Totally, Completely Out of Control
Recently, I have had to come to terms with the fact that I am currently sick too often to take on as much responsibility as I have in the past. I used to pride myself on my ability to ‘go the extra mile’, to be the ‘yes man’, the one who would stay up late and wake up early to be on top of it all. I think in ways I was raised with the mentality that ‘pushing through‘ was a sign of strength.
In college, I was at professors’ office hours all the time, I was involved in a slew of extracurricular activities, and I thought that the more tired I was, the more productive I must have been. Living with chronic migraine, I also sought to prove that I could do ‘more’ despite the pain I felt. Sure, I would have to cancel meetings and break commitments often, sure I would have to leave group meetings and lectures early, but I would try to make up for that by working really hard when I was well.
My body began breaking down
After college, I dove into a pattern of working multiple jobs at once, sometimes beginning my days at eight in the morning and ending at two in the morning the next day.
Living this kind of lifestyle came with a lot of unhealthy stress, a lot of unhealthy eating habits, and a lot of really long days. This all came to a head recently, when I experienced what I would consider the ‘breaking down of my body’ and consequently, the unraveling of a lot of the things I found value and stability in. Ironically, this experience might have been one of the best I have ever experienced, while simultaneously being holistically one of the hardest and worst experiences too.
Too fast, too furious
To start, I now know and full-heartedly believe that deriving value and worth from how busy I am is absolutely wrong and unhealthy for me. I knew this all along, and I would even tell my friends and loved ones how they weren’t defined by their labor and that they needed to take care of themselves first—but for many years I did not apply the same rules to myself. Even though I knew others deserved to take breaks, I held myself to an unrealistic expectation of ‘getting back up’ too quickly and too often. Maybe to prove I was more than my illnesses? Maybe to compete with what seemed like much healthier people around me? I am sure a combination of driving factors influenced me to act in this way, internally and externally. What I know now is that my worth is not derived from my ability to go…and go…and go.
For a few months, I have been very ill, very often. It seems to have started back in October of last year. A big storm passed through the Southeast following hurricane Maria, and with it allergens galore. With that, migraines galore. I was sick every day for a long period of time. I wrote down a journal entry after 21 days straight of being sick. It read:
“Wow. It has been 21 days! I can not believe it. I really hope this passes soon. I feel awful every day.”
At this point, I had made several doctor’s and urgent care visits and had mostly been treated for whatever pain I experienced during that particular time, but to me it felt like one unending big sickness.
Still no relief
During the holiday season, I still felt awful. I spent Thanksgiving sick in bed, I spent most of the Christmas sick in bed, and I spent New Year’s sick in bed. I started to get sick with other illnesses during this non-ending experience of respiratory, allergy, and migraine pain. At one point I began to have shooting pain in my lower back that felt like electric pulses. Then…I experienced an onslaught of bacterial and viral infections, one seemed to kick in newly every week for three weeks, right after I finished an antibiotic, I would need another. I could not catch a break! My asthma also began bothering me at night, and at one point out of nowhere, I had a few weeks on knee pain. I was also dealing with and being treated for depression, anxiety, and hypertension.
I really felt like I might just collapse and not make it through some days.
Talk. About. Exhausting. I mean it is overwhelming just to list it all out…experiencing it has been a nightmare! I am still dealing with respiratory issues that have not gone away for six months at this point.
Work, work, work
All the while, I was working three jobs, trying to balance them all with constantly being sick, having to go to urgent care every other week, trying to find time to fit in visits with my regular doctors, and all the while trying to play music in my band and participate in other extracurricular activities. When I was too sick to do anything, I stressed out over not being able to do anything, instead of resting. As soon as I could, I would jump up and take on too many things again. It was a heated contentious long-running argument between my caretaker and I, and I could see they felt pain and frustration because I was clearly not taking good care of myself.
We both knew I was at my limit, but I felt like I had to do even more each day because I was sick so often. It was a feedback loop, I had to counteract it with taking on tasks and responsibilities that would allow me to have a list of accomplishments.
Things fall apart
But then: I started to get really sick multiple times a week. I could not function really…at all…I began having trouble getting through a few hours at a time without feeling like I couldn’t walk or stand. I had to call out of work for a series of situations including illness…and I lost two of my jobs.
The stress I had before working three jobs was nothing like the stress that came from the anxiety I felt from feeling like I was not good enough. I knew I had too many sick days. I knew I was stretched thin, but I believed that the effort that I put through *despite* always being in pain would be enough to show that I was hard working. And I was hard-working…but on too many things, under too many strenuous circumstances.
Frankly: When I think about the past year, I mostly see exhaustion and sickness, and that is no condition to be working under.
Losing my jobs allowed me to take some time to go to the doctor, to rest, and to sit and think off of auto-pilot for a few days…and it was the best thing to have happened to me in awhile. While I was still pretty busy immediately following losing my jobs, I had much more time to take a look at myself and give myself a hard, long, honest talk.
I was and am too sick, and spread too thin, to do so much, and I am accepting that it is okay. We are not machines built to constantly fight against our bodies, even with chronic pain. I have now had a bit of time to recover some, physically and mentally, just from a few good night’s of rest, and a few days of no commitments. I feel like a different person when I rest. It is amazing.
Although I have still been quite sick, there has been a transformation in how I see myself. I am starting to believe that for myself, just like I tell and believe for others, that having chronic migraines does not make me less worthy and does not necessitate I work like a machine when I am not sick. I will no longer find my worth in powering through all the time.
Time for discovery
I am now rediscovering what it means to work and rest. I am looking into alternative ways to sustain myself, ways that don’t require overworking. For many with migraine, trying to balance work, social life, management, and treatment can be a whirlwind, and I have certainly been in a whirlwind for a while. But I am making a commitment to finding a more balanced, healthy work ethic and am striving to get better from these sicknesses in the near future, and am thankful that through the storm I have gained the time, and the insight to work at it.
How do you balance work, illness, and social commitments? Have you ever felt completely out of control or struggled to gain your health back? Let’s discuss in the comments!