Finding Your Hive: Longing for Usefulness as a Disabled Worker Bee

Over the past few years, I’ve been focusing less on sheer survival and more on living in a way that brings me lasting contentment. Common wisdom for such a pursuit most often begins with ‘find your tribe’ sentiments.

Said wisdom did seem to be working well for most everyone I knew. Each time a friend picked up a hobby or clicked with a social group, their general happiness seemed to improve tenfold. Then there was me: phenomenal friends, supportive coworkers, closely knit family, thriving romantic partnership. My social life was thriving for the first time since high school, and loneliness had become something other people suffered. I was even beginning to explore creative hobbies after too much time spent in stagnation. My writing showed promise, and music, that stalwart friend, was a central part of my life again.

So where was the life improvement squad? Where was the revelatory sense of purpose? Where was the click?

Maybe I was supposed to order it. Maybe I’d have to go online and fill out some form and half the fields would be unlabelled and everything would be colour-coded and then the CAPTCHA verification would be inaccessible and maybe I should just have a nap?

Anyway, just as I accepted my destiny as incorrigible malcontent, I found a comfortable niche at a new job. The work I do offers abundant opportunity for individual accomplishment, but there is also a lot of work that’s unglamourous, uncredited and, therefore, quite unpopular. It needs done, and when it’s done well it brings enormous value to the team, but no one likes doing it.

Well, no one but me.

Once I developed a widespread reputation for being the person who’s up for anything, always willing to embrace the ‘hard’ in ‘hard work,’ I felt it — my resounding click. I was useful, and that was just what I’d been looking for.

You see, like many rural kids, I grew up in a culture obsessed with usefulness. There was always work to do, and if there wasn’t, you weren’t looking hard enough. All around me, my sighted peers were making themselves useful mowing acres of grass, feeding livestock, doing renovations, operating farm equipment, changing someone’s oil. You name it, someone my age was doing it.

As for me, I could usually be found unloading the dishwasher or doing laundry while everyone else rushed about doing things I was too blind to tackle. In an environment like mine, if you couldn’t drive, couldn’t see, couldn’t learn purely by observation (no one had time for adapted training, even if they’d known how to carry it out), there was no sugar-coating it: you weren’t of much use. I know plenty of rural blind people learn most of these things by grit or gumption or good, patient teaching—see you in the comments, guys, keep it civil—but for reasons that are numerous and complicated and not at all relevant here, I didn’t.

So, in effect, I spent my formative years knowing I was not very useful, while up to my eyeballs in a culture devoted to utility. As you can guess, that understanding sank deep into my marrow and helped forge who I’d become: A restless, rudderless person who couldn’t work out what would make her truly happy.

Being academically inclined was nice. Being reasonably intelligent was handy enough; that would help me make money later, maybe. My singing brought others joy, even if it wasn’t going to babysit their kids or cook their dinners. But I felt like a defective worker bee in a very busy hive, and no one seemed to know what to do with me.

It took me way too long to realize what I need for true contentment is less ‘find your tribe’ than ‘find your hive’. I’m not wired for attention and I’m not especially motivated by approval. I like working with other people, but community, important as it is, doesn’t fulfill me on its own. As it turns out, finding my people is my nice-to-have, not my must-have. What I hunger for isn’t attention, recognition, or a group of people who ‘get’ me, though I won’t say no to them. Instead, I am the ultimate team player, totally invested in a job well done. I want to have your back, not take your limelight. I want you to notice me for my dependability, not so much for my brilliance, though again: I won’t say no to that either. If I’m competing with anyone besides myself, it’s to see who is most helpful, not who is most impressive. I hunger for the knowledge that because I’m around, doing my best work, someone else’s life is easier.

I wonder, as I write this, whether other disabled people have the same worker bee drive. Plenty of nondisabled people crave this sort of external validation, of course, but I have a feeling there are a lot of disabled people out there who, having been labelled ‘of little use,’ have grown into restless, rudderless people like me, asking themselves why they never feel whole unless others are counting on them.

And I’m sure there are many more out there who have yet to feel useful, at least by society’s narrow standards. Isn’t most disability defined, after all, by the work a person can or can’t do? By our earning potential? By our limited ability to contribute financially via the labour market? Don’t so many of us find that the only thing worse than a bad job is no job at all? Beyond financial constraints, what would unemployment say about us and our worth?

I think you’re out there, worker bees. I think you’re worried about whether you’ll ever be useful enough, and I think you find meaning in what you manage to get done. I believe you have mixed feelings about the fact that the toxic mentality that made you feel small and inadequate is giving you such fulfillment. I expect you live to hear people say, “you really helped me out today,” and I’d bet some part of you balks at the very thought of being so vulnerable to how others feel about you.

If I were to guess, I’d say you might even question whether enjoying your usefulness demonstrates a lack of self-respect, a brokenness, an internalized ableism you can’t quite shake.

Am I getting warmer?

So if you’re out there, worker bees, I propose the middle ground, as I so often do. Delight in your usefulness. Find the niche that lets you be a go-to person, even if it’s for something simple. Relish it without apology.

Yes, our society is obsessed with measuring the utility of human beings and punishing or rewarding them accordingly. Yes, that obsession is more pronounced and more damaging when those humans happen to be disabled. But don’t let that deprive you of the pride and fulfillment you derive from your ordinary, unglamourous work. Don’t chase admiration simply because someone told you that the only good disabled person is an outstanding one. Most importantly, don’t you ever buy in, the way I did, to the idea that your value lies in how well you stack up next to nondisabled people. That way lies madness. Life doesn’t have to be a competition. The unremarkable, uncredited tasks you perform every day have weight. All you have to be is the best version of yourself.

Go, worker bee, and find your hive. And when you do, take what brings you happiness and leave the rest.

Enough With the Sick Day Humblebrags

All my life, I’ve been surrounded—some might say afflicted—by troupers. 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 trouper.

The trouper’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 trouper 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 troupers 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 trouper 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 trouper, 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.