Chronic Pain – Can You Hold on to Your Career?

Chronic Pain - Can You Hold on to Your Career?

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.

Subscribe to our blog via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Authored by: Ellen Lenox Smith

Ellen Lenox Smith and her husband Stuart live in Rhode Island. They are co-directors for medical cannabis advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation, along with Ellen on the board and they both also serve as board members for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition. For more information about medical cannabis visit their website.

Leave a Reply

19 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
17 Comment authors
newest oldest
Notify of

I too had to change careers, from something I loved to something that just pays the bills. Despite that, I feel like I’m still supposed to feel “grateful”, simply because I’m still able to work full time, while so many CPP cannot.

Paulette Diana Wright

Discriminated against Nurse!

Paulette Diana Wright

I was discriminated against by AZBON in 2006, and again in 2013 because of OA and Back surgeries, pain, and medicines.


I loved this article! It is true about losing your career/life due to chronic illness. I found myself not only chronically ill and in constant pain but major depression dealing with all the life changes. Unfortunately I didn’t handle them well at first. I let the depression take me over! After being hospitalized for that I knew I had to take charge of my life again and find new ways to find joy and live on the SSD income as apposed to my 6 figure salary. It’s been difficult but I have found a way to manage.
I love reading your articles and many days you are my help and positive reinforcement! Thank you and keep posting!!

Ann Sable

The total honest truth? NO. It starts with losing your jobs, to hobbies, to small tasks around the house or whatnot to taking care of yourself. So, the answer is no and then the dealing with the put downs and such. So…NO.

What a beautiful way to look at the life we have been given for the “time being.” Ellen I applaud you for giving such a bright outlook on life when right now that’s one of the hardest things we’re struggling with. What you’ve done is not easy, but very necessary If we’re to continue to live. I went from my dream job to being lonely not to mention hurt for years. Now I have the title of stay-at-home mother to my niece. Little did I know when I was forced to give up being self-employed due to disabilities this would turn out to be my dream job. It was something I desperately wanted in my 20s although God chose to give it to me now. What a blessing! He did so for a reason and I have to trust Him. This is the most significant and prestige title I’ve ever had in my life, the most beautiful and rewarding as well! There are things I’m unable to do that I use to and would love to again with my little girl. If I were to dwell on it for too long, it would literally eat me alive. I like everyone else get as angry as can be with the situation we seem to be stuck in. They stole so much from me, though I refuse to let them steal my joy. I have to tell myself everyday, “Do your best now to focus on what you can do.” It doesn’t hurt me one bit to love this little girl with everything in me, helping her in ways that I know no one else on the face of this earth possibly could. God sent others our way to help where I cannot. Life is what we make of it. (It’s also an uphill battle every minute at times, so please don’t get me wrong) I’ve had more on my plate in the last few months than it seems I’ve ever have before. I have to sit myself down and say LOOK; there’s a reason for this. That’s when I look to God for strength. He’s trying to get my attention and now He has it. He’s trying to tell me something. Yes, I’m still trying to figure out a lot of it definitely taking one day at a time. May God be as kind to you as you have been to us today Ms. Ellen! ❤

John Tht.

I used to climb 60ft telephone poles, plus fix electronic equipment. My rebuilt spine necessitated that I had to medically retired at 38 with 3 small children.

I went to university in my recovering time, became an IT teacher that too became physically impossible over time as I could not walk, crying at lunchtime through the pain was too big a price to pay.

So from two paid job I now had a mortgage plus my young family. State benefits are insufficient to live on it has plus continued to be challenging.

Loss of jobs by an imposed condition takes strength of mind to cope of which I did not do very well initially, as one night expect.

Your status has gone a role you worked hard to achieve all that studying time plus commitment.

Pain is a team event without the support care and help from my wife none of this would have been possible, with very little money we just got on with it…here decades later with the same pain we are surviving of sorts, living a lifestyle that differs from the norm plus those imposed restrictions.

It has been eventful I love my own teaching role which was a direct result of my spinal issues, one could view that as a positive outcome that may not have been an option previously. I have found the right support plus tried to help those starting out on a chronic pain journey they may be starting.

I read many of the pain academic journal about coping at University which gave me the basis of a plan.

Good luck to you all, be kind to yourself stay positive one day at a time.


A debilitating back injury followed by breast cancer with permanent cognitive impairment caused by chemo prevent me from being a NICU RN again. My (now) ex-husband would constantly tell me l wasn’t “trying hard enough to get better” & made me feel useless.
I miss loving & advocating for ‘my’ preemies. I miss bonding with the parents & feeling like l helped make a difference. I miss having lunch with my co-workers (or sometimes NOT having a break all shift). I miss having something interesting to talk about. I miss being able to financially support myself. I miss it all. :'(

After my debilitating back injury, I still had some hope to return to my career as a NICU RN. A year later, breast cancer treatment & chemo side effects left me permanently disabled. My (now) ex-husband told me on a daily basis that I was “not trying hard enough to get better” & made me feel useless.
I miss taking care of my NICU babies every single day. I miss the close relationships with my patient’s families. I miss the monthly lunches with my fellow nurses. I miss supporting myself financially. I miss feeling like l had a purpose in life. :'(

