Community, Coping

Working With Chronic Illness

Written by two working women with chronic illness, Keep Working, Girlfriend is a blog to help other women (and men) continue working and enjoying the benefits of work. The driving force behind the blog is that “it’s critical to your health — mental, physical, emotional and financial — to keep working.”

At first I didn’t agree. My last job was horrendous, partly because of the work environment and partly because my chronic daily headache was so bad. Far from improving my emotional and physical health, I despaired my lack of productivity and was constantly exhausted. My headaches and migraines were far worse than they had ever been.

Now that I’ve been blogging for nearly two years, Keep Working, Girlfriend resonates with me. It’s hard to believe I didn’t lose my mind during the 18 months I didn’t work. (Or perhaps I did — that period corresponds with one of my worst depressions.)

I have days that I’m not up to any sort of work and I still can’t write as much as I’d like to. Nonetheless, when I can work and have a specific, productive task with a deadline, I’m so much happier and more productive in other areas of my life.

However, working with chronic illness is not always the most healthful approach. If the job is too emotionally or physically draining, it can cause more harm than good. Work itself is not the key: the work has to be enjoyable.

“Work” doesn’t have to be defined as earning a wage. If you’re not able to work a paying job, get creative about what work you can do. Maybe it’s gardening, knitting or writing in a journal. Even taking a shower can be a big accomplishment. Anything that’s satisfying to you and has a clear result.

And lack of stamina isn’t a good excuse! As I’ve learned, committing to just 10 minutes of a rewarding activity is better than not doing it at all. So you only weed two square feet of your garden; it’s more than you would have done otherwise.

I write this on a morning where I struggled to get out of bed, so I hope I don’t sound preachy. I just know it works for me. I’m also aware that if my only aspiration is to lie around and read all day, I need to actively decide whether I’m showing signs of depression or truly feel too horrendous to move.

Are you able to work? Is it rewarding for you? If you don’t work, how do you motivate yourself to work?

3 thoughts on “Working With Chronic Illness”

  1. I work… I teach at the university level. I gave up a research career because the stress and long hours made my migraines worse, and the migraines made my ability to excel at that kind of career near impossible.

    However, I love my current job, I’m pretty much my own boss, so my hours are very flexible except for the hours I’m in front of the classroom which is less than 3 hours a day…. which makes it easier to do work when I feel better, and not have to do work when I don’t feel well.. and no one at work notices because I don’t ever have a regular schedule 🙂

    I like that, it allows me a sense of at least appearing normal and not having to take sick time and not have to explain that yes I’m having yet another migraine this week thanks, and yes I know that’s really frequent and yes I’ve seen a neurologist …. and…and ..and… :-/

    I find the energy of my students and helping them learn to be really satisfying, and I always feel better after working with them.:-)

    That’s terrific! It sounds like you’ve got the perfect setup.


  2. My entire career (9 years) I have been plagued by chronic daily headaches. It has been suggested to me more than once that maybe I should find another line of work, but I can’t imagine doing anything else. I am a teacher, a teacher for young children with special needs. So many days I drag myself into work wishing I could stay home only to find my spirits lifted by my young students. They are the ones that keep me motivated to continue working.

    Although it sounds like a hard (and loud) job, it is such a blessing that your students provide you so much strength. Having something you love, no matter how hard it may be, makes living with CDH a little bit easier.

    Take care,

  3. I admit, as a stay at home mom, I initially flinched. But I’m just in a crabby mood 😉 I definitely agree with what you said. Doing anything rewarding can only lift your spirits and remind you that you are more than your illness.

    Honestly, I have admiration for those who work outside the home with chronic illnesses. I really don’t know how I’d managed to not get fired in the first week of a job.

    That said, I do try to surround myself with things and hobbies to get my mind off my illness and make me feel proud of my work. I know when my craft room is done, it will be so much easier for me to craft when I’m able, for however long I can. The “baby steps” approach often frustrates me (like only doing a part of something instead of the whole thing) but it’s wise advice.

    And I have a lot of admiration for stay-at-home moms with chronic illness. That seems infinitely harder than working (for me at least).

    Baby steps frustrate me too. Even though I can dish out the advice, I’m not always good at following it!


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