A little while ago, I was swinging on our porch swing while Monty did acrobatics with a stick and ran laps in the yard. I had been down for some time, but I couldn’t place exactly the source of the sadness. All I knew was that I could feel something missing and the result was not a loneliness but a “looked over” kind of feeling. It’s not uncommon for me to feel lost and uncertain about the direction and usefulness of my life, especially when I’m in a crash period. This feeling felt like it had roots in that. As I let my thoughts wander and my mind clear, these words entered my head and seemed to quiet the residual buzz: “I just want to make myself proud again.” It didn’t repeat itself like an incessant thought, rather the words just stood still in bold print, front and center in my mind. And then all at once I knew what that void I’d been feeling was. It wasn’t just a lack of pride, but the lack of pride and purpose that usually comes from working. Uselessness is a terrible feeling, and I know it arises sometimes from the fact that I don’t have a real job anymore. I haven’t in some time. And yet through this whole ordeal, that loss continues to cuts deep. It has me constantly wondering what I’m doing here and where I’m going and how I’m ever going to get there. As a working girl my path felt so clear-cut. I catch myself daydreaming of my desk and my business cards and the “importance” they implied. But once the crutch of a job was gone, everything inside me felt upside down. Who am I if I don’t “do” anything?
Sitting in my bosses office and having to admit with a quivering voice that I “just physically couldn’t do it anymore” was one of the hardest moments of my life. My whole goal up until then besides getting better, was to find a way to hold onto that job. I knew if I was forced to leave it, it meant everything was irreversibly real. It meant despite what I planned or wanted, the illness was making decisions that I couldn’t change. It meant the scales had tipped and I was no longer in control. (Maybe I never actually was, but the illusion felt good) But now here I had come face to face with the truth that clinging onto the job was only causing me more suffering, besides largely effecting the quality of my work. Were I smarter I would have given in earlier and dedicated myself more seriously to getting well. But I was in a sort of denial up till then. I kept expecting to get better. I didn’t want to believe that this was truly going to be the new state my body. No one really wants to accept something like that, I think out of an inborn fear that doing so means you’re giving into something crappy and letting it take over–That you’re giving up on the possibility of getting well. But it was more just coming to terms with a reality and giving my health the attention it needed. Everyone around me seemed to know the time had come and were just waiting on me to call it, so I finally did.
I can remember solidly a few things from that conversation. I can still see his big sappy eyes as Andrew listened to me speak, and the honest calmness in his voice when he said “It’s been hard to watch. I just can’t understand why this would happen to you.” I tried very hard not to cry but the tears fell anyway, much like they are now just remembering the whole interaction. We hugged goodbye and I tried to compose myself. I remember, I think in an attempt to lighten the sadness of that goodbye, him saying to please stay in touch and to come back and visit often. I said I would, knowing I probably wouldn’t. Knowing that life at the gallery would go on without me, while my own life was drifting into scary, uncharted waters. I punched out for the last time and felt totally numb. The French Quarter had just turned dark, freezing and damp, but I didn’t feel the cold at all. I paid the nice parking attendant with whom I normally joked around without even looking him in the eye. He made some comment about cheering up or smiling but I couldn’t bring myself to respond. I moved on autopilot like a robot. Once in the car all the terrible questions made their rounds. What would become of my life now? Who would I be now, sick and unemployed? What if I never get better? I tried to drown them out but the noise of the radio bothered me. That 40 minute drive home over the bridge felt like a dream. Once home, Monty ran up to me and my mom was sitting in her chair in the living room. Our eyes met and I lost it. “Well, I guess I don’t have a job anymore.” And that, as they say, was that.
