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Read This If You Overwork Yourself Despite Chronic Illness

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I’ve currently been grounded to my recliner in the living room, told I’m not allowed to do anything else today, with my service dog watching my every move. I should mention I’m a 41-year-old woman, and my husband is the one who “grounded” me.

What did I do to deserve this “punishment?”

I overdid it yesterday and almost ended up in the ER last night. And then, I tried to do too much again today.

Well, truth be told, I’ve been overdoing it lately. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time to do everything before Christmas gets here.

The problem? I’m chronically ill with a laundry list of conditions that includes fibromyalgia, dysautonomia, small fiber neuropathy, chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME) and chronic migraine. This past year, I won my appeal for social security disability insurance after years of pushing my body to the breaking point.

To be honest, I only know two speeds: “pushing-fast-to-get-all-the-things-done” and “collapsed-in-utter-exhaustion-and-pain.”

Somewhere in my life (and I know many who have done this), I equated what I’m able to accomplish to what I’m worth. So, in order to be worth anything (in my mind), I had to be super productive. And because I knew my illnesses would impact me at times, I had to be extra super productive to make up for those times I wouldn’t be able to do anything. I took so much on that, at one point, I held eight different positions in my county job and wouldn’t say no to taking on more.

I continued this cycle until I literally couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t focus on a TV show for more than 20 minutes at a time, so forget about providing therapy or clinical supervision. Sitting in a regular chair hurts so bad that after 30 minutes, I’m done. This combination meant no more driving for a little while. I couldn’t walk across the room without falling from dizziness, tachycardia and shortness of breath. Cooking for myself? Not able to do it. Showering by myself? Nope. My body finally made it so that I couldn’t ignore it any longer. And as a clinical social worker, it killed me to have to admit I couldn’t work any longer.

I have two advanced degrees, a professional license, a few certifications and speak Medi-Cal (California Medicaid) fluently, so one would think I had the ability to learn important lessons. And yet, I find myself in a similar pattern now, just with even harsher reactions.

I’ve thrust myself into holiday festivities with as much as I could muster, fatigue and extreme pain be damned. For example, I’ve donated artistic items that I’ve created to a local community organization to help them raise money for their organization for several years. This year, I went overboard. Part of it was that I had time and had figured out a system to make my creative processes more efficient. (Why pour paint one ornament when I can do 20 at the same time?)

But a bigger part of it was this intense thought, almost bordering on anxiety, that kept bothering me: Since I’m no longer working, I have to still help others where I can, because I’m worthless if I don’t.

That’s a pretty huge negative thought to have, and if a client came to me and expressed having that thought, we’d be doing some cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) around that.

We have this perpetuated in society. So many people identify who they are with what they do for a career. I know I do. The first question that usually gets asked upon meeting someone new: “What do you do?” And in this one question, we’re asking each other to “tell me what your worth is.” 

The fact is that we are worthy just by being, not by doing. And my (or your) worthiness is not measured in how much I (you) can give.

I absolutely adore the act of giving, whether it’s time, gifts, messages or love. That’s one of my favorite parts of Christmas: being able to give the perfect gift or reach out to someone who needs time or love. That’s not something I’m willing to give up. But for my health, I have to learn how to put boundaries around it so that I don’t continue to work myself into the ground. I do no service to anyone if I can’t take care of myself first.

It’s not a weakness to say “No.” It’s not a weakness to ask for help. And it’s not a weakness to choose self-care so that you can enjoy the holiday season.

Photo by Mehrpouya H on Unsplash

Originally published: December 16, 2019
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