To the Woman Who Said My Early Medical Retirement 'Worked Out for the Best'


I recently bumped into an old work colleague of mine. She is around 30 years my senior, and was close to retirement when we worked together around five years ago. We got along well. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were friends, but we always worked together well. I got promoted, moved to a new team and only saw her around the office a few times after that.

It was only a year after I got promoted that I got pregnant and my health troubles started. She had heard “through the grapevine” what had happened to me. She had heard I had hurt my back. In reality, I had suffered a herniated disc during pregnancy, lived with a compressed sciatic nerve in excruciating pain for seven months until neurosurgeons could operate and was then left with nerve damage and a severely degraded disc resulting in constant sciatic nerve and back pain. This all happened nearly four years ago, so it had been quite a while since I had seen her.

 

When I saw her a few weeks ago, we were at a mutual friend’s birthday party. My husband and I were dressed up, and I had my pain management plan in place so I could manage the afternoon and hopefully have a nice time – I was even enjoying a rare glass of wine! She didn’t recognize me at first, and she was surprised to see I had a second baby since she’d last seen me. I asked if she was enjoying retirement and she said she was. She asked how I was doing after all my “back problems” and whether I had returned to work. I explained I had not been able to return to work, and had been medically retired. I did my usual routine of hiding how much this hurt to say out loud, how much it upset me that I had lost my promising career and part of my identity. I told her instead that I tried to look at the positives of the situation, the fact I could be home to raise my daughters – even if it was living a life of constant pain.

Then she made a comment that has been bothering me ever since. “Well, I guess it all worked out for the best.”

I’m sure those words were said innocently enough, but they stunned me into a stammering silence. I disagree. I don’t think “it all worked out for the best.” All worked out for the best would have been the surgery working and my life not being riddled with chronic pain, weakness, anxiety, depression and guilt. Worked out for the best is something you say to someone who got stood up on a blind date but instead met the love of their life, not someone who lost their career because they are living with a nerve and back injury that renders them unable to move some days.

It’s statements like these that make me feel unheard, judged and ridiculed by others. It’s the reason I experienced such bad social anxiety for so long, the prospect of encountering someone like this. How can someone say something so casually if they truly understood and comprehended what I had told them? Is it that they don’t believe my injury because they can’t see it? Because my injury isn’t visible externally doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that I get an easy ride because I’ve been medically retired. Medical retirement has given me some sort of income – yes, that’s true – and I am thankful and lucky to have that, but it’s nothing compared to what I used to earn; and if I could change positions and be healthy and going to work again I would in a heartbeat. I don’t enjoy my status of invalidity retiree.

It’s not the first time someone has made such a thoughtless and dismissive comment, especially when it’s been at a special event, where I’m dressed up and appear well and enjoying myself. It seems that having fun is out of the question when you are unable to work because of your condition. I’ve had comments like “How come you can go out to a party if you can’t work?” or sarcastic beauties like “It looks like you were having fun today – I thought you were in constant pain?,” and even “Unless you told me, I wouldn’t even know there was anything wrong with you at all.”

These seemingly innocent, absent-minded comments made by acquaintances or strangers have certainly contributed to my anxiety and depression over the last few years. I know now these are cliched statements people roll out when they have heard what you’ve said, but haven’t really listened. I wish I could just shake it off, but I can’t. It’s easy enough to say, “Let it go, ignore it, don’t take it to heart,” but it’s so hard to do that. It makes me not want to talk to people other than my family and close friends because I know I have safety with those people.

Two years ago I would have stayed at home, thinking constantly about what she said, how callous her words were and how I would need to change the way I speak to people about my injury or avoid the subject all together. I’m strong enough now to channel my frustration and hurt into something productive. I realize now I should not have let my shock at her words stun me into silence. I should have spoken up and said, “No – I think you mean it’s the best of a bad situation.” And for the record, if you’re on the other end of a conversation like this, prove you are actually listening to the conversation and make an meaningful comment, like “I’m sorry to hear you’ve had such a bad run” and “It’s great to see you making the best out of your situation.”

A two-minute conversation can have surprisingly long-lasting effects on someone with a chronic condition, so avoid being that person by making the effort to listen properly and engage meaningfully.

Have you ever had someone make a comment like this to you? How do you respond? How do you manage to shake it off?

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Thinkstock photo via Design Pics.

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