If there were a blues song about living with chronic bad health, I bet most people wouldn’t sing about ‘love gone bad’. No doubt, holding onto relationships is hard with chronically bad health. I’ve worked with people who blame illness for failed relationships and there’s much to be sad about.
But from what I’ve seen, we cry most frequently about whether to participate or not. “To be or not to be?” wondered Hamlet. He knew that choosing between two bad choices wears a person down.
The questions here are: Should I do this or not? Do I feel bad enough not to go to this meeting, this appointment (whatever noun fits)? Will I make myself worse if I do go? Will I hurt myself–in my work, in my relationships – - if I don’t? It’s probably the most frequently discussed issue my clients bring up in our meetings.
The problem is that if you think this symptom, that’s suddenly popped up and/or gotten worse, could negatively impact your ability to deliver, how can you be sure? You wonder if it might improve sooner rather than later? Or maybe, you’re thinking, ” I don’t feel that badly now, but what if gets a lot worse?”
Questions like these make it tough to feel comfortable making a decision as whether to show up or not. Phrases such ase, “Maybe I should push myself harder.” “Am I wimping out?” “If I really cared about this, I’d do it.” pop onto your head. And that’s just you talking. Never mind what others might say about your decision.
Early in my work, I created a template for clients to identify symptoms and the degree to which they impact performance to help them make decisions like this more easily. But I learned soon enough that the check marks aren’t the whole story.
Recently, a urinary tract infection made my usual pain and fatigue worse. On a day when I was to meet with a small professional group who wanted to know more about my services, I woke with a cold. The presentation required energy and I was the spotlight. Not a good position when you feel lousy. The good news is that I was to speak at the group’s weekly meeting and they weren’t assembling just to hear me.
The decision should have been easy. It wasn’t. After an extensive internal debate, I decided not to risk doing a poor job and making my health worse. But how to explain with so little notice that I’m unable to present because of a cold? What could I say without giving more information than necessary?
That’s when I realized this was a teaching moment for the client. In fact, this was the topic of my talk, “Working while living with unpredictable health“.
I called and explained that I’d already had an infection that had weakened me but had been manageable. When I woke that morning with a cold, it put me in much worse shape. Because I didn’t think I’d do an effective job, I thought it best to reschedule. She was fine with this. (But I’ll feel better when she reschedules!)
Although I’ve had many such disappointments and some that were much more painful, it was disappointing to have to say, yet again, “No, I can’t”. I journaled, I focused and I let myself be with the feelings that inevitably come up when I have to make such a decision. In fact, the cold never got worse and I felt better as the day went on.
It’s rare that the picture is clear regarding how bad or good I feel, what I can or can’t do, and when to push myself to show up rather than stay back. My life as a person living with chronic illness doesn’t fit into neat boxes. Does anyone’s?
The one thing I do know is that it’s an ongoing journey, taking work, hope and as much resilience as I can muster.