Why It’s Okay Not To Work When You Live with Chronic Illness

Having an illness like fibromyalgia is not a reflection of your character. No one works harder than someone with a chronic illness – every day is a struggle to work through symptoms and do your absolute best to be where you’re needed.

Why It's Okay Not to Work When You Live With Chronic Illness

The biggest change in my life that followed my fibromyalgia diagnosis was leaving my career because I just physically could not keep up any longer with the demands of the job. I’ve never felt more conflicted about making a decision. On the one hand I felt relief – it was incredibly stressful to constantly fail to meet expectations while working harder than ever before. On the other hand, I felt like I was losing a core part of my identity. After all, a career is not just what someone does between 9 to 5 – it’s often how a person understands and defines themselves.

Have you ever noticed that the first question someone asks you after being introduced is “so, what do you do for a living?” It’s common to answer the “what do you do for a living” question by saying “I am a ___“.   In our society, an occupation is not just what you do but who you are.

We place a moral value on being hard-working – putting in daily effort to provide for your family and contribute to your community – as long as you get paid for it. I still dread meeting new people and having to answer the what do you do question. It’s hard not to internalize the negative judgments about people who don’t work – usually variations on ‘they’re lazy, incompetent, and a burden to society.’ In Canada, where I live:

  • 14% of people with fibromyalgia reported that they were permanently unable to work (compared to 2% of the general public);
  • 43% had annual personal income less than $15,000 [poverty line] (compared to 29 per cent of the general public) (Parlor).

“Our society is largely driven by money, profit, and earning power, and this makes our professions a major part of how we identify.  So if you lose your job, you can easily lose your identity, too” (Norris, 2016). I felt so disoriented in the months after I left my job. It was hard to figure out who I was now and how I fit in.

As I began to engage online  with other people living with chronic illnesses and disabilities, I learned more about how to understand work and disability in our society, and what that meant for me as I transitioned to staying at home.

Definition of Disability:

Initially, the label of ‘disability’ did not resonate with me. I associated it with a permanent condition like vision-loss rather than a fluctuating illness like fibromyalgia. But once I learned the definition of disability, it became clear how it applied to my situation. According to the American Disability Association, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities (Blahovec).

Fibromyalgia impairs my abilities by causing pain, fatigue and brain fog. The lack of truly flexible accommodation in campuses/workplaces, like fixed work hours, deadlines and location, combined with stigma about invisible illnesses/disability, prevents my full participation in society.

Is Disability an Individual Problem?

The most common way we look at disability in our society is through the lens of ‘normal versus abnormal’. A person with a disability is different from ‘what is normal’ because of their limitations. This understanding of disability is often called the medical model – disability is an abnormal, medical condition affecting an individual (Scope).

We often hold up ‘inspirational’ examples of individuals with disabilities who ‘overcome’ their limitations by ‘fighting through’ the challenges they face, all the while having a good attitude (Abilities). The flipside of this is if you go about your business, pacing yourself within your limitations, you may be judged for “playing the victim” by “giving in” to your disability!

Disability as a Social Issue

If we were able to create an inclusive society, which removed the barriers that restrict life choices for people with disabilities, then everyone could participate equally in our communities. “The social model of disability says that disability is caused by the way society is organized, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference” (Scope). Barriers can include attitudes (stigma, discrimination), policies (workplace accommodations) and physical design (accessible entrances, transportation). For chronic illness advocates, joining the disability movement can help to “advance not only the goals for people with similar challenges, but for the whole disability movement” (Blahovec).

After I learned about the medical model versus the social model of disability, I felt like a light bulb went on inside my head. Here’s what conversations around disability taught me about living with fibromyalgia, and I think applies to anyone who needs accommodations at work, or no longer works:

  • Having an illness like fibromyalgia is not a reflection of your character. No one works harder than someone with a chronic illness – every day is a struggle to work through symptoms and do your absolute best to be where you’re needed.
  • News flash for your inner critic – not being able to participate fully in work/school is as much about ablest barriers as it is about physical limitations, and neither of those things is your fault!
  • If your contribution to the world is not in the form of paid employment, it is no less valuable than anyone else’s. The world is a better place because you’re in it!
  • Finding your identity outside of career makes you a more well-rounded person, whether it’s in relationships (like being a parent) or passion projects (creative expression, writing/advocacy).
  • Pacing your activities within your limits is working smarter. There is no need to “overcome” or be “inspirational” – just living your life the best way you can is all you need to do.
  • Having an illness or disability is pretty commonplace. Living with fibromyalgia is not your individual problem, but just another thread in the fabric of the human experience overall (we need to normalize life with fibromyalgia rather than pathologize it!)

