An invisible illness could be depression, addiction, cancer, auto-immune disease, anxiety. Basically anything internal that only you can see. The problem is these are not one-and-done illnesses like a cold or a broken arm. They're chronic. And they're 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.
This time last year was the absolute worst point of my career. I had stabbing abdominal pains, massive blood loss, regular vertigo, 10 pounds lost, and a fainting episode. You would never know it if you saw me because I didn'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 really consider short-term disability," my boss eventually advised. I declined at first, but after a month of not delivering any work output and letting my team down, I agreed it was the right thing to do.
Except that, my insurance provider didn't recognize my situation as a diagnosed condition with a specified start and end date. My doctors' offices were always too busy to ever provide the documentation that was requested of them. Relative to their hundreds of older, more seriously diagnosed patients, I was pretty low-risk.
But, they didn't see me trapped in the bathroom for hours scared out of my mind from the blood loss. They didn't see me crawling on the floor back to my bedroom from the light-headedness, with nothing left to my vision but spots. They didn't hear me crying on the phone to my parents or boyfriend for help. To the disability insurance company and my doctors, I was just a young, non-smoker female suffering from either digestive or gynecological issues. To be determined as to the cause.
And therein lies the problem with an invisible illness. I didn't yet have a diagnosis, so what exactly would I be covered for? And the only way to get diagnosed, at this point, was through abdominal surgery. No big deal, right? Wrong. "When is your surgery date? Because we can only cover you for your time out during surgery." So, aside from the hellacious symptoms I had been suffering through for months leading up to a tentative surgery date, I was also being pressured into having the surgery simply to prove to them I had an illness and be covered for job protection and disability. This was my life last summer and it was very upsetting. I had become so worn out and frail that I ended up too sick to even have the surgery. And as a result, the third-party provider declined me FMLA and Short-Term Disability.
I suffered every day from severe abdominal pains and embarrassing symptoms that I had to admit to my managers in order to explain why I was late to work. I mentally broke down and could no longer function. 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.
And it was at this worst moment when someone walked through the door at work, and without knowing it, saved me.
Here is what saved me.
I listened to her from the back corner of the conference room, sitting by myself with tear-soaked eyes, as she gave her presentation to my colleagues and I. She was a top executive in our organization. Yet, something about her just seemed so real. She spoke with calmness, but I could tell behind her was a career of not just successes, but many hardships that made her into the person she was in front of me that day. She endured a lot, personally and professionally. I didn't know it, but I could sense it.
And for the first time, I felt an inkling of hope. I sat there, and I looked up to her.
She might have planned her presentation that day to say one thing, but the message I got that day was "stay."
I then got very real with myself to try and understand what would truly make me happy as I tried to fight through this. 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 of my condition were still there, but I no longer had the time to sit and wallow in pain because I was 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 involved analyzing complex financial data for extended periods of time. Because it was just me and my computer, 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. I was now less focused on myself, and more focused on helping people get into the desk of their dream job.
& 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 feel your pain and fully understand the impacts your condition has had on your life. Otherwise, they will be of no help to you as you try to get relief from any short-term disability benefits.
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. The more time you keep to yourself, the less time you spend getting help for yourself. And in case you forgot, your time in life is finite. Find a safe environment and someone you can trust. Swallow your pride and remember, everyone has issues. Humble yourself 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 in turn will become a mentally stronger and happier person.
4. A job change could mean everything.
Taking on a new position that you're passionate about will 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 the norms will require extra focus from your brain, distracting your thoughts away from any pain and illness.
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 often.
I hope this can be helpful to you if you're currently fighting an invisible illness. Keep your head up. There will always be someone or some way to help make things better for you. Even if just a bit. Reach out anytime if you have questions or want to share your story. Sending my love to you all!