How I Decide When to Reveal My Invisible Illness in the Workplace
The office thermostat is 80 degrees. Everyone is uncomfortable, but I’m sweating, my face is beet red and my feet are freezing.
Yea. My feet are freezing. My lower back is throbbing, my hips are aching, my shoulders are burning, my face is hot and red. My neck and back of my skull has a burning sensation, my tongue is tingling, my tinnitus is deafening and my thighs feel fatigued even though I’m sitting. I’m physically and emotionally drained. My eyes are crossing, my lips and palate are numb and my teeth feel like they are vibrating. My fingers are cold, my collar bones ache, my right wrist feels like jello and my mind is largely blank. So much of my body is focused on the the physical symptoms I’m experiencing in this moment, I can’t focus on my work.
My face gets red during a pain flare. It’s common with fibromyalgia. When so many parts of my body are misfiring at once, I tend to look like I have sat out in the sun too long. It’s like being forced to wear a sign announcing my condition.
A coworker keeps asking why my face is red. She’s being judgmental, so I’m not going to explain my condition to her. It’s not my job to “educate her” at the expense of my own comfort. I’d rather say, “I just get red sometimes” and get away quickly.
Another coworker teases and laughs that I embarrass too easily from “sex jokes” so my cheeks get red. (His office “jokes” are a topic for another article. #MeToo) He’s not my friend. He gossips. I will not engage him or give him a hint toward my condition. He may be a nurse, but in title alone..
Those are just two types of people I will not waste my energy on. I don’t feel the need to educate them. I would rather move on. What energy stores I do have must be saved for my family first, my work and school second, then maybe a bit for me if I’m still awake after 7:30 p.m. Not them. I don’t expect most people to care beyond the obligatory “Good Morning” each day, and that’s fine!
One day, a third coworker sees me grimace silently when I bend over the desk to stretch my back and hips. She asks me if I’m OK. She noticed how loudly my shoulder popped when I reached for my water bottle and how stiff I was getting out of my chair after a meeting. She seems to care, not just judge. I carefully explain that I have some pain from fibromyalgia. She said, “I’ve heard of that from those commercials…” and asks more. She’s genuinely concerned and interested. My fellow chronic pain/illness warriors know that sweet feeling of finding someone who cares. The relief of having an attentive listener – if only for a moment – is a blessing. She is my friend. She is worthy of my limited spoons and she is more precious than words to me.
“Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
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