Career, Interrupted: Building a career while fighting for my health

As I laid in my bed after not working for the third month in a row, I started to question my beliefs. I challenged my beliefs about what mattered and also began to question my own identity and what I stood for.

I had been sick for almost a year. I had taken a leave of absence from work and was losing hope that I would recover and live a “normal” life.

Eventually, I would realize that even this life was pretty damn good.

A year earlier, I had just graduated from one of the best grad schools in the world and was thriving. I defined myself by my job at a fancy company, my social life, my success in school and my impressive early career trajectory.

As I spent the next year becoming sicker and battling for my health, this identity crumbled. As I shifted to working part-time and eventually taking an unpaid leave of absence, I faced a deep sense of loss. In addition to the uncertainty of my health, I was losing what I thought mattered.

What would people think if I couldn’t work again?

What if I couldn’t continue to progress and have success in my career?

I was wallowing in despair to one of my friends that I had met after I became sick: “wait until I am healthy again, I used to be much more fun.” He told me I was already pretty fun. Rattled with cognitive dissonance I tried my hardest to dissuade him of his claims to no avail.

I kept reflecting on that conversation and realized that if one person could like me even without all my impressive grades, schools, jobs or career trajectory, I might be caring about the wrong things.

I challenged myself to think about my “worst case scenario” and kept ending up at my parents house in my hometown where several of my family members lived. I’d be sick, but I’d also be around some of the people I cared about most.

Shit, that’s not so bad…

I’ve been lucky to continue to recover and live a generally healthy life. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered many young people who are battling various diseases and other health challenges themselves. My heart stops every time a new person says “will you talk to my friend, he/she is going through something…”

Our modern institutions and definitions of success are not compatible with sub-optimal health or appearances of weakness. After 18 months of battling Lyme disease and other health challenges, I began easing myself back into the workplace. I was working full-time but would face days and sometimes weeks of complete fatigue and exhaustion.

At that point, I was consumed with focusing on recovery. Every moment was overshadowed by some thought or reminder of my health and its inherent uncertainty. It felt like a massive burden to me.

I overestimated the actual impact it was having on my day-to-day work. I came to this realization after building up enough courage to share my challenges with my manager. What I saw as limitations — having to work from home, needing some flexibility to take the occasional nap — she saw differently: “no big deal.”

Many people I talk to are not as lucky. Many are early in their career and don’t have confidence in their work. Some have yet to graduate college and haven’t even taken that first step to establishing themselves in their careers. Others are in jobs where having flexibility may be all but impossible. Some are facing much more serious health crises.

There is no language for talking about being sick in the workplace. The modern workforce is designed for people who are strong, healthy and willing to work hard. However, given the right environment, it is still possible to make a massive contribution while still fighting a disease on the side.

In the US, so many benefits are tied to having a job. For people battling health challenges this means that not only are you facing the loss of your health, you are also facing the loss of benefits, income and often even harder, the pride and respect that comes from having a job.

When I open up to people, I am always floored at what stories they share with me. Everyone is battling something— whether it is health, personal or financial. Before getting sick, I was oblivious to suffering. I assumed everyone was happy and doing well like me. Being sick changed that.

As I’ve gotten to know people better, I’ve realized that it has led to stronger team relationships and