Picture this: You are young, you are ambitious, and you have big plans for career. Suddenly, chronic illness manifests itself, and everything changes. Now, you’re not simply a novice employee trying to make your mark, but you’re trying to figure out what’s going on with your body, how to hide your symptoms so you don’t look unreliable, and you aren’t sure how you can make all this work.
Sound familiar? The please read Leah Roman’s story below, in her own words, and share your experiences. It’s an insightful and thoughtful look at one woman’s journey in the professional world, and I think many of you can relate to the building tension and frustration in her story.
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In January 2006 I was 25 years old and very busy! That month I graduated with my Master of Public Health degree, started my first “professional” level job in the field, and landed in the emergency room with what I would later realize was the initial flare up of my chronic illness. I had swelling in my face and neck. I had hives. I had started having strange reactions to foods. I had a low-grade fever. In short- I felt terrible. Convinced it was simply an allergic reaction; the doctors pumped me full of Prednisone and Benadryl and sent me on my way.
I remember feeling paralyzed with anxiety during that time. How would I tell my new boss of two weeks that I needed to take a sick day? How would I ask her for the hours of sick time necessary to accommodate the follow-up appointments and tests to address my symptoms that simply would not go away? What if I eventually got too sick to work? I was single and needed to work full-time to keep my health insurance.
Since 2006 I have been operating with a “working diagnosis” of Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease (UCTD) to account for my joint pain, fatigue, sun sensitivity, and rashes. The chronic fevers, flushing, and food sensitivities remained a bit of an outlier until two years ago. I was referred to a talented autoimmune dermatologist who finally attributed that group of symptoms to a mast cell activation problem. The way she explained it was that my mast cells (the cells in your immune system that make histamine) “behave badly” and react to things they shouldn’t (e.g., food, heat, and sun). While there remains some debate about which symptoms are attributed to which condition (and whether I meet all the criteria for each), I have responded well to the updated cocktail of rheumatologic and antihistamine medications.
The first few years of work with this chronic illness were the hardest. Being young and naïve in the workplace, I did not always know my rights in terms of privacy. I did not always know how much to share and how much to keep private (especially when asked a direct question about my health by a supervisor). When I first got sick, I only ate food that I brought from home (due to my new food reactions). Several co-workers, to my face and behind my back, speculated that I must have an eating disorder- what else could explain my weight loss and refusal of catered or communal food?
In Laurie’s new book In the Kingdom of the Sick, I felt especially connected to the section about the workplace. Chronic illness symptoms do not always meet the criteria for a disability. Therefore, you may not be eligible for a formal accommodation. As she also points out, one of the major challenges is that your symptoms are often inconsistent- you may need an accommodation one day and not the next! And what about asking for accommodations for diagnoses that are unknown or tentative? Many of us wait years and years to get the correct diagnosis.
I found that I needed accommodation around issues that did not seem “normal” to my co-workers. For example, early in my career I declined an invitation to a staff sporting event being held on a near-by athletic field. Since it was being held outdoors in July (without shade), I had to decline. I declined because my extreme sun sensitivity can trigger fevers, rashes, and full-on flare-ups. Although I tried to explain the severity of my situation, I was told by my supervisor “You better start going to these events or people will think you are not a team player.” I received similar “warnings” over the years when I declined work dinners or parties where I was unable to eat the food and/or too fatigued to stand all night at an event after working all day.
I think it can be difficult for those without chronic illness to understand the intricate level of planning it can take to navigate a “normal” day at the office. For example, I have lived with low-grade fevers for seven years. When I shop for work clothes, my focus is primarily on finding layering options that can allow me to get down to short sleeves at a moment’s notice if my temperature begins to rise. I often “pre-treat” myself with Tylenol prior to an important meeting to ward off a fever and its resulting flushing. The experience of severe chronic flushing at work silenced me during meetings for many years.
I also spend a lot of time protecting myself from the various “hazards” in my physical environment. Having spent much of my working life in Boston and Philadelphia, I have worried about the health of several old buildings which have housed my offices. Some spaces have had a history of mold or water damage. How does that environment affect my poor easily activated mast cells? I have had reactions set off by colleagues sitting in close proximity while wearing strongly scented perfumes or lotions. And then there is the art of dodging co-workers who insist on coming to work sick and putting colleagues who take immune suppressant medications at an unfair risk for illness.
And finally, while it is exciting to be invited to present and attend conferences…work travel can be treacherous with a chronic illness! From the physical strength needed to maneuver your suitcase, to trying to stay on the eating-exercise-medication schedule that keeps you in balance…it can be exhausting. I once traveled to Missouri to co-facilitate a training. At the last minute, I discovered that I could not eat the meal options being provided by my host organization. As a result, I was up at 5am to visit the grocery store to purchase all the “Leah-friendly” food I would need to survive for the next two days.
To be fair, for each challenge and difficult situation that I faced in the workplace, there was a sensitive friend/co-worker/mentor/colleague that I met in my offices and travels as well. These people grabbed my suitcase and hoisted it into the overhead without asking; they sat apart from the group just to have lunch with me in the shade; they strategically steered colleagues to choose a restaurant where they knew I had safe food options; they did not ask why my schedule was a bit more flexible that everyone else’s. I am incredibly grateful for the kindness and friendship of every single one of these people.
I have spent the last seven years balancing these challenges and victories in an ongoing debate about my ideal work situation. Finally, I approached a turning point in August 2012.
Want to see how all of this resolved? To be continued….