(This article originally appeared in the June 2018 edition of UK Fibromyalgia Magazine)

Resources

Abilities (Disability as Inspiration: Can Greater Exposure Overcome this Phenomenon?)

Sarah Blahovec (HuffPost Blog: I have a Chronic Illness. Here’s Why I Embrace the Label ‘Disabled’)

International Paralympic Committee (UN Convention on the RIghts of Persons with Disability)

Margaret Parlor (Canadian Women’s Health Network: Understanding Fibromyalgia)

Scope (The Social Model of Disability)

Advertisements

Acceptance, Grief & Chronic Illness: The Top 4 Ways I Learned to Cope After my Diagnosis

Acceptance Grief and Chronic Illness:THE TOP 4 WAYS I LEARNED TO COPE AFTER MY DIAGNOSISYou probably vividly remember that moment when you sat in a doctor’s office and were told that the explanation for all your confusing symptoms was summed up in a word: fibromyalgia. For some of you, this diagnosis was the first chronic condition you were diagnosed with. For others, it was the second. And for those who had already been diagnosed with multiple chronic illnesses, this one was just another to add to the collection. The reality is that fibromyalgia is one of ten conditions the National Institutes of Health recently labelled Chronic Overlapping Pain Conditions (COPCs ).[1] These include chronic migraine and headache, interstitial cystitis, vulvodynia, IBS, low back pain, endometriosis, TMJ disorders, and chronic fatigue syndrome,  In addition, fibromyalgia is commonly diagnosed alongside autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.[2]  Finally, anxiety and depression are much more likely to be co-morbid (found simultaneously) in people living with fibromyalgia.[3]  Many fibromyalgia patients will have the déjà-vu experience of sitting in a doctor’s office and being diagnosed with yet another chronic illness.

I recently relived that experience myself. I sat in my OB-GYN’s office and was told that a recent laparoscopy confirmed that I have endometriosis alongside my fibromyalgia. I told myself that after years of dealing with chronic pain, this was no big deal – same problem, different location. All I needed to do was learn what my treatment options were and then go home and use the self-care skills I have developed over the years to manage my pain. A few days later, while I was examining my incision scars, I broke down in tears. “Get a grip,” I told myself, “this is nothing new“. But as the pelvic pain returned, despite the laparoscopy, and I confronted the reality of dealing with another hard-to-manage chronic illness,  I had to acknowledge my feelings of anger and sadness over this new diagnosis. Intellectually I know that being diagnosed with endometriosis will not change my life as dramatically as my fibromyalgia diagnosis did. I’ve already had to leave my career because of my disabling fibro symptoms. Instead, I stay at home pursuing hobbies, like writing and calligraphy, while I look after my health.

So I wondered, why is this second diagnosis affecting me so much?  To answer this question, I needed to remember what I experienced after my first diagnosis.  As anyone who has had a significant diagnosis knows, you go through a period of grieving afterwards. Grief is the “primary emotional process of reacting to… loss” (Absenger, 2015).[4]  The stages of grief after a diagnosis include: numbness-disbelief, separation distress, depression-mourning, and recovery.[5] While there are similarities to the stages of grief that people generally experience after any loss, the grieving process for people diagnosed with a chronic illness has unique characteristics.  In an article for social workers helping clients with chronic illness, Kate Jackson (2014) explains the difference:

Most often, grief is a reaction to a single, time-limited event… Grief associated with chronic illness, however, is more complex for many individuals.  For people who are chronically ill, the losses are multiple and permanent and therefore difficult to resolve. Because these losses are unending, they’re known as infinite losses.

The scope of losses due to chronic illness are broad and complex, and they can change during the course of an illness.  The loss of health and ability can, in turn, cause losses in a person’s career, social life, sexual function, body image, relationships, parenting ability  and daily functioning, among other areas.  Most fundamentally, these secondary losses caused by chronic illness can fracture self-identity and diminish self-esteem.  The fact that many people with chronic illness feel that their experiences are invalidated by stigma and disbelief can further their sense of isolation.

