An invisible illness could be depression, addiction, or anxiety; basically anything internal that only you know about. These are not one-and-done illnesses like a cold or a broken arm. They’re usually chronic. And they’re usually consuming.
As a current fighter of an invisible illness, I want to talk about the impacts it can have on your career. And based on my experience, I can share what almost broke me and what saved me.
I Was Failing at Work
I had stabbing pains, massive blood loss, vertigo, 10 pounds lost, and a fainting episode. You would never know it if you saw me because I don’t have a scar on the outside of my body to prove it to you.
What people did see, though, was that I started to miss deadlines; again, and again. I’d disappear from work for hours because I was either sick to my stomach, or having another dizzy spell. “You should go on Short-Term Disability,” my boss eventually advised. I declined at first, but after a month of not producing any work and letting my team down, I agreed it was the right thing to do.
Except, my insurance provider didn’t acknowledge my situation as a diagnosed condition with a specified start and end date. My doctors’ offices were too busy to ever provide the documentation that was requested of them. After all, I was young, a non-smoker, and therefore considered healthy and low-risk. And as a result, I was declined FMLA and Short-Term Disability.
I suffered every day from severe abdominal pains and embarrassing symptoms which I had to shamefully admit to my managers in order to explain why I was late to work. I was literally one day away from throwing my hands up and quitting because I was so embarrassed. Any good judgment I had left was just about gone.
Here is What Saved Me
It’s one thing to bottle up your pain and show up to a job you love. It’s debilitating to try and do the same for a job that you’re not truly passionate about.
So one day, I got very real with myself to try and understand what would truly make me happy. I loved helping people and I loved giving career advice. I should be a recruiter, I thought.
So I mustered up every last ounce of energy I had and interviewed for a recruiting position at my company. It took almost two months of follow-ups, but I ultimately got the job.
The physical symptoms from my condition were still there, but I no longer had the time to sit and wallow in pain because I was now on the phone talking to people every day.
Fast-paced interaction and quick wins are what worked for me.
The nature of my prior Accounting life was spent analyzing financial data for extended periods of time with hardly any human interaction at all. Because it was just my computer and I, I’d lose focus easily and find myself consumed in thoughts of illness and pain. I was mentally making it worse for myself.
But this sudden shift to a fast-paced, interactive role changed things, because I no longer had the time or space for debilitating thoughts in my head.
Looking Back and Lessons Learned
As I look back on my experience, there are five major pieces of advice I have for anyone working through an invisible illness:
1. Hold your doctor accountable.
As you saw above, this was exhausting for me. And in the end, it didn’t even work out. Your doctor needs to know how to feel your pain, or fully understand the impacts your condition has on your life in order to be of any help to you.
2. Seek help quickly at work.
Do not try to “stick it out” as long as you can. If you know your performance is less than 100%, other people can see that too. Find a safe environment and someone you can trust. Swallow your pride and ask for help.
3. Do a serious inventory of what makes you happy.
Make a list of things that really make you smile and laugh. Start doing these things more often. If it’s certain people, start hanging around them more often. When you spend more time with the people and things that make you happy, you will be distracted from your illness, and you will in turn become a mentally stronger and happier person.
4. A job change could mean everything.
Taking on a new position that you’re passionate about could instantly relieve the mental part of your illness. If you can’t change jobs, add variation to your normal work routine. This sudden shift from your historical norms will require extra focus from your brain, distracting your thoughts away from pain.
5. Try to do work that involves quick wins.
Quick wins will inspire you to turn work around that much faster, which will leave you feeling successful that much more frequently.
I hope this can be helpful to you. I’ll be going to greater depths on this topic on the blog so please follow along if you’d like. And I wish everyone a Happy New Year!