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.
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)