I’ve dropped of the face of the earth during the last week, because all of my energy has been taken up with a new project – volunteering at a local hospital. It’s the same hospital where my pain clinic is located, so it made sense to volunteer there. I have been thinking of volunteering for a long time, but felt very intimidated by the whole idea.

Fibromyalgia dropped in on my life like a tonne of bricks during graduate school and forced me to stop everything. My symptoms developed over a 6 month period and took away my abilities piece by piece. The process left me feeling incompetent and unsure of being able to do anything. It doesn’t make sense; I know theoretically that it was pain not ineptitude that forced me to stop. Yet, it was a damaging experience  –  trying to get  the right combination of extensions, sick leaves and accommodations to successfully finish my workload, only to find that nothing was enough except stopping altogether . I stayed in a bubble for over a year after I withdrew from my program because of it.

I have been slowly going crazy in my bubble and knew I needed to do something about it. I have had some success doing online (free!) university courses with Coursera (and recently discovered that my local library has some courses on DVD about art and literature). I have been looking for an exercise class to join. There is a tai chi organization that offers gentle health promotion classes near me. Also, my local YMCA apparently has gentle aqua fit classes in a warm pool. The problem with these ideas is that they cost money and I am always worried about if I can really do it or not. Volunteering is perfect because it is free and also, because you are giving your time, it can theoretically be on your terms. Also, as a person living with a chronic illness, I think it is beneficial to find a way to feel helpful or useful. In line with cognitive behavioral therapy, it is good to focus on the positive aspects of your circumstances (if I compare living with fibromyalgia to my old life I feel down but if I can compare it to having cancer or other terminal illness I feel grateful).
I chose the hospital after looking at a number of positions because they wanted a 4 hour commitment, once a week, during day time hours. A lot of positions wanted more hours, on evenings and weekends, or involved computer work. (I have some severe trigger points around my shoulder blades which prevent me from typing. I use voice to text software for blogging and e-mails. This means I have to do it at home where talking to myself doesn’t look quite as crazy! The software is also a bit clunky which is why I can’t blog more). I will be at an information desk on one of the hospital floors. This seems to suit my body fairly well because I can either sit or stand and talk with patients. I can also put my backrest and seat cushion on the chair to help me get through the full shift. I also feel like it is a good position to start with. I was nervous about beginning with patient visiting or something because of needing to appear cheerful and ‘on’. Dealing with pain and mood swings makes me question whether I can appear chatty and upbeat on demand.

I originally applied to another hospital network, but their bureaucratic approach was really getting me down. I already deal with enough of the medical system bureaucracy as the patient without having to deal with it in my free time as a volunteer! When I went to make an appointment with occupational health to show them my vaccines were up to date and they told me I had to wait five weeks for the next available appointment I almost gave up. Finally, I wrote the hospital I finally did get a position with, and they had me come in for an orientation just a few days later. I was so nervous before my orientation and my first training shift. That made me feel doubly crazy because why was I so nervous over a little volunteering commitment? It seems like since my fibromyalgia diagnosis I have generally been more anxious about things that I used to be. I also relate it back to when I was first diagnosed. I think going through that process where the abilities you took for granted get taken away makes you feel like you can’t take it for granted that you have any ability. There are also many more things to be anxious about – will I be able to make it every week? What if the chair hurts my back? What if someone asks me to help lift or carry something heavy? Will I  look weird with my backrest and cushion?

This story has a happy ending. I did my first shift on my own this past Monday. I was able to help a few very lost and confused patients find their appointment locations (why do they always design hospitals to be like mazes?). It felt good to be helpful and I could feel my inner extrovert perking up a little bit. Next time I need to bring a magazine or two for those dead in between times. I also need to buy a pair of black pants because skirts are definitely not cutting it in this frosty fall weather (sadly, no blue jeans are allowed). I think that this will end up being a very positive baby step in the right direction for me and I encourage everyone else who can to give volunteering a try.

I think volunteering with organizations that focus on health issues is less daunting. Hospitals, seniors centers, the arthritis society, etc. are more likely to be accommodating. For example, my fiancée works with a health nonprofit and he has noticed that at health fairs the arthritis society volunteers have had their materials couriered for them. Nowadays, there are also online volunteering opportunities, which might be more appropriate for some people. I did a quick Google search and found a good article here which mentions opportunities like United Nations Volunteers. There is definitely a lot more out there than your local food bank and I think volunteers often feel like they end up taking more away from the experience than they contribute because it is usually very rewarding.

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