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Redefining What It Means to Be 'Successful' When You're Too Sick to Work Full Time

“You are so lucky to work part-time! I wish I could work part-time,” my friend said to me after I explained that I was only working three days a week. I get this all the time. People think working part-time is such a privilege, giving you more time to do all the things you want to do, but I work three days a week and spend the other four recuperating my energy.

I don’t feel “lucky” to work part-time. I work part-time because I am too sick to work full time. I don’t even know if I will be able to continue working part time because I am so sick. It is stressful to work and manage my symptoms at the same time. Every day that I work, I am in pain, dizzy, feverish, fatigued, nauseated, uncomfortable in my own skin. I take so much medicine to mask the symptoms. I love my work, helping traumatized youth, but there are days I feel like I cannot go on.

I never thought I would be in this position. I had a timeline. Go to grad school, get my social work degree, land a good paying job as a medical social worker, and by the age of 29 get my license in social work to start my own private practice. I got accepted into graduate school and was working hard to make my dreams come true. But my timeline has been dramatically altered since becoming ill. I wish I could work 40 hours a week at a good-paying job, but the reality is I struggle so much just to work three days. Usually when I explain why I work part-time, the conversation changes and I get pitying looks. Initially they think I must be “successful” to be able to choose to work part-time, but then they realize I work part-time out of necessity, not out of desire.

When I graduated, I was incredibly ill but believed and hoped I would get better soon. I thought I could manage my dream job as a psychiatric medical social worker while managing my illness. Truth is, in our society, our work is so tied to our identities and ideas about success. So I kept going even though I was sick. My family told me to keep going, keep working, be successful. But I had to give up that dream job, and then I had to give up the next job because I couldn’t manage it either, and then I had to change course and start working part time. I never imagined my life like this. When I had to leave those positions, I felt weak and defeated. I felt unsuccessful.

But truthfully, there were so many times I knew that I should not have been working as much as I was but I kept pushing myself, wanting so much to to stay on my timeline and achieve my goals. I believe now that pushing myself made my illness much worse because I did not give myself time to recover.

Even when you are sick, you are expected to be a productive member of society. But when you are sick, you cannot simply produce, and there are days you cannot get out of bed because you are physically unable to. It was a hard lesson for me to learn, but health comes first. When you are sick you need to take care of yourself and you need to give your body time to recover. If not, your body continues to break down. I learned that sometimes “work” means taking care of yourself. In all honesty, taking care of a sick body is hard work. I had to go through hell to realize that I had to put my health first and take care of the only body I will ever have.

When people think I am lucky to work part time, they really have no idea my desire to be healthy and working full time. But on my days off, I am not out doing fun, relaxing activities. I am resting, going to the doctor and managing my symptoms in order to have energy for the following week.

I have mourned her, the person I once was and the person I could have been. But I have not lost hope. Illness stopped my life on the path I was on, but I am charting new territory and carving another path. It took a long time to accept my limitations due to illness. Even longer for my family to accept this new reality. People knew me as a vibrant, healthy, successful woman and I wanted so much to hold on to that image, but I am working on redefining what it means to be successful and on living a happy, fruitful life even with chronic illness. It is possible to be successful and be sick you just have to redefine what success means. Right now, it means taking care of myself and sharing my story. What can be more important than focusing on my health?

This illness does not define me; it has only made me stronger and more resilient. I have created a new timeline that reflects my circumstances, and have new goals and new ambitions and I never, ever stop dreaming. Part-time, full-time or no time, I am successful because I define what success is for myself.