while, even though I had woken him up. I made it to school the next day, but barely. I could hardly walk, and I felt as if my legs were being torn apart.

Q: What exactly is fibromyalgia?
A: The most common question I get is what is fibromyalgia? The best way to define it in my opinion comes from Mayo Clinic, and they define it as the following.
“Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues. Researchers believe that fibromyalgia amplifies painful sensations by affecting the way your brain processes pain signals.”
There is much research that still needs to be done, and many in the medical community or society in general think it is fake, or something they just tell you when you can’t figure it out. This is the most frustrating part.

Q: Do you feel that your condition affects how you see blindness compared to how you viewed it before?
A: I always felt that blindness was a pain in the ass, and I took the fact for granted that it wasn’t as big of a deal. When the pain started, it really sank into me how blindness isn’t as disabling as it seems. Sure I handled it well, and accepted my blindness, and it has its very frustrating parts. It is a piece of cake compared to pain.

Q: Most of us are already acutely aware of how hard it is to find work when blindness is present. Do you know to what extent your pain will limit your employment opportunities?
A: When people first meet me, or if they don’t know me well they always say things like you are so amazing, or I don’t know how you do it. If and when they find out that I suffer in pain constantly I think that perception may shift.

Q: Does being called inspirational bother you, especially when these terms are applied by people who have never dealt with what you experience every day?
A: Yes it does. I don’t feel that I’m inspiring at all. I have been dealt an unfortunate hand in life, but I make the best of it. I’m just a woman doing what it takes to survive, and make it through. I do the things I want or need to do.

Q: Do you have any advice for others going through chronic pain?
A: My best advice is to have a great support network, because you need it. You need those who can deal with the ups and downs. Find good doctors who listen to you, and who can help you find a pain management plan. Try anything you are comfortable trying, because each case is different. If you are in school be honest with your professors, or if at work, your boss. Sometimes these people can also be a great support network, and help with accommodations. The best advice is take me time, because if you don’t you can never re-centre yourself, and sometimes that really helps with the pain, especially if you are stressed.

Q: Finally, if you could say one thing to nondisabled people who don’t understand you, what would it be?
A: Have respect. You never truly know someone’s problems until you have been in their shoes. Try your best to not pretend like you know what they’ve been through when you haven’t. Be as flexible and accommodating as best you can. We are just normal people, with differences, and we should be treated like human beings.