Thomas Wayne Kidd

It was a big blow to me many ways when I realized that I had no other choice but to quit a job which I got up each morning actually excited about. Working with my hands building Cherry Antique Reproduction Furniture was an enjoyable job. As my daily chronic pain and Narcolepsy grew worse I had to just stop and hope for the best. Unfortunately 2016 has not been the first opioid medications scare, and I experienced a smaller round of insane policy before the late 90’s. The government and most people cannot learn that morality absolutely cannot be legislated. Prohibition taught most people nothing. The Scriptures says that in the latter days that the nations would become mad, (insane) because of their association with man’s ways. Babylon is the term used and her wine is the cause for insanity. Sadly millions have turned away from the right teachings of Jesus Christ and are now experiencing the the time of reaping what they have sown. People continue generation after generation making the same mistakes, believing that making laws against things will cause people to obey. Something catastrophic is usually the only remedy to bring most people into line with what’s right. Unfortunately most of mankind will perish in their rebellious sins. Wake up, Wake up is what I have been telling people for a few decades now. Millions are now being deceived into thinking that help can be found in a divided and mostly evil government. A government manned by blind and insane people who given themselves over to pleasures and material wealth. America has not been made great, nor will it ever be great again. For example; America was a great nation during the Depression and when we went to war in the first and second world wars. The people of this country shown brightest when they were suddenly without the necessities of daily life. AMERICA WAS GREAT THEN.

Debra Johnson

It’s been 8 years and I’m still mourning the loss of my job (career, calling). I was a cardiac nurse for 4 years and then spent the next 30+ years delivering babies. It wasn’t just a job. It was who I am. It’s hard to figure out who I am supposed to be now.


Ellen, you wrote what was in my heart. Bless you!

It all depends on the severity of the condition, the duration between flares (if any) and where the source(s) for the pain are. In my case the answer was absolutely not, and it was devastating.

Tony hardy

The answer is no, and as we lose our careers and job we have to deal with the depression and most people calling us trash or drug addicts.


Hi, thanks for your post.
I’m facing this in yet another form and really don’t care to. 25 plus yrs of all in work to reaquire my cognitive abilities along with other’s. Physical damage and multi surgery all to return to school and do some of what I’m good at. Brain and awareness fairly clear and many ways more so than prior to first car crash into our’s.
Trouble from a repair may be casual for lingering pain bilateral leg and groin each day, evening and night. Herb to shut down evening pain. Can’t ask more meds.
Education on hold. Shrank my world again. I have some skills for painting and have sold. Can play some music again. Used to play at money making levels and great fun. Art is my inroads to joy.
With no profession don’t feel worthy as a man. Won’t ask any woman out. Friends only. Another shifting and learning to do.
I’m a human being not a human having or doing.
Don’t have this as embodied truth yet. I consider myself unworthy on a basic level due to pain and trauma. Cognitively I know that’s not true. Emotions ahead on points.

Denise E Hedley

I really needed to see this today. It is so true - it is absolutely important that we mourn our careers. We put so much into them, and then having to walk away isn’t easy. At first it is a relief, and then it isn’t. And you think you’re over it but you just aren’t.

Maureen M.

Ellen, this is so perfectly written about the loss of life as it was. At the time of an auto accident in 2004 (someone speeding and on cell phone slammed into my drivers side) my life was forever changed in an instant. I was a nurse of 32 years at the time and planned on working well into my 70’s. I loved nursing!! I was also a single mom.
Defying doctors suggestions I struggled to work part time. I couldn’t let go of my life as a nurse and a provider. But, I could not keep up with it and soon became full time disabled.
I’ve since had 4 failed spine surgeries, 2 shoulder surgeries, many many treatments/meds/therapies etc along the years. I developed chronic intractable spine injury related pain, adhesive arachnoiditis, CRPS and Systemic Lupus.
I could write a book on all of that as well as the emotional challenges I had to experience, especially in those earlier years. As time went on and my life time reality set in I needed to see a therapist in order to process and accept it. I tired various aspects of volunteering in the medical field to feed my ‘nurse brain’ but my pain always disappointedly cut that short. I fought hard to figure out how to ‘live’ emotionally sound and financially. It was very tough for about 10 yrs. I had no family support through this all. God gave me incredible inner strength. Fast forward 15 yrs later and now in my mid 60’s I’ve become used to life as it is, regardless it remains a struggle. My only child and her family live across the country. I am unable to travel since the accident. I never even leave my county! Therefore I missed the births of my grandchildren. I never held them as babies. I miss out on being a hands-on grandma, something I could not wait to do someday! I never even met them until 2 yrs ago at ages
6 & 8. :-(. They last visited me a year ago and I won’t be seeing them this year 🙁 They are growing fast. Heartbreaking. The woman who hit me in 2004 has no idea how she changed my life. It is what it is….


I am 53. I am a hairstylist and the thing that keeps me going is my FMLA plus part-time hours. I couldn’t do this full time but not ready to give it up either.


Too much to say except that I’ve never had anything else which has made me feel so miserable. I never thought that Fibromyalgia was real until I was 52. I’m now 55. I’ve always excersized and raced go-karts for my sponsor’s which paid for my hobby since 1989. I had to stop so I lost what made me feel good and my quality of life has been reduced to just getting out of bed which takes me 2-3 hours to get dressed. I’m not well. I’m taking 15 meds a day the only reason I don’t kill myself is because it’s not right to leave here and hurt your friends.