I've Got 99 Health Issues – But Not Enough Sick Time
Just as a disclaimer, I really do love my job. Like a lot.
I spent a good chunk of time last week curled in the fetal position on the floor of my cube.
Now, this is not a particularly uncommon occurrence. It’s not like nausea chooses convenient times to be terrible – it often hits the hardest when I have to be functional or interact with other humans. Fortunately, I’ve gotten pretty good at typing while laying down in the fetal position in the corner.
Working with chronic illness is hard. Especially when you have multiple of them all competing for your attention at any given moment. For me, the major players are rheumatoid arthritis and gastroparesis/colonic inertia. Together, those cause a range of side effects that includes infection, nausea, pain, fatigue, and an ongoing residency on the struggle bus.
So working on top of all that is a special kind of difficult. And by that, I mean “damn near impossible and makes you question your entire existence at times because I’m tired, nauseous, I just threw up in the third floor bathroom and now have to go into another meeting.” Even with great job accommodations and supportive coworkers, working can still feel like I’m fighting a losing battle.
One of the first things I learned when I started my first “real” job was that there is not an endless supply of paid sick time to use. Sick time is a rare commodity that can’t be bought on the black market. I don’t ever have enough sick time stashed to miss work whenever I don’t feel well. Turns out that sometimes when you’re 100 shades of dysfunctional, you have to triage your shit.
So how do you prioritize? It’s complicated. But in a world with limited sick time, you don’t have a choice.
To prevent that familiar battle of, “I don’t feel like going anywhere,” versus, “I’ll feel guilty if I don’t go anywhere,” I needed a pre-established standard to use. I highly recommend this. It is really easy to justify to yourself that you should stay home – but the guilt of doing so often comes along with that. A “no” to any of the following questions means I need to stay home.
1. Can I drive safely? If I’m too nauseous to sit upright or am two dizzy to see which lane I’m in, the Department of Motor Vehicles would probably classify me as a road hazard.
2. Will I be able to stay awake? If you have a chronic illness, you know the difference between being exhausted and having so much fatigue that you cannot function. You will likely have to work with fatigue. Sorry, that’s just how it works. Sometimes, though, the fatigue is great enough (this could be physical, emotional, cognitive, existential, etc,) that you really can’t function. If that’s the case, stay home.
3. Can I be at work without getting anyone sick? I am incredibly immunocompromised. It means I get sick all of the time. I’m on antibiotics more than half of the year, and have two or three infections a month. I refuse to be an asshole and go to work when I could get my coworkers sick. We don’t want anyone exposing us to germs, so we should return the favor.
Every person is unique – so your standards may differ from mine. There’s one thing that is true for everyone: to successfully work when you are always sick takes commitment, and you have to be OK working when you don’t feel well. Typically, I won’t feel well regardless of where I am.
There are things you can do to make it easier:
1. Be prepared. Make sure you have everything you could ever possible need in your bag. You think Mary Poppins fit an impressive amount of crap in her bag? Yeah, my work bag puts her to shame.
2. Understand what accommodations may be available. The Americans with Disabilities Act protects those individuals in the work place. Be comfortable talking with your boss or coworkers about what you need and why. They can’t help you if they don’t know what’s going on. Don’t expect them to understand – how can they if they don’t experience it themselves?
3. Find a job that makes you want to go to work – whether you love what you do, the people you work with, or even just the job schedule. I am happy to have all three.
I also work within a mile of three or four gourmet coffee shops, so that helps.
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