Rebranding Yourself After a Life-Changing Injury or Illness

Rebranding Yourself After a Life-Changing Injury or Illness

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…

Melissa Wardlaw

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:

These Companies Have Remote Jobs That May Be Great for People With Chronic Illnesses or Disabilities

Best Work-at-Home Jobs for People with Chronic Illnesses

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)

-Gardening/Home Decor

-HOA Board Member


-Peer Support/Advocate

-Church Activities

-Helping Friends/Family with various needs

-Running an online store (Etsy, eBay, etc.)


-PTA/Other School Projects/Girl & Boy Scouts

-Physical Fitness/Hiking


-Writing Articles

-Community Activism

-Online Surveys

-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

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Authored by: Melissa Wardlaw

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 and 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

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Thank you especially Melissa and Cindy H. Your lives sound like mine. It is sooo hard to be positive everyday when you hurt EVERY SINGLE DAY OF YOUR LIFE.
I worked full time at a job for close to 25 yrs, driving over 85 miles to work roundtrip each day, while attending college, taking care of my own home, etc. I hiked, biked, camped, backpacked, did Jazzercise, aerobics, walked daily, etc. I was very physical.
Luckily I had purchased a long term disability plan when I began working at age 18 (I worried I might get into a car accident driving to work). This money and SS disability is still only a TOTAL of 60% of my original wages when I had to go on disability, which is another depressing thing, but I thank God that I have this. I also have my health ins. from my past employer which helps IMMENSELY. But I have to “prove” my disability every year to the insurance co, even though all my drs have stated in writing for 17 years that I am permanently and totally disabled. I was approved for SSD the FIRST time I applied, on my own, with no assistance from anyone. One year I had to hire an attorney (at a cost to me of over $6000) because after a functional capacity evaluation the PT who did the evaluation wrote that I could bend to within 2 1/2 INCHES of the floor, rather than 2 1/2 FEET of the floor! Of course I won the case but there was no reason I should have had to fight this!
I was in a long term relationship when my health went bad (Spinal Adhesive Arachnoiditis) and because my life changed so drastically from what it was, my partner left me. I could no longer work, hike, backpack, or do many active things he wanted us to do. He kept pushing me to get better even tho my drs told me I wouldn’t get better.
Now I do things that I need to do to keep my health the best it can be. Some days this might mean sleeping all day. It might mean sleeping for 2 or 3 days. Other days I walk or take my dogs for a trip in the motorhome. But nothing like it used to be.

Ronald M Corbin

Thank you for the inspirational article. It gave me a lot to think about. I had given up on working and being a productive person.
I will be in contact with you and your group.


Lynda Hillebrenner

Fantastic article! I’m sure many will be checking into these. If I weren’t retired, I would definitely be checking writing (your article may have inspired me the start on a book) or proofreading. I had the retire early & it was not fun, nor did I feel good about myself. I was a Professor of Healthcare at a local university, a Registered Respiratory Therapist and a Registered nurse. I loved my job, and the girls left home and started their lives, I was lost & in pain. Even if you can’t make a lot of money from some of these jobs, it will give you purpose & contribute whatever you can do to your income. I miss people, most of all - but I volunteer and that helps. You hope everyone appreciates this effort in your part. I also do some life coaching, mainly for chronic pain patients. You must be an awesome coach!

Maureen M.

Hi Melissa,it’s great to hear from you again. I’ve been in this life of living with intractable chronic pain since my initial spine surgery at age 31, I am now 64. I was a nurse and single mom with an active social life, many friends etc.
After 3 more spine surgeries over the years I was forced to become disabled at age 50 and BAM! the shock of living so differently and without my career sent me emotionally in a whole other direction. I went to therapy and basically learned about all that you wrote above. Do to my inability to sit nor stand very long at all (I have to keep moving my body or lie down) I had to give up volunteering 🙁 as well as living without much social life whatsoever. I live alone, therefore I am alone for weeks on end.
I also have SLE (systemic Lupus Erythematosus) which has majorly slowed down my life.
It’s been difficult since I am also a Type A personality. It has been an ongoing process to find ways to have purpose each day and manage life this way, very differently.
I now know at this point that it will always be a challenge, but I feel worse emotionally if I don’t accomplish ‘something’ each day… even if it is watering plants or doing a load of wash etc. ‘It is what it is and things could always worse’.
Thank you for all that you are in this community!
Keep up the good work and always strive forward Warrior! Maureen


Thank you Melissa for writing this. I feel my life, identity is born from my career, which i love and is severley threatened by my CRPS. I really needed to read and digest your article right now! To make me feel better about how well i can achieve in life, in every day tasks and actions. I have practiced invisioning life without my career, but i would have to learn who i am without it and completely re invent my life’s story and direction. I don’t want it to be over, not one bit. Please keep writing and sharing.

