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How to Cultivate Your Work-Life Options When You Have a Chronic Illness

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My luckiest moment in life was wrapped up in my unluckiest… I stretched myself so hard with illness and my career that when I finally found a role closer to home with less stress, the damage had already been done. Know that elastic band theory people talk about where you stretch and stretch and it’s not until you relax that it goes snap? Well, that was me in what was meant to be my new relaxed role. In my first three months I came down with shingles, flu and a chest infection. All in an environment where I couldn’t go into work with anything contagious. I was working for a healthcare service and colleagues who worked with the elderly, so vulnerable people were coming and going all day long. So not only was I sick in my new role, but even while I was physically able to work I couldn’t due to the risks to my colleagues.

I felt like I had become the most useless employee and all in my probation period with people counting on me for important projects. To be honest I was waiting for the penny to drop and it wasn’t that great a surprise when it did. Suddenly I was jobless, with no plan B… oh, and I was about to get married two weeks later with a honeymoon still to pay for. I just couldn’t believe this was happening, but at the same time I felt this great sense of relief. I couldn’t work out how I could feel relieved – this was absolutely the worst case scenario and I was secretly happy? What the fuck was that about?!


The truth was this… I was not happy and had not been happy for a very long time. I had somehow managed to survive in my career despite having a sickness record that must have broken some kind of world record. It helped a great deal that I was a rockstar at what I did. I don’t care about being big-headed, I was. I was one of the best at what I did and I took pride in it. It had always been my get out of jail free card when it came to my work and my sickness, but my luck had run out and now I had to face the reality that I had two options ahead of me:

1. Find a way to spin me losing my job and get back into my career

2. Walk away from my career and do something else

Option one was tempting. I was good at spinning things and talking my way out of difficult situations, but I knew even for me it would be hard to spin… anyone with a working brain could see I was not a well woman. All the evidence showed I was a ticking time-bomb that had already exploded once and could again at any moment. And when I realized that, I wondered, if everyone else could see it, why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I accept that my body just needed a break? Why couldn’t I accept it was OK that I needed to get off the merry-go-round and heal?

It took some soul-searching but that’s what I did. I walked away from a career that was toxic – I loved it but I hated it too. I was addicted to the success and the work but it made me ill. It was not the thing for me because nothing that makes you ill – mentally or physically – is good for you.

Fast forward to now and I work for myself part of the time and have a part-time work-from-home job too. It’s nothing like what I did before – it’s not even what my qualifications and studies prepared me for. I spend most of my time now helping overwhelmed professionals stay with sass or leave with class, in a spoonie-friendly environment, and the rest of my time teaching English online. It’s different to anything I could have imagined but it gives me the flexibility I need to give my body what it needs when it needs it, and most importantly I am happier than I ever was.

I started my business because I looked back with hindsight and wondered what it was I had needed help with most when I was struggling in my work-life. I needed someone to help me work out what the right thing was for me, what would make me happy. I needed someone to help me see what amazing value I had as a human being just because of all I had been through, regardless of job descriptions and qualifications. I really wish I had someone to help me manage my work and the workplace issues before I got into a cycle of becoming sicker and sicker with less and less options. The truth was if I had the help back then I would have more options and options are like gold.

If I have one piece of advice for anyone with an illness and a job, it is to cultivate options. Lots of them. Sensible ones, silly ones, fanciful and grandiose, small and simple… whatever… just have a bunch of them up your sleeve. Leaving my career to work for myself worked for me but it’s been a difficult journey and one I had to work out pretty much on my own because no one out there seemed to offer what I needed. Working for yourself is not for everyone, especially for spoonies, so instead of trying to tell you I have the magic answer (which nobody does!), one of the key things I help people with is looking at all the options available to you. And here are some of my top six tips if you are thinking about your work options:

1. Allow yourself to dream big and silly. There is no such thing as a ridiculous idea, there are only ideas… you never know where that idea will take you.

2. Don’t worry about what other people think – they don’t live your life so they don’t get to have an opinion.

3. Don’t get caught up on there being one right answer for you. This world is full of multi-passionate, multi-interest people and there is no such thing as a job for life anymore. So there doesn’t need to be one thing for you either.

4. Know these three things or work on finding them out: what you love, what your values are, what you want most.

5. Don’t worry about the thing you want to do not existing! You really can create your own role in this world. Think about it… think of all the weird and wonderful jobs that exist now that didn’t exist when you were in school or when your parents were looking for jobs. The world is always changing and that means there are always new opportunities.

6. Ban the words “can’t” and “shouldn’t” from your vocabulary when thinking about options. Using those two words kills your imagination dead before you even get started. Even if you really think something isn’t physically possible for you, add it to your options anyway – you never know where that train of thought will take you.

You can join my free community on Facebook at the link on my profile. Just click on my name.

Stay classy, warrior-workers.

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Thinkstock photo via Anna_Isaeva.

Originally published: October 2, 2017
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