Coping – At Work

I’m really curious about what others may have learned about coping with chronic invisible illnesses or depression in the workplace. Are you able to work? What are your experiences like? What have you learned?

In the past, I feel like I have successfully hidden my illnesses (endometriosis, fibromyalgia, PTSD, migraines, and depression). This worked for me because I like to keep that part of my personal life private and separate from my professional life. I have also been concerned that my illnesses would interfere with my career if everyone knew. I have been working in an active, male-dominated field in fairly conservative areas where my workplaces have not seemed very compassionate towards a situation like mine. I work full time and have a stressful, demanding job. It’s been really hard, but I have found ways to handle hard days, pain, etc. I take time off and have made adjustments.

Some things that have helped me manage my illnesses at work:

  • A later start. One really great blessing I’ve had over the past few years is the ability to go into work later in the morning than most of people in my office. Nearly everyone is there by 8:00 a.m. For me, with my fibromyalgia, the mornings are extra tough. I am so sore and stiff every single morning. I feel like a ninety-year-old woman when I creak my way out of bed. I now have a slow and gentle routine to wake up at 6:30-6:45 a.m. and get into the office by 9:00. It means I stay later, but that’s fine. I feel much better and by the time I leave, everyone else is gone and it’s nice and quiet, easy to focus. With my supervisor and workplace being flexible about my start time, it has greatly helped me.
  • Work at home. Another wonderful, helpful adaptation I’ve been able to make is working from home. If the workload and schedule allow, I have been approved to work from home one day each week. It has really helped me with my fatigue, stress, and probably even my pain. The thing I like most about it is how peaceful it is. My office is stressful to me and not a very positive environment. My home is peaceful and comfortable for me. It’s quiet and I’m able to focus. Another aspect I really appreciate is that I’m able to do my laundry that day and double-task. It really helps me balance everything that needs to get done.
  • Setting aside my “Self Care Week.” I have a bad week every month now. My migraines are triggered hormonally with my monthly cycle, and are terrible and tend to interfere with my life for at least 2 days. On top of that, I have been pain and bloating from the endometriosis. My fibro seems to be worse at that time. And, I have an extra hard time with my depression during PMS. It’s just a bad, bad week. I’ve started to mark it on my calendar and try not to schedule anything big during that time. I’ve recently decided to make it my “Self Care Week” instead of “Bad Week” and am making an extra effort to handle myself with TLC. I have some ability to manage my schedule and just recognize that week will not be the best for major meetings and demanding projects. I don’t tell anyone that’s what I’m doing. I just do it and the work still gets done.
  • Taking sick days when I need them. I am so thankful to have paid sick leave. Of course, this week I just ran out so I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. In the past, I have been able to take sick days if I felt crappy. I don’t try to push myself too hard because I know that backfires and I just feel worse! If I am having a terrible day with a migraine or intense fatigue, I will take some sick time. Sometimes it’s just a short amount of time and sometimes it’s a day or two. I have not previously needed to take days for depression, but since my depression turned severe six months ago, I have needed to. For example, I took some sick time off to have my ultrasound. When I felt so sad afterwards, I took a couple more hours of sick time so I didn’t have to go back and cry at my desk.
  • I drive. My PTSD affects me most as a passenger when someone else is driving. I try to drive as much as possible. This can be a huge stressor for me, very anxiety-producing. Having a panic attack as a passenger in a car with a coworker or superior would be really humiliating for me and it causes me a lot of anxiety about my anxiety… So I set it up to drive whenever possible.

Now, I feel like I’m at the edge of what I can cope with. Honestly, I feel like I’m over the edge of what I can cope with. Since getting the news Tuesday of my endo recurrence and ovarian cysts, I have not been able to think straight and I am extremely sad, on the edge of tears most of the time. I’d like to take more time off, but I’ve just used all my sick leave and feel like I should save some vacation at least in case I need time off for surgery, appointments, or other treatments. I’ve told my boss in a general way that I have some serious medical conditions that I need to deal with and that I recently got some very bad news. I have some coworkers who are truly really good friends, and I’ve told them everything. Other coworkers don’t need to know. Those that do need to know, because we’re working together on something, were also told generally that I’m dealing with medical issues for a while. It’s been really tough to keep working through this, especially this week. It looks like I’ll be signing up for FMLA and having more conversations, potentially, with my boss about the situation once I know more about it.

Anyway, curious about the experiences of other people and thought I’d share some ideas that have really helped me. I am thankful to have the flexibility and autonomy to take advantage of these options. I am thankful to still be able to work and be relatively active. I’m thankful to have insurance. I still don’t quite know how I’m going to navigate this grief and fatigue, pain, etc. and keep up with my work, but we’ll just take it one step at a time I guess.

