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What It Means for Me to Return to Work After Battling Chronic Illness


I just got a job. I just pulled off the almost unthinkable.

Let me explain: I got this job while battling a chronic illness and pretty acute mental health challenges, where not more than five months ago I was barely able to leave the house. Not only that, but I have gotten a fulfilling job in my sector, with what amounts to a promotion, and the full flexibility to allow me to ease my way back into the world of employment by starting at two days a week.

 

This might sound like I’m bragging – but really it is an attempt to describe what this step means in the context of chronic illness. I want to explain why this feels like a win for my sustained good health, and crucially like a win for balance. So much of the experience of being chronically ill is lacking in balance – we are missing from the social, the communal, the physically active and the civic engagement elements of our lives. Chronic illness is an exercise in introspection and self-centeredness. And necessarily so: you are on an intense tumultuous journey of the self, searching for homeostasis of the mind, body and spirit. This is why a job represents to me a welcome step toward reaching outward into society, to reconnect to that which is greater than the bounds of my recovery cocoon.

Taking this job somewhat paradoxically feels like I’m doing something for me, like a gift to myself. Most significant for me is not the satisfaction at getting back into employment, or the security of earning my own money again, but the joy that comes from taking a crucial step toward the emergence of future me, who has moved beyond illness to participate in a full and vibrant life. While I am glad to have realized the priorities in my life, to have re-connected with myself and important relationships, discovered the delights of craft and nature and downtime and mindful presence, I am also aware more than ever that doing productive work toward a socially just world is a crucial part of a fulfilling life for me.

It feels like I can finally again reach that part of me that gets a kick out of contributing. That is intelligent and engaged and conscious and motivated. That feels a sense of civic duty and a corresponding fulfillment from being productive and connected and a part of something. This illness has been both a timely and lifelong lesson in the importance of self-care and compassion, of the need to prioritize myself and listen to my own needs. But I am yearning for a balance that is right for me: between work and play, between self-care and care for others, between energy inwards and outwards. ME/CFS forces you to conserve, track and hoard precious energy, save it up like the lifeblood it is. I am ready to begin serving it out again, in an intentional, considered and joyful way.

Importantly, it feels like the final and necessary step toward recovering, toward finding out what sort of person I am beyond and bigger than this illness. I have a sense that through this momentous step I will prove to myself I can be OK. That I already am OK. That illness and anxiety and depression may be a part of who I am right now, but they don’t need to be a part of my future. Future me is calm, connected and oh so happy with her balanced life.

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Thinkstock photo via Ingram Publishing.