By Melissa Wardlaw.
As a result of a life-changing spinal cord injury and subsequent diagnosis of CRPS/RSD (full body) and fibromyalgia, as well as having degenerative disc disease (cervical & lumbar), migraines and multiple other chronic issues, unfortunately I have had to take an “extended leave of absence” from traditionally working. As many of you can attest, losing a career we worked so hard to build because of an injury or illness out of our control feels devastating.
In my case, my career was my everything - my entire identity; my work AND my play. Vacations were ignored in lieu of working - I never took a sick day. My happiness and self-esteem were directly correlated to my success - as a result, I was very happy and very confident! There was nowhere to go but up! But little did I know life had a different plan in store for me…
As such, I have had to learn how to rebrand myself. I went from being a successful Corporate Business Executive/Consultant/Coach before my injury to a Chronic Illness & Pain Peer Support Counselor/Advocate and Career Coach/Resume Writer (all pro bono) years after my injury. I run a local in-person and corresponding online Support/Empowerment Group for CRPS/RSD, Chronic Illnesses & Pain. I also volunteer as a Committee Chair at a local animal shelter.
The transition has not been easy and while I hope to traditionally work someday again, I have learned a few things about rebranding myself along the way:
1) Just because we aren’t “traditionally” working, doesn’t mean we aren’t able to work!
The work I do now is much more meaningful since I’m helping people and animals (as opposed to mainly corporations)! I stay busy each week as my health will allow, working from home most of the time and at the shelter. But instead of being at the mercy and schedule of a corporation, which would be way too demanding for the plethora of my pain & symptoms, I have the flexibility to dictate when I work and when I need to take breaks and rest, which many times is all day! It is a win-win for my health & wellness.
Depending on the nature of your injury/illness, you may be able to work either full or part time. There are many remote jobs and companies that are best suited for people with chronic illnesses in the links below:
2) We are still productive and useful members of society!
There are many other activities (besides traditionally working) that we can do to not only feel useful but also be useful in our communities, including the following:
-Spending more time with family (kids, grandkids, parents, etc.)
-Volunteering (multiple opportunities available)
-HOA Board Member
-Helping Friends/Family with various needs
-Running an online store (Etsy, eBay, etc.)
-PTA/Other School Projects/Girl & Boy Scouts
-Taking a class
-Learning a new language
3) Take time to “smell the roses!”
When I was working so much, I never took time off to enjoy life and be grateful for my surroundings. Because my injury and chronic illnesses have prevented me from traditionally working, I have been forced to find happiness in things other than working all the time. It has made me more appreciative of the little things in life that many people take for granted.
It is important to allow yourself time to get out, socialize and do things you enjoy, even if it’s for short periods of time. Studies have shown there is a link between positive emotions and pain/illness. Having fun increases your natural endorphins which helps with stress, pain relief and healing. When we focus on enjoying ourselves, we distract (at least temporarily) from the negativity of our medical situations. If we’re having a better day than usual, take advantage of it! We owe it to ourselves to try and enjoy life, despite our pain & symptoms, and not feel guilty about it!
4) We still have purpose in life!
When an injury or illness takes away our ability to do the things in life that have given us purpose and identity (i.e., career, music or athletic ability, keeping the house, etc.), sometimes it is hard to understand why we are still here on this earth quite frankly. Depression and despair can set in and we can end up feeling that we have no value or nothing to offer to the world. But in actuality, the opposite is true!
Everyone has a purpose and calling in life, despite an injury or medical crisis that prevents what we may have thought was our purpose or calling. It may take some time to figure out what your new purpose is, but you will figure it out. For some, this will mean developing a new skill; for others, it will mean using skills you already have in a different way. You may find that you enjoy your new purpose much better than your old purpose - in fact, it may be that your new purpose was your true purpose and calling all along.
5) Being productive makes you feel better!
If you’re a goal-oriented, type-A, former workaholic overachiever like me, being productive simply makes us feel better about ourselves! While it’s difficult being forced by our pain & symptoms to stay at home or sit and watch Netflix most of the day and night (especially when we have “painsomnia”), it helps to have an outlet that allows an escape from the monotony and stress of a life with 24/7 chronic illness & pain. Feeling like we have accomplished something, no matter how small it may be, makes us feel better, thereby raising our self-esteem and giving us a purpose.
Depending on the nature of your injury or illness, some of us can do more than others; the key is not to compare your accomplishments to others, but rather to measure your success against the goals you set for yourself.
In the beginning of my medical journey, when I was having a particularly rough time not being able to traditionally work (or do much of anything) and feeling like I was worthless because I could barely leave the house or bed, I went to a counselor. I will always remember the advice she gave me which was: even if the only thing you do today is go and get your mail, that is a goal; something productive and useful - and an accomplishment you can check off your list!
I followed her advice and getting the mail turned into making a sandwich; then changing my sheets; and so on and so forth. After I would accomplish a task, I would feel better about myself and start setting more goals. Incidentally, I use the same concept even now when it comes to setting task goals and making plans to get out of the house. Because I’ve learned if I don’t plan to go where someone is expecting me, I won’t make the effort because I always feel bad. Yes, just leaving the house is a chore, especially when I must do my hair, shave, put on makeup, find something to wear, etc., etc. (who’s with me ladies?)! When I make it to the event, I accomplish my goal and am proud of myself for being productive and showing up for LIFE despite my intense medical situation! No one will ever understand just how difficult getting there actually is for me, but me - and that makes me feel like the superwoman I am!
We’ve all heard the quote, “The journey of 1000 steps begins with one.” Rebranding after an injury or illness may take 1000 steps but if you don’t start, you’ll never get there. Good luck and Godspeed, my fellow chronic illness & pain warriors!
Melissa Wardlaw was diagnosed with CRPS/RSD as a result of a spinal cord injury (non-paralyzing) suffered during a routine medical procedure. She also suffers from fibromyalgia, lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease, migraines and additional chronic medical issues. Formerly a Business Executive/Consultant with an MBA in Entrepreneurship, she is also a Certified Career Coach and Certified Professional Resume Writer, and now spends her time career coaching and offering peer counseling/advocacy (pro bono) to those dealing with similar medical struggles. As a fierce advocate, she also runs both in-person and online support/empowerment groups for CRPS/RSD, chronic illnesses & pain in the Metro Atlanta area. A “fur mom” to two cats, Melissa is an avid volunteer and supports multiple organizations committed to rescuing animals and helping those with chronic illnesses/pain. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.