During these last two weeks, I’ve felt the sickest I have in years. I was admitted into the hospital for a bronchoscopy, intravenous antibiotics, and continuous aminophylline infusion to counteract chest tightness. Amid the nausea, sweats, sleeplessness, pain, bruised veins from botched access attempts, and retching from coughing fits, one symptom was blessedly absent: guilt over missing work.
I used to torture myself over a sick day. This was despite not taking many and never for non-CF issues. But perhaps because I grew up healthy and largely immune to hospital admissions and IVs — my first time as an inpatient was as a 19-year-old university student — I was not used to limits being placed on my health. All of that changed when I entered the workplace. While I am grateful that I had a healthy childhood, I wonder if it left me unprepared for the mental hang-ups that can come with sick leave.
For a long while, my self-worth was powerfully linked to my job. I had internalized the messages of our society, whereby productivity, busyness, and presenteeism are unbeatable character assets. The realities of being an adult with CF don’t always sit well alongside.
I used to become filled with a sick, lingering dread at the first sign of an exacerbation, a feeling that had little to do with my chest. It always felt as if I became sick when my team was one client call away from collapsing under pressure. So much of my shame at calling in sick was down to not feeling like a reliable team member when I so desperately wanted to help carry the load with my colleagues.
I asked if others with CF who are working shared my feelings. Clearly, the range of experiences is wide. While some shared my sense of upset that can come with a sick day, others put in place protocols with their employer using the reasonable adjustments clause in disability legislation to ensure calling in sick is as straightforward as possible. (Read more about relevant acts in the U.S. and in the U.K.)
Others feel no worse for wear mentally, with a sense of security in their achievements and knowing it doesn’t impact the way they are perceived. I also spoke to several people who now are self-employed, sometimes due to fears about CF’s unpredictable demands and sometimes due to a quest for more flexible work.
So, why didn’t I feel any guilt about missing work this time? Two reasons. Firstly, I am slowly learning to value and to enjoy the aspects of myself and my interests that are not linked to paid work. Secondly, I’m now self-employed. While I have valuable clients and partners with whom I enjoy working, I have learned that my highest accountability is always to myself. I can only do my best work when I give myself time to recover.
The last two weeks were the best experience I’ve had in the hospital for a long time, despite my symptoms. Curiously, the healthcare staff mentioned how much they enjoyed talking to me and that I was “a nice patient.” I always pride myself on being courteous to the professionals looking after me, because I know how difficult their job is. But this was the first time I heard these comments. It could have been coincidence, but I believe it was due to my mental state: relaxed and removed from the unreasonable pressures I used to place on myself.
To those with CF reading this who are able to work, here’s my friendly reminder: You have a genetic condition that no matter how hard you try, will sometimes make it harder for you to work. People all over the country call in sick for colds, for hangovers, and for cup finals.
Now, repeat after me: “My self worth is not linked to my sick leave.”
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