We all hold a vision of what we hope our future could be but none of us know what tomorrow will bring. We are raised and encouraged to select a career that taps into our natural skills and talents which can lead to a rewarding and enjoyable life. We attempt to focus on education as the best means to work towards the final goal of meeting the requirements necessary to be qualified to act on the profession chosen. And when we are lucky to discover and take on that dream, we work towards, there is nothing more heartbreaking to face reality when a chronic medical condition begins to erode our capacity to keep up with the responsibilities of the path we have chosen.
Somehow, as if a medical issue doesn’t rock our foundation enough, one then must face the possibility that one may not be able to continue in their chosen career. Some may prove fortunate and be able to create conditions that allow for a reduced workload or other accommodations making continued work possible. And then others experience situations as I did as a former teacher. When I finally got diagnosed with EDS and had to face a future of over twenty-five surgeries and recuperation, I tried asking if I could job share to keep my foot in the door part-time in the job I adored. But that request was not supported so I had to resign and redefine what I could do, to hopefully still make money, feel like I had a purpose in life and be happy with the changes.
It might sound easy, but the process is overwhelming. You are talking about a person living with pain that must work daily to get through the day and take extra good care of themselves to cope with their condition. You are talking about one facing just one more huge possible loss not being able to keep up with what they trained to become. You are talking about a person that wants to make a commitment to productive employment but may not be able to keep up their end of the bargain. So, this is not an easy life-altering change to process and resolve. You are forced into possible early retirement and the added stress of leaving one’s chosen profession prematurely.
I had to tell myself: “This is the only life I get to live, and I want to keep living it”. Adjustments had to be made. I applied for Social Security disability and won that battle after my appeal. However, the amount of money I received monthly was a drop in the bucket compared to my salary due the town I taught in not paying into SS so, I received about $89 a month. We had to cut back on vacations, dreams of traveling, and get creative with food by eating year-round from the food we grew in our organic garden along with finding ways with cooking to save money, heat the house only with wood, rarely buy few new clothes and items for the home. And, I searched for a new focus in my life which might accommodate my new circumstances.
You fight the emotions these changes and losses bring on. I loved teaching and always felt like it was my match, but I had to accept that there was more to who I was. Redefining yourself is not an easy task but something you have to accept and take on to attempt to maintain your sense of wellbeing and overall health. What is most important to you? A safer life or pushing yourself over the edge, if not careful? Some do choose to keep pushing and not find alternatives that might be more conducive to living their life with their medical conditions. And others turn toward the reality that there is more in life than that we can also focus on can still bring in joy and purpose, without destroying or physically hurting us.
Being an older person about to turn 70, I decided to slow it down and turn instead to volunteering in life. I still occasionally travel to speak, attend conferences. We have been fortunate to receive scholarships that make it possible to attend numerous conferences. I have written two books and write for National Pain Report. These are examples of the changes I have made. Our four sons look at our life at times and wonder why we engage in so much activity, but the bottom line is it makes me feel like I matter. Life had times that health gets in the way, but these activities put a smile on my face. So, in time, I have learned to fill life up in a new way. I am not the teacher I loved to be but, in some ways, have taken those skills and applied them in new ways. I find I love passing information forward and sharing in hopes to just help one person also learn to accept and improve the difficult life they now must face which inevitably includes many losses.
Making changes is tough:
- You must mourn your career loss
- You must accept things will never be as they were
- You must learn to live with your medical condition, address the pain as best as you can and learn how to go back to living
- You must learn to explore options that might fulfill you
- You must learn to ask and accept help
- You must learn to be grateful for what good you do have in your life whether it is a spouse, good friend, a pet, etc. Despite the losses, waking up to a new day is a gift for me each morning
- You must struggle with how to make it financially without compromising your health.
- You must take better care of yourself - eat well move your body and try hard to focus on good instead of being stuck on why and poor me.
- You must remember; you are not the only one facing this. Open your eyes and look around you and recognize how many others also must redefine themselves.
May being alive be your goal so you can work for the best quality you are able to achieve. Ask yourself, do you want to be remembered as a fighter or one that gave up? These are our choices. To be that fighter, it takes a lot of work for sure but hopefully, the result is worth the work to you. Losing your career is heartbreaking but somehow in time, you can fill your life with things you never expected! I honestly am so grateful each day to no longer be under the pressure of not being able to be the person I was in my career before and instead be able to apply myself with safe, yet productive activities. May you, too, find a peaceful solution.
May life be kind to you,
Ellen Lenox Smith
Author of: It Hurts Like Hell!: I Live With Pain- And Have a Good Life, Anyway, and My Life as a Service Dog!
The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report.