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I Am Chronically Ill — But I Can Still Be Successful

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I am known at work as the loud, confident, bubbly one. The one who is always smiling and making a joke. The one who spends time on weekends watching football and going out partying.

I am probably not known as the one who is in pain daily. The one who goes into work even when in pain and lacking sleep. The one who balances a social and work life with hospital appointments, symptoms and medications. The one who cries in the car when they are finally alone after a long day of pretending to be “OK” at work.

Turning 21 was meant to be a great year. You graduate from university, you start your career, and you are still young enough to go out partying. For me, it was the start of the toughest years of my life. I was just finishing my psychology degree and had decided to apply to do my master’s in occupational psychology. The week I received my letter to say I had been accepted to the master’s program was the week that I also got told I had Crohn’s disease.

Crohn’s disease nearly made me lose my mom three times, due to sepsis and other dangerous complications. The illness which caused my mom to have a miscarriage. The illness which isn’t curable. The illness that no one even knows what causes it, which would most likely lead to several major and dangerous surgeries and a life time of horrible medications with horrific side effects. Crohn’s disease, the illness that made me a strong woman.

That week I got diagnosed I made the best decision of my life… I wasn’t going to let Crohn’s disease beat me. I accepted my master’s place. And after about 16 hospital stays, all lasting at least a week, and being diagnosed with endometriosis and arthritis on top of the Crohn’s disease, with four surgeries in between and several complications, I managed to finish my master’s and achieve a high grade. I am now a research specialist in a business school and university, with a keen interest in how people with chronic illnesses cope at work. I have also been given the amazing opportunity to teach on an undergraduate course and raise awareness of this topic, which is so close to my heart.

These chronic illnesses have made me not only more determined than ever to complete all my qualifications and progress in my career, but also raise as much awareness as possible. People often say to me “work isn’t everything” and “your health should come before your career” but to me, my career is the one thing that keeps me going on a day to day basis. It creates that sense of normality for me. It distracts me from the pain and the realization that I am never going to be well or pain free again.

However, no matter how positive you are and no matter how much you smile through the pain, the bad days can completely knock you off your feet. I have been so poorly some days and struggled to get out of bed, let alone drive into work. But because of determination and the need to succeed, I make it in. The last thing I want to hear is “Oh, you’re ill again? But you don’t look very ill to me.”

These chronic illnesses are most often invisible and being told you don’t look ill is one of the worst things you can say to someone with a chronic illness. Trust me, many of us are glad we don’t look ill, I personally am glad the five-minute makeup and hair do suffice. But please don’t make it out like I am faking this. Not all illnesses are visible. Support people and just stop and think before you speak, as no one knows what is going on behind closed doors.

Not only this, but being a millennial in the business world is hard enough, but being a female millennial in the business world makes it even tougher. Being a chronically ill female millennial in the business world is extremely hard work. But with the right support and understanding from your colleagues and managers, it can be the most empowering and motivational situation to be in. I know everyone has different experiences, but in my opinion and in my research I have found, with the correct level of support, understanding, flexibility and ability to be open about your chronic illness, it can lead to you feeling resilient and empowered to do your best at work.

If you are someone with a chronic illness and have dreams and goals, go out there and reach them. If you are a colleague or manager of someone with a chronic illness, support them, listen to them and be patient with them. If you are a friend or family member, be there for the good and the bad days. And remember, that bubbly, happy person at your work might have a lot of pain and struggles behind that smile.

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Thinkstock image by: stevanovicigor

Originally published: February 22, 2017
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