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Let's Stop Thinking Working 40 Hours a Week Means We're 'Beating' Our Illness

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War-related language is often utilized when we, generally, speak about illness — chronic or otherwise. We fight for cures, battle our symptoms and add the word “warrior” as a form of a suffix to the nouns that describe that which ails us. So far, so understandable — living a life like Sisyphus is not easy. Sisyphus, however, had no choice. To refuse to push that boulder up the hill would have incurred the wrath of the Gods.  You may be thinking that illness isn’t a choice either — that is correct — but how we respond and deal with said illnesses is. We can look at that giant rock and say “No, not today.” So why is it that even in support communities, treating ourselves with the kindness we deserve is often considered to be a sign of surrendering to disease?

People state that they are refusing to “give in” and are “pushing through” their symptoms to keep that 40-hour work week going. Yet in their next sentence, they state that they have “no home life” or have to “sleep all weekend.” How is this considered a win in the fight for wellness?

Let’s talk for a moment about payback. This can, essentially, be described as catching up with the “future self” that you (to keep going when you were in deficit) borrowed all that delicious energy from. This meeting of selves basically means that the will is no longer able to dictate the way, and the only viable option is stopping and waiting for the batteries to recharge. Again, how could something like this be considered a win in the fight for wellness? If someone with diabetes proclaimed they weren’t going to allow their illness to “rule their life” and proceeded to demonstrate as much by eating a couple of Snickers bars, we would consider them reckless at the least, and in possession of a death wish at the most. But when it comes to exchanging the one commodity we can never reclaim for a monetary reward, it would seem that perspectives become somewhat skewed.

In a society where worth is tied to what you earn, it can be so easy for the unwell to be conned into believing their precious time should belong to anybody other than themselves.

I believe part of the problem is an ingrained attitude regarding the virtues of busy-ness in modern society, which has led to an almost visceral idea that “idleness” in whatever form is a sign of moral bankruptcy. In addition, that umbrella of the idle expands to include any existing work that isn’t monetized: “Nice hobby, but what do you do?” Chronically ill and training for a marathon? You’re a hero. Chronically ill and painting pictures from your sick bed? Clearly not trying hard enough. 

This can obviously lead to a couple of problems. Firstly, the whole mindset of working through the illness can lend credence to the idea (still held by many) that certain illnesses are purely psychosomatic in nature. In all illnesses, pain and fatigue are clear warning signs that the body isn’t functioning correctly. However, the person loudly proclaiming they just “keep going” reduces those symptoms to mere aches and tiredness in the minds of non-sufferers — in essence, giving said people the permission to tell other victims of ill health to simply “snap out of it.”

Secondly, it invalidates the experiences of those who know they can neither “keep up” nor compete with the chronically ill super-humans. Imagine how it must feel to be reading how so-and-so is not going to be beaten by this illness when you’re on another extended absence from work, dreading having your umpteenth meeting with the HR department. The language used by these “troopers” so often shows a lack of awareness towards the people in their immediate community. I’m not talking about “trigger warnings” here, just basic common courtesy. That type of bragging is akin to being the person who “struggles in” to the office chock-full of bacteria of a communicable disease, forgetting that not everybody can just shrug off a bronchial infection or, you know, might simply not want to get sick.

We’re already thrown to the wayside by a culture that measures our worth by Monopoly board standards, but to have those impossible standards replicated from within our own support networks does little but add the tag of “laziness” to those who are already barely coping.

It may be true that, at the present time, an illness like fibromyalgia does not appear to be degenerative, but the long-term effects of treating one’s body like the enemy are rarely beneficial. Wearing that 40-hour working week as a badge of honor seems less like “getting on with life” and more like a truly unhealthy version of martyrdom.

Follow this journey on The Martian Princess Chronicles.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one commonly held opinion within the community surrounding your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) that doesn’t resonate with you? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: May 26, 2016
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