Even though I fought it, leaving work was the right thing to do and in my condition, was just a matter of when and not if. In the beginning it was a relief– not to have to fake well, to call in sick, to let down coworkers, and to constantly apologize. But not so long after, I began to feel this noticeable hole, like the gap your tongue slides through after you’ve lost a tooth. I had all this new time to kill but couldn’t spend it how I’d like. The adjustment was extremely difficult. Besides giving me purpose and pride, my job had contributed to my identity and livelihood. There was a little space carved out in the world called Mary, and I was useful there; I fit. I did what was expected of me and was paid every two weeks. But now I no longer occupied that space and I couldn’t make sense of what place I held in the world. Without the distraction of work, I also had to learn to just “be” and accept these new circumstances, which was also hard. When you’re sick like that you can’t just leave and go for a drive, or go get drinks with friends to feel better about it. It makes you confront your life head on since there aren’t the typical escapes. I had to begin accepting my experience and not thinking of my days sick in bed as total wastes. I’m still learning to do this, but it is possible. It began with adjusting the expectations I held for myself, and redefining what my definitions of “work” and “purpose” really meant. For so long work was something you did 40 hours a week and got paid for. And our culture nearly defines who we are by what we do. I no longer had a satisfying answer to that question. “Uh, Unpaid blogger I guess?” It took adapting to where I was at that point and not in the past. I was always going to feel shitty comparing my life sick to someone’s who was well. I had to get real about my truth. Still, those adjustments were hard and I am still learning them.
Life with illness means a lot of time on your hands and a lot of solitude. You have to learn how to be still, which I’ve learned very few people know how to do. You’re away from the typical distractions and noise and chaos often, so there is a lot of “being” and not “doing.” It also means getting to know yourself really well. Luckily, I like myself. We seem to get along. But all of this new vast time without a lot of outside expectation took a long time to really understand and warm up to at all. I had to remind myself that being sick is a part of me but not who I am. That took time too. As time went on I would grow more worried that I hadn’t re-entered the workforce. Or I’d feel these waves of inadequacy like I did recently. But sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the purpose of my soul that’s getting carried out because I have a body that doesn’t allow me to be busy and caught up in the regular tasks of life.
This experience has taught me big things and continues to now. It continues to teach me to let go of things, to be still and not be restless, to be OK being alone, and to accept myself as worthy even if I’m not doing anything impressive or achieving BIG things. Most of these were learned because my body wouldn’t let me achieve all I wanted to, and the lesson in humility has actually made me happier in some ways. All of it has made me come to terms with things that I truly find important, things outside of a job where the ultimate goal was money. If I look at this time away from work another way, it feels more like a gift. It’s allowed me to find and develop my voice for writing, which was my passion all along. It’s let me explore many other parts of myself that were not a part of my life when working. Even small things like learning to play my dads guitar and spending more time with my family that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s forced me to find the same joy and fulfillment from the small things that I used to require in the bigger or louder stuff. Today it was just being outside in the sun with monty and appreciating the moment.
I think it’s easy to look back on my life with a “real job” through rose-colored glasses. I was “bringing home the bacon”and dressing in nice clothes and looked and sounded like someone who had it together. But I can still remember sitting at my desk sometimes and thinking is this it? This is what I do the next 60 years and then I retire? I’d be naive to say things were perfect and always made sense then, too. They didn’t. But it looked better on paper and gave me stuff to talk about when people asked what I was up to. Those conversations are funny now ;) I was still wondering about my purpose and the meaning of things then too. I was still asking those same questions. The only difference is, I don’t have the disguise anymore. I am clearly not headed in any predictable direction and I truly don’t know what the plan for my life is. But, at least I’ve got some time to figure it out. All kinds of time.
Still I wonder, were I to be better tomorrow, totally healed and ready to emerge back into the quick-paced world, is that what I would do? Go back to work at some job, have office birthday parties again and two-week vacations, and then all my problems would end? I doubt it. What I mean is, I don’t think that’s what this experience is about. There is something more to it than a temporary roadblock for my life. I know it has more to give me than suffering, and my work is to try and bring light to what has felt very dark. I think by learning to navigate any experience the right way, it’s never a total loss. Sometimes it’s the very thing that propels us or makes us better. There is always more meaning and a path to discover if we stay devoted to following the thing that makes us feel alive– this usually leads to finding our purpose, our spot where we fit. I guess it’s the days when I know that who I am is bigger than the things that have happened, that I still have things to offer the world, and I accept the course of my day even in its smallness, that I make myself proud again. It’s often not in what I do anymore, but in how I receive each day and whether I live it out as a gift or not.
Even if all I do is try, that is truly enough.
Health, Happiness, #SickPride