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When My Career Plans Don't Go to Plan Because of My Chronic Illness

A few years, I became very ill and had to give up my PhD, abandoning the path I was on and all the future hopes that came with it. This made me feel like I lost a huge part of myself and my identity. I was proud to be working on my PhD, and it felt like a huge part of who I was. But struggling to keep up, making constant mistakes and finding even the day-to-day tasks too much – it made me feel incompetent and in a constant state of overwhelm. I felt like an imposter, and compensated by feeling I needed to prove myself above and beyond what I was capable of, only adding my exhaustion and the impossibility of it all. I couldn’t keep up. I was barely able to write a single sentence or read an email, let alone plan a longitudinal three stage research project involving five schools and 150 children and their parents. It wasn’t meant to be.

After that I was not only out of work, but totally unable to work. I felt empty but needed space and time to try and recover.

People make a lot of assumptions when they first meet someone, and the two most likely questions we get asked when we meet someone are, “What’s your name?” and, “What do you do?”

If I met new people and they asked me, “What do you do?” I just didn’t know what to say. I found myself starting my answer with, “I’m half way through a PhD” – as if I was going to finish it. Or, “Well, I was doing a PhD…” followed by something vague about a writing, sewing or what my other current project was. But, I was painfully aware of how lame and aimless it sounded compared to an actual job with any responsibilities.

It’s as though I needed to keep hold of the PhD student status to prove my worth as an individual. Without it, I felt aimless, jobless and as such I just didn’t know what to say. I felt compelled to avoid the truth, carrying a shame of self-perceived failure. Even though it wasn’t my fault I got sick, I felt ashamed and really beat myself up about it.

Repeating this for several years made me feel invisible and like a total fraud. I became socially anxious as I dreaded having to justify my existence or worth. But looking back now, it seems so simple. If I was more compassionate towards myself, I wouldn’t have felt such intense and unjustified self-blame and could have simply been honest. I may have still felt the need to say that I was doing a PhD but could have followed it with, “but I got unwell so had to stop. Now I’m figuring out what to do next, but in the meantime, I’m trying to focus on creative writing projects.” Ladies and gentlemen, there is nothing wrong with that. It shows a person for whom things haven’t gone to plan, who is responding to it in a steady and sensible way.

Why did I feel so ashamed about my plan not going to plan, for reasons that weren’t my fault? We’re always so hard on ourselves, and it’s only now looking back, four years later, that the answer seems so obvious.

It seems old fashioned to still define people by their jobs. Some people have “career jobs” that are linked with what kind of person they are, but a lot of people just have “job” jobs, and a lot of people have different situations altogether. What are the things that make us, “us?” Is a job really that integral to our personality? Not necessarily. Plus, it can be really hard to know what to aim towards in the long-term when you live with chronic illness as you don’t know how well or ill you’ll be from one day, week, or month, to the next.

I still hate the question and I still sometimes fall over my words when I try to answer it, but I know it’s a constant whether I like it or not. I personally try to avoid asking it altogether. Instead, I ask people what they do when they’re not at work, when they’re not wearing a party hat or sitting in whatever establishment they might be sitting in at that exact moment. I’d rather find out about whey they do in their free time, what choices they make, and what interests them – rather than what their day job is. I want to find out what kind of person they are.

And I just hope they don’t immediately follow their answer with that dreaded question.

Getty Image by Nattakorn Maneerat

This story originally appeared on May a Life in Short.