The Difficulty of Finding a Job When Talking Hurts


Looking at me, you would never know. Sometimes, I still see my reflection in the mirror and forget the person looking back may look like my old self – except she’s not. This new me constantly yanks me back with painful reminders and crushing fatigue whenever I try to work or live like the old me. The pre-accident me often crossed the “workaholic” line, with an incessant drive to advance my chosen career fields of Training and Organizational Development and Human Resources.

Old me had a successful nearly 20-year run in major companies and consulting. She held multiple career certifications and a graduate degree from one of the top three programs in her field. Old me was highly employable and earned a six figure comfortable living. She also enjoyed company of her long-time spouse, friends and colleagues. Her dreams included lots of trips to far-away lands, like Australia.

Fast forward 10 years to “new” me. This me strives to maintain an even keel at all times. If I don’t, I know I will pay my price in the currency of pain. Talk to relatives at a holiday gathering, for example, and pay in pain, nausea, dizziness and hissing in my ears like the seven-year locust season. Lunch with a friend? That costs in wipeout fatigue the rest of the day and pain onset that night or the next. Go out at night to a meeting or church event? Plan for a ride and leaving early, and forget about doing anything most of the next day. Have a deadline or an argument? Instant shot of all-over pain that lasts even when the stress subsides. Barometric pressure lows are the one pain trigger I can’t choose or predict.

What pain am I talking about, and where did it come from? I was in good health until New Year’s Eve Day, 2004. That afternoon, a few blocks from home, a silver flash of car changed my life. A distracted driver ran a red light. Our lives intersected at my driver’s door, from which the paramedics extracted me with the Jaws of Life. My own jaw, seemingly OK, would become my primary disabling source of pain, with my back and head vying for second place.

Several surgeries, innumerable pain injections, painful radio frequency, braces and prescriptions serve as constant reminders of multiple chronic pain conditions. Chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic myofascial pain, severe tinnitus, occipital neuralgia, fibromyalgia, restless leg syndrome and chronic hives and eczema are all new conditions along for the ride, thanks to various attempts to manage the pain.

 

Fatigue is a “given” side effect of many pain and neurological drugs, but I developed chronic fatigue syndrome, an everyday crushing battle with fatigue. I have had to split up my household chores, combining the most/least tiring within a given day and planning lower-key activities for two days after the most intense ones, like yard work and cleaning the shower. Every time I overdo it, I immediately come down with what I call my “fake cold” – a common symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome. A cruel irony: The days when I have too much physical activity and most need to recover by sleep…are the nights I can’t sleep, because my nervous system refuses to settle down. Restless leg syndrome kicks in, and I’m awake for two hours endlessly kicking my legs until I no longer can.

Not one to easily give up, it took me rounds of stubborn attempts to continue trying to live and work as if nothing had changed – only to realize everything had. Pretending only cost more pain and time. Every pain control treatment – every surgery, injection, medication adjustment, physical therapy became a physical “reset” button, going back to a physical ground zero. I had a lot to learn the hard way about managing chronic pain.

I now know my limits, and accept that my old careers lead me directly into the path of pain. There is no way around that my careers revolve around talking. Wanting desperately to be useful, I’ve spent years learning the hard way about working when talking hurts. Here are the top 10 things I’ve found:

1. The greater the talking, the greater the pain. Simple. Same for stress, another given in my past work life. My brain suffers most, with bouts of vacant stares into space as empty as what seems to be left between my ears! I forget to shut off burners on the stove, or the oven, or pick up the iced tea for which I just paid at the McDonald’s drive thru.

2. Any work activity takes twice as long as it would for the “old me” – and likely for any other “normal” person. That costs you and your employer money and time.

3. You can’t promise consistent levels of performance. Not when factors out of your control impact your pain. When I’m “out of it,” colleagues need to know how to help me focus and remember what I’m doing or saying. Similarly, my husband watches me like a hawk, which I often resent, despite understanding that he’s trying to protect me from yet another trip to urgent care or the house from burning down.

4. Forget about committing to “doing whatever it takes” (e.g. work at night, through weekends, etc.) to meet a client deadline. If you sub-contract for another consulting firm, this is what they’ll tell their clients to expect. Clients expect consultants to deliver on last second requests. Period. You can’t control when the client will expect you to jump through hoops at the last second…or how you’ll happen to feel that day. Even if you were doing well, simply the stress of the rushed request and the client making it will be enough to do you in.

5. Working on site, even in a job that doesn’t require much talking, still involves talking. You have coworkers, customers and others around you. Even the smallest amount of talking required to forge and maintain good working relationships will add up quickly. This will either spell pain or require careful planning to avoid overdoing talking in all other areas of your work and life. Not a realistic feat! This narrows your options to working at home or alone on the road (think driving).

6. If you have a naturally extroverted personality, you enjoy interacting with others. In fact, this interaction fuels your energy. When talking hurts, the only type of work you can do will be much more solitary. That will drain your energy and feel stressful because it goes against your very nature. This stress, in then, will cause you more pain.

7. Today’s interviewing processes often require multiple steps. That means lots of talking. Even pursuing one job will take its toll.

8. Too little stress causes pain when you are “wired” to contribute and can’t do meaningful work.

9. Most volunteer work is like paid work. Finding activities that don’t require talking or much driving is hard. Other volunteers often are chatty.

10. The intellectual equivalents of piecework – like resume-writing or online survey taking – pay what amounts to pennies after taxes. To be fair, that is greatly due to my mental lapses while thinking. Any “normal” person might be able to eke out a living – but not “new” me.

Why should someone give up their hopes and dreams, be they financial, material or leaving a lasting impact on their chosen field? What is wrong with this picture that we can’t find ways to accommodate talented individuals with disabilities? We can and we should. Many times we do, once the person has been matched to the right role. It is in this “matching process” where the problem lies.

Each path one ventures down to find the evasive non-talking job seems to lead right back to the same jobs and types of jobs: customer service, piecework or phone sales. All require talking or pay little.

I am grateful for the extensive networks for disabled job seekers, and can’t claim to have mastered them. Those “normal” jobs I see posted on disability sites to meet legal requirements involve responsibilities requiring talking. All but a few very progressive employers do not allow working at home. If they do, it is usually one day/week. Any freedom to work at home is earned, and not typically extended to new employees.

As disabled job seekers, we are told to “make them fall in love with you first” before bringing up our disability. For a chronically fatigued job-seeker, with pain triggered by stress and talking, even going through all the steps of a single search process is too much. Launching a full-out search, out of the question.

Any promising position descriptions either require online learning skills or experience in completely different fields – writing, medical coding or transcription, for instance. The latter two may require headset use.

Hearing a transcription order is crucial to accuracy – and painful if you have jaw problems. Tinnitus also interfered with accuracy when I took several transcription tests. I researched training in Coding, and even online courses required access to and experience with industry software. Attending lab courses at night proved insurmountable.

What is a person to do when talking hurts? I still don’t know. (Yes, the hearing-impaired use sign language…but tell that to my arthritic hands!)

There is hope. Recent studies have definitively linked TMDs with a number of other chronic pain conditions like fibro… something those of us living with them already knew. Now, let’s find out why – and get us back to being productive members of society.

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Thinkstock photo via KatarzynaBialasiewicz.

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