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Text copyright Snowdroplets 2016.

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10 responses to “Coping – At Work

  1. Thanks for sharing this post. It is great that you are able to work from home one day a week but I can relate to how difficult it is to work with chronic illnesses/pain. I LOVE that you refer to that flare week as a self-care week, that is such a great way to look at it, even if it only makes the tiniest bit of difference. I am sorry you are dealing with more news and difficulties with endo and I think it sounds like a good idea to use FMLA. I hope you start feeling a bit better soon and I’m here on the other end of the blogosphere for ya!

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  2. Since I’ve been at my current job I’ve dealt with three second trimester pregnancy losses. After the first I took a week off, and the second I took two weeks off. After the third I took no time off.
    For me, going to work has been an “escape” – it’s actually been a distraction from my losses and the trouble we’re having starting a family. It is hard when I see pregnant coworkers (and there has always been at least 2 or 3 since my first loss) or when I hear people talking about their pregnancies or children. I want to scream. I usually just escape to the bathroom for a few minutes to compose myself, or take a “long lunch.” Unfortunately, we don’t have the flexibility to work from home often (more of a company culture issue because I have everything I need to work remotely), so that hasn’t been a real option for me although I wish it was. I do have moments when I’m distracted and sad and anxious, and I just sort of put my head down and do my best and allow myself some grace. If I have a bad moment, and I need to take a walk I just do it. I guess I don’t have any real good tips, besides just being kind to yourself.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I think reminding people to be kind to themselves is incredibly valuable. We forget.

    I use many of the strategies you do, I’m very lucky to have a supportive workplace. I’ve been open with my team and talked with them about PTSD and anxiety. They know that some days I can’t work in our collaborative work space and I go to the back room. It’s quiet, it has windows and light and I can focus. Because I’ve been open with what I struggle with, I can say, “I’m in the back room today, come see me if you need me.”
    I also work from home once a week, this has been invaluable to me. I try to work at home Wednesdays to give myself a break.
    I’ve been on a gradual return to work, I’m up to 6.5 hours now, with a one hour lunch break. Using that lunch break wisely has also been a key as I try to get back to full time. I go to the gym, go for a walk, go for lunch with a friend. In the past I’ve eaten at my desk and worked through lunch but my OT has strictly told me not to do this! It’s part of self care and it enables me to focus better.
    On the days I’m struggling I talk lots of breaks to walk. I also keep a yoga mat under my desk and find a space to do yoga. I’m not great at meditating at work, but it’s another strategy.
    Listening to music is helpful to me too. Usually cbc radio – Nesrallah’s tempo.
    I too would rather drive than be a passenger but I’m still struggling with my PTSD when I drive.
    I’m travelling to a conference this week. The first since the incident. I travelled without my family in November but it was to a spa weekend with girl friends so this is a little different!
    The travel will take it’s toll on me, but I have my ativan and my ear plugs, I’ve brought running and swimming gear. I’m prepared to not go to every single session and take a break when I need to. I’ll monitor myself at receptions and excuse myself early. I know if I don’t, I’ll end up in the fetal position on the bathroom floor having a panic attack. That is definitely not something I want!
    Have a good week.
    Trudi

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    • Thanks Trudi! Your reply is so kind and helpful. I am in a terrible habit of eating lunch at my desk and not taking a break! I think it would be good for me to take lunch breaks. I did go for a walk today outside when I felt overwhelmed and sad. It helped. I hope your trip goes well! Ptsd is so tough. Hope you will be gentle with yourself.

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  4. I do many of the things you mention, arriving late, working from home, taking a sick day when I can’t handle it. I also listen to music sometimes and try to go out for a walk after lunch or when I feel I need it. But many days I still struggle. I think it depends a lot on the job I’m doing at that moment, if it’s motivating or not. Right now is a lot of conflicts and I’m having a hard time coping. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. I really agree with you on working from home. I work from home a couple of days a week, and it makes all the difference in what I am able to handle. I used to love being in the office, but it is just so draining now, I end up getting a lot more work done at home – not to mention skipping the commute, doing chores on my break, and getting some ‘fur therapy’ from my pets at the same time.

    It’s also been really important for me to make sure I leave my desk at regular intervals, and to leave the office entirely for my breaks. I need to make sure I am pulling myself away from the situation and giving myself time to ‘feel’ and assess where I am at, instead of just pushing through all day until I break.

    Another thing for me is scheduling (right in my calendar, so they’re a priority!) 5 minute breathing space exercises. Headphones in, world tuned out, for just 5 minutes at least once a day. It kind of works like a reset button for me, emotionally, so I can calm down and start over.

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