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Chronic Illness and the Self

methotrexate injection

When you are some degree of unwell every day like I am, it becomes really difficult to determine when you should really take a day off, and when you should suck it up and go into work anyway.

I’m in the middle of a rather large, strategically important project at the library. The project is going fairly well, and I’m proud of the progress my team has made, how my direct reports are starting to become more confident in their own abilities and decision-making, and I’m proud of myself for keeping a relatively level head and not flying off the handle (publicly) during frustrating moments.

But this project isn’t only important to the library, it’s important to me, personally and professionally. My performance shows that I can rise to the challenge. Managing the project has given me the confidence boost I needed, and the strategic and theoretical underpinnings of the project helped solidify a number of deep-seated beliefs I have about service through technology. I’m under a white-hot spotlight at work as a result; I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the success of this project could affect my trajectory at the library. Yes, it’s that big.

Because this project is so significant, I’ve found it hard to step away when my body demands it. I downplay my RA symptoms because I don’t want pity, but the days that I phone in sick are days when I literally can’t walk more than the distance between my bed and the bathroom, or days when I can’t shower or dress myself because the pain in my arms and hands is too great. Even then I make the effort to check email, communicate with the project team, my manager, and the vendor via email, phone or chat. My manager once told one of the library directors “That’s the thing about Cecily; if she says it’ll get done, it’ll get done no matter what.” I felt proud in that moment, but maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe it was a caution? A moderated expression of concern from a colleague?

I’m writing this because I’m having a very rough day today. My calendar is blissfully empty except for one quick status meeting first thing in the morning, and I know this would be the perfect day to step back, rest, slow down the adrenaline that’s surging through my body, and just rest. My attendance record is pitted and pockmarked with numerous absences. I’m in danger of running out of sick leave. But my fear is that these absences, these days when my body forces me to press pause will impact my career aspirations. I’m scared that I’ll get a reputation for not showing up, not being able to do the work, not being available.

Being constantly fatigued and in pain demands a lot of energy. Some days I can draw on my reserves and make it through the days, but today isn’t one of those days. Yet here I am wasting precious cycles by worrying that my position is slipping, that I’m letting my team, my supervisor, and the entire library down if I don’t at least show up every day.

My workplace has shown me tremendous support and kindness throughout this illness. I only wish I could do the same for myself.

Related: see Colleen Harris-Keith’s excellent post on chronic illness in the workplace.