Cindy H.

Your article could not have been more timely for me! I’ve been on permanent disability since 2012. I’m 59 and, lately, feeling like I don’t contribute much to society, at all, particularly when family says I should get a job, again, to “have something to look forward to every day.” I was a divorced, MBA executive, with a lucrative career in a large corporation, when severe chronic pain, depression, anxiety and fibromyalgia problems knocked me down and out of the race that I primed myself for for decades. Now that I am beginning to feel “stable”, yet, not that same go-getter I was, it’s very important to me to find my so-called place, again, on this Earth. Thank you for the kick start advice I needed!!

Gary Raymond

I wonder if a professional would write an article about the hazards of NSAIDs and
corticosteroids? Ibuprofen can damage the heart, kidneys, and digestive system.
Aleve and aspirin can damage the stomach and create allergic reactions.
Tylenol can damage the liver. Diabetics cannot receive corticosteroid injections.
Heart attack victims should not take ibuprofen. What are the alternatives to opioids?
Those in chronic pain and the elderly are being persecuted in this country just for
being sick. Our numbers are not as numerous as the alphabet people so we are not
even on the radar screen. We certainly cannot take to the streets to protest
and riot like most abused people.

Margret Hunter

Thanks for your article. I certainly can relate having had spinal fusion surgery and related chronic back pain. It’s as if you have to grieve your former life and define a new less productive one. But like you so positivity discuss, it can be a life with meaning.


thank-you for your great article. I to was very independent and prided myself as a good friend and workout partner. I also was a great hair stylist. I did alot of traveling and scuba diving fishing etc. I had to change my life when I received the diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. I have had 2 major back surgeries etc. Disabled now. It’s very hard to adjust to the difference. Day to day. You said it right step by step. I sometimes get very hard on myself to be doing what I think I should be doing. I had to stop defining myself as disabled. Also the word should. I am still the same person. I need some adjustments from time to time. I have 2 fur babies and I love animals. thank-you again for getting it right. Susan Bowie

Rachel Mcarthur

This just brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing. Extremely accurate in my life and feel so understood just reading this post. God Bless.

James Hutchcroft

WOW, I thought I was reading my story while reading yours. I too have many spinal issues; I’ve had 7 real back surgeries, Lower Lumbar and Cervical. 2 years ago from Feb. I had a spinal stimulator implanted….. I don’t count this as a real surgery even though it is classified as one. My first back surgery was at the young age of 20. I’ve been working the whole time until recently…. That being 2 weeks ago. I no longer could manage my pain under the stresses in a corporate atmosphere.

I too am trying to rebrand myself, its been very difficult. With my health care Chronic Pain, Depression, Anxiety and now bipolar type 2. I should have guessed as many moons ago as a college student I would cycle through my moods but never sought out help as I refused to think I was broken.

Right now I’m burning through sick time and vacation time for me to subsequently go on short therm then long term. My doc has indicated that I should go on SSDI. I struggle with this idea as I’ve always put people into two categories, creators/givers in society and takers. I really struggle with the idea of being a taker. Conservative values, growing up on a rural farm in Iowa, from birth on we are educated to be self sufficient and not burden on society.

Even though I have surrendered to the idea and work to convince myself that since I payed in all these years that it is insurance I payed for and not a handout. I’m not sure I fully convinced myself of this.

Ive decided to tutor kids in mathematics and English as a second language as they are my strengths. I worked in Mexico for a very large American company for 3 years and have developed a reasonably good command of the Spanish language.

I truly hope I can find purpose as suicidal ideation has been quite strong.

For now i’ll Keep moving forward.

Rosalind Rivera

Melissa, I sympathize and empathize with you. For many years I have suffered from a myriad of Desease and syndromes including Celiac desease, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus Erythromysis and too many other to name. I will however tell you that about eight years ago I went to bed as usual and woke up a quadrapalegic. I fell off the sofa where I had fallen asleep by using my head as leverage. In either case after being told by an ER doctor that I had to get up and walk as she could see nothing wrong, I was then very quickly transferred to another hospital where an emergency of doctors and nurses were waiting for me to have emergency and immediate surgery. My spine had literally collapsed and most of it had almost disintegrated. In addition to a fractured Lumbar I had also horrendous Spinal Stenosis. I’ll tell you that for at least two or three years following the surgery which by the way was partially unsuccessful, I suffered in agony with indescribable pain. I was then sent to a rehab hospital in order to relearn how to feed myself, walk again and so many other basic things. In either case, after having all sorts of metal components into my spine, I learned about two years ago that my spine did not fuse as was expected but instead the nuts and bolts are freely rolling around in my cervical area and as you can imagine, my pain is daily and constant.