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When Fibromyalgia Forced Me to Reconsider My Career

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Before I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I had plans to go to university, finish my degree, and enter full-time work. It didn’t exactly pan out that way, though.

I started studying while I was still somewhat healthy, before I knew what chronic pain even was. I had big plans to become a marine biologist, and dreams of working somewhere along the Great Barrier Reef… but something went wrong along the way. I found myself laying on the floor of my studio apartment in agony, as my entire body throbbed with pain that has since never gone away.

My childhood trauma, an emotionally abusive relationship, and the stress of my studies all caught up with me all at once. When I think back to when it started, I realize there was no escaping it, there was never any hope of me living a normal healthy life, no matter how many times I think, “what if.” What if I never went to that school where I was severely bullied? What if my friends never moved away? What if I never entered that toxic relationship? What if I was never hurt? What if I just ran away? No matter which way I tried to spin my horrible history, I couldn’t seem to find a way out. There was no escaping my past trauma. There is no time machine. I had to become OK with that. This is just the way my life panned out, and there was nothing I could have done to stop it from happening this way.

After my diagnosis, I was presented with a unique set of challenges, just adding the icing to that bitter cake. I learned that not all of my friends were really my friends. I learned that people will judge you, people will look at you like you’re “less than” and discriminate against you just because you have a different level of ability.

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia after I had already decided to continue my studies and do an Honours project. During this project, I missed out on valuable field experience because my supervisor was concerned that I was a risk to health and safety. I protested, pleaded, begged. There were no considerations, no accommodations. I was meant to collect samples from a boat for my research, which I was completely capable of doing, but my supervisor organized a team to do it without me, only informing me after it was done. I almost lost all motivation to complete my research at all, but I didn’t quit. The incident was reported to the Disability Liaison Officer and my supervisor was questioned, but there was no time machine. I had to become OK with that. I completed my thesis, received scholarships for my efforts, and graduated with first-class Honours. Someone with those sorts of grades should surely have no issue finding a job.

Then, the global pandemic hit. Job opportunities were already slim, and the local restrictions put in place really narrowed that down. Thinking back, I haven’t had a very good run pursuing this career at all. I have since worked a couple of temporary jobs. Being in the workplace even for a short amount of time has been a big wake-up call as to what I can actually handle. Since finishing my studies and entering the workforce, the number of symptoms I have experienced has significantly increased.

I realize now that full-time work is out of the equation completely. I have worked two very different types of jobs so far, neither of which were well suited to my physical needs. One involved sitting at a desk for most of the day, five days a week. Being so stationary for so long made my legs swell so badly they almost couldn’t move and my hips were debilitated by pain, even with frequent breaks. The other job was very physical, where I was building fences and spraying blackberries every day. Although I coped seemingly OK with my physical job, I was unable to enjoy my free time anymore as the pain caught up with me every time I got a chance to relax, which made it very difficult to get a good sleep before returning to work the next day. On top of this, I was frequently criticized whenever I needed the smallest accommodations for my health issues, and although I raised these concerns, little change was made and the damage had already been done.

Since quitting my last job, my symptoms have worsened again. I maintain a healthy diet, exercise, and focus on things that bring me happiness — but I’m struggling more now than I have ever been. I’m in the process of seeing a specialist for my gut-related issues, which are commonly associated with fibromyalgia.

I had a break from looking for work, and my partner was more than happy to support me financially. She has been the reason I’m somewhat functioning right now. I need to get my health on track as much as possible before I can enter the workforce again.

I realize my career dreams from many years ago are not in my best interest now. I couldn’t even work on the Great Barrier Reef because my fibromyalgia has caused me to become very sensitive to heat. I wouldn’t be able to handle the weather there.

I’m still a qualified Environmental Scientist and Marine Biologist. Fibromyalgia will never take that away from me. Completing my studies was an achievement within itself, and just because I haven’t made a career out of it doesn’t mean I am a failure.

I have been recently considering finding work again, but I am specifically searching for part-time work, and favoring any working-from-home jobs. I no longer care if I find work within my field of study because now I value my health more than my career. If I find a job that is well suited to me, meets my needs, and pays the bills, that is more valuable than any so-called dream job. Living near the most locked-down city in the world (Melbourne), job opportunities are still very limited. Part-time, remote work is the way forward. Work from the comfort of my home, in the company of my parrot, with time to look after myself. That sounds much nicer to me. 

Originally published: October 15, 2021
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