The Negative Phrase That Freed Me as I Redefine Success With POTS
Having postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) has turned me into an unwilling Cinderella: Outsiders see me as I would like to be presented – happy, put together, without a care in the world. But, if I don’t get out of the social situations in time, spectators will start to see the pieces fall apart as my carefully crafted facade slowly turns into the ragged, worn out, real person inside. If only I had Cinderella’s team of mice to help me get ready in the morning, but being “POTSerella” seems to come with most of the Cinderella problems, and none of the Cinderella perks.
I don’t know the exact reason why I feel the inclination to get away from others and hide my symptoms when they first hit, but accepting that I’m not exactly the same person I used to be is hard enough to do on a personal level, so letting others in on the secret is even more difficult. I don’t want to be seen as someone who can’t do the things they used to do, the one who always has to cancel plans, or the one who holds people back. Who would want to be that person? But it has become more and more of a reality of my life, especially in aspects that are greatly important to me and bring me a lot of pride and confidence.
My career is one of these aspects of my life, which is why it has been such a bittersweet few months as I am wrapping up my time at a job that I love. Admitting that my health had gotten to a point where I could no longer fulfill the requirements of my job and be as healthy as possible at the same time was difficult. While there is a feeling of relief that comes with the idea that I won’t have mornings where I cry in my car because I could only make it halfway to work before getting too dizzy and lightheaded to continue driving, and I won’t have to spend my lunch break lying on my classroom floor trying to get the blood back to my head, there is also a large cloud of sadness that looms over everything. It feels like a failure. It feels like I couldn’t hack it at my job, and with work being such a large part of my life, it feels like I’m quitting on the future I had envisioned for myself.
When I became a teacher, I worried about a lot of issues, ranging from classroom management to student engagement, but physically making it to work every day wasn’t much of a concern. Now, five years later, I am leaving a job that I love at a fantastic school because my chronic illness causes me to miss too many school days and creates substantial stress and discomfort on many of the days I do manage to make it in. This was a personal decision, and one that I didn’t take lightly, but that doesn’t make it any easier. The old me doesn’t want to leave, but the new me has to. Accepting that these two versions of myself must coexist is overwhelming at times, and it has forced me to work towards reframing my definition of success, but that isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Adding to this feeling of failure is the fact that many of those around me can’t really understand what I’m going through. Having an invisible illness makes it difficult for others to comprehend the idea that I can be totally fine one day but then too sick to make it to work the next. I get it. On my good days, I dance around, I laugh, I sing – I’m Cinderella at the ball. On my bad days, however, I’m most definitely the POTSerella version of myself, feeling too much fatigue to hold up my own body, switching from freezing to sweating uncontrollably, feeling like the world is shifting underneath me and like I could vomit at any moment. I know that I feel this way, but other people don’t, which can be frustrating. Then again, I don’t allow people to see me this way and, up until this point, I have tried to do everything I could to keep my daily life “normal,” not wanting to give an inch to this syndrome wreaking havoc on my life.
One day, though, it hit me. It was one of those days where I knew I didn’t feel well, but I tried to push through and go to work anyway. I ended up parked on a side street sobbing. I felt so sick. I couldn’t focus enough to drive anymore. My shallow breaths felt like they were coming in through a straw, and everywhere I looked, the scene would shift slightly from second to second, as if I was moving when I was perfectly still. And then, it clicked. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do it. I can’t.
Somehow this negative phrase was freeing. I felt a sense of relief. I had pushed myself as hard as I could, tried to keep up with the life I thought I needed to live, but it still wasn’t working. It was time to admit it and give myself a reprieve.
So now, I am here, about to finish off the school year and change to an online teaching job with more schedule flexibility. It’s a new and exciting opportunity, but it is also tinged with the feeling that I am only taking this opportunity because I couldn’t handle the last one like all my colleagues could. That’s hard for me. Leaving my students is hard for me. Leaving my coworkers is hard for me. Admitting “defeat” is hard for me. It’s all hard, but at least now I can start working on reimagining what my more healthy life will be like instead of being stuck in my old expectations. It may not be ball gowns and horse-drawn carriages, but it will be a great life. A different life, but a happy one.
Getty Image by AH86