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10 Things I Wish My Coworkers Knew When I Was Out Sick

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I’m in the middle of a flare. I’ve missed three days of work this week and rumors are starting to spread. I know, I’ve been out more than I’ve been in the office. I know, I’m young so I’m supposed to be healthy. I know, I never go out. I know, I’m always tired or sleeping. I know, I can’t exercise like I used to. I know, I’ve already canceled on you two times. I know, I’m sick again. 

These are the things I hear every day because I’m living with chronic illness. The other day, I had to have a private meeting with my boss because of some comments that were made about my “noticeable” absences at work. I’ve only been the head of their marketing department since February and I’ve already been out sick for a scattered total of three weeks. Some of my employees are getting used to saying things like “Wow, she’s out again.” My response to negativity from my co-workers has been the ever-present “I hope you never have to deal with what I’m going through medically.”

After a very supportive conversation I said to him, “I wish I could just tell people, because if they knew what I was dealing with, they might be more sensitive.” 

And that led me to a list of things I wish people knew about what it’s like to live with a chronic illness and try to maintain a full time, highly stressful, department-head job:

1. I may not look sick; chronic illness is often invisible.

Most of the time I carry myself very well. I dress well, I’m well spoken. But on the inside, I’m in pain or nauseous or incredibly tired or all of the above. 

2. I am constantly in fear of losing my job — chronic illness means lots of days missed.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve over-apologized to management for continuing to be out. Luckily, they’re supportive. But the more I lean on management for support, the more I alienate myself from the rest of my colleagues. 

3. Just because I got a full night’s sleep, that doesn’t mean I’m not tired; living with a chronic illness is exhausting.

I rely heavily on lunch break and after-work naps just to get through a regular day.

4. I’m in constant pain; chronic illness can be hidden behind smiles and positivity.

When I first told my boss about my condition, he said, “I would have never known because you’re so bubbly all the time.” The thing is, being bubbly costs me something physically. It means I can make it through the work day, but I have no life outside of that. It means I can get my job done, but that’s all I get to do for the day. 

5. I’m not avoiding you; chronic illness often means skipping out on plans during a flare.

Sorry, no happy hour with the gang. No company picnic. I can’t even participate in the corporate “move it May” campaign. Just because I haven’t made friends with people in the office, doesn’t mean I don’t want to. It just means that my chronic illness often prevents me from partaking in the social events that would normally bring us together. 

6. Some days are better than others, but with a chronic illness, the good days come with consequences later.

Being healthy Monday through Wednesday sometimes means that by Thursday and Friday I am often so sick, tired and weak that I need to stay home. I don’t just have a bad case of the Mondays (or Fridays). 

7. I’m hiding things. Living with a chronic illness can sometimes be scary or embarrassing.

Like I said before, I wish I could be more transparent. But in addition to not wanting to be seen as the “sick girl” in the office, some of the inner details of dealing with my illness (or health challenges as a friend of mine likes to call them), are just plain TMI. 

8. I’m scared. Chronic illness is often unpredictable and frightening.

Even though I’m in a management role, I have no idea what the future of my career looks like. Dealing with chronic illness is new to me, and I may or may not be able to take advantage of my full potential. It scares me to think that I may not ever hit the C-suite because of my disease. 

9. Balance is so important.

With chronic illness, knowing when to push and pull is necessary. If I make it through a full week at work, my weekends are spent abiding by the rule of “aggressive rest.” Workouts with my trainer, plans with my boyfriend, and even my parents are all secondary to my health and career. I just don’t have the bandwidth to do it all. 

10. But I also have hope.

Having a chronic illness doesn’t mean giving up. I’m always going to work my ass off when I can. 

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your disability, disease, or mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold this misconception? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: May 17, 2016
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