The concept of infinite losses helped me to understand why a second diagnosis brought up so many difficult emotions. I have had to acknowledge that the grieving process over one, or multiple, illnesses is not a ‘one and done’ kind of thing. Grief comes in waves. If your illness changes, or you develop a new illness, your emotional response will also change because, correspondingly, the losses you experience are new and different. Prior to the pelvic pain that led to my laparoscopy, my fibromyalgia symptoms had stabilized and I had reached a state of acceptance about my illness. I wanted to believe this was a permanent state. I resisted the idea that a new condition would cause me to grieve again (because who wants to go through that once more?). However, I have come to recognize that the losses caused by endometriosis in my life are significantly different than those caused by fibromyalgia.  For me, endometriosis is entangled with my desire to start a family and be a mother, my body image and my sense of femininity. In contrast, fibromyalgia has primarily affected my career aspirations and the part of my identity that was defined by my professional accomplishments.

Once I acknowledged that I was grieving over my second diagnosis, I felt a greater sense of peace.  Resisting these feelings consumed a lot of my energy and effort. Jackson (2014) explains that “people with unresolved grief may experience more profound and difficult-to-treat depression and anxiety”.  Furthermore, the symptoms of a chronic illness can be worsened by unacknowledged grief, including pain, fatigue and cognition.  As people living with chronic illness, I think it’s important that we be on the lookout for experiencing grief when we develop a new illness, or a change in a current illness.  Understanding that grief and acceptance are fluid states can help us be more open to acknowledging grief.  It’s important to seek out support and help once you recognize these feelings. Here are a few tools and resources for coping with grief about your chronic illness, based on what has helped me:

  • Mindfulness meditation: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of mindfulness in medicine. The Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn to teach mindfulness to patients had demonstrated remarkable benefits for reducing chronic pain as well as anxiety and depression in fibromyalgia.[6] You can find an MBSR program in your community, or there is a free version online http://palousemindfulness.com/. Alternatively, you can learn meditation using a free app on your phone. Two of my favourites include the Insight Timer and The Meaning of Life Experiment. You can practice mindfulness through meditation, body scans, mindful eating, or mindful movement like yoga or Tai Chi.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Studies have found that participating in CBT can help reduce pain, depressive thoughts, and improve quality of life for people with chronic pain.[7] One of the core parts of the program is learning to identify negative thinking traps, or ‘cognitive distortions’.  These are thoughts that “sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves” (Grohol, 2016).[8] These programs also focus on helpful behaviour changes like learning deep relaxation as well as pacing activities. CBT programs are run in most communities and your doctor should be able to refer you to one.
  • Find a support group, whether in person or online. It can be incredibly powerful to know that you are not alone in facing the challenges caused by your chronic illness. There are private facebook groups for every condition, where you can find support and people with shared experiences. The #spoonie hashtag can help you find other people with chronic illness on twitter. If you are able to, an in-person support group can be an important source of connection if you are struggling. No matter how much support your family and friends can provide, it can help to talk with people who have the same condition(s) you do.
  • Talk with a professional therapist: Unresolved grief is a difficult issue to work through. Many people benefit from talking with an experienced therapist, one-on-one. My advice is to find a counsellor with experience in working with clients who have chronic illness- your specialist may be able to refer you. It’s critical that you ascertain that the therapist validates the existence of your chronic illness and does not tell clients that the illness ‘is all in their head’. Think of the first appointment as an interview, where you see if you are compatible and ask about their professional experience. You may wish to learn more about the therapeutic approaches used by different therapists prior to choosing one. For example, I found that the empathetic, strengths-based counselling provided by a social worker fit much better with my personality than the objective, analytical technique used by a psychiatrist.

Acceptance Grief and Chronic Illness

[1]http://www.overlappingconditions.org/About_COPCs

[2] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025619615002438

[3] https://www.verywell.com/fibromyalgia-comorbid-overlapping-conditions-716184

[4] Absenger, W. (2015). Mindfulness and the Stages of Grief in Chronic Disease. ACEF. Retrieved 15 April 2017 from http://amacf.org/mindfulness-stages-of-grief-in-chronic-disease/

[5] National Cancer Institute. (2014, October 8). PDQ® grief, bereavement, and coping with loss. National Cancer Institute. Retrieved 15 April 2017 from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/bereavement/patient

[6] Paul Grossman, Ulrike Gilmer, Annette Raysz and Ulrike Kesper. 2007. Mindfulness Training as an Intervention for Fibromyalgia: Evidence of Postintervention and 3-Year Follow-up Benefits in Well-being. Psychology and Psychosomatics 76: 226-233

[7] Holmes, A., Christelis, N., and Arnold, C. (2012). Depression and chronic pain. MJA Open Suppl (4):17-20.

[8] Grohol, J. (2016). 15 Common Cognitive Distortions. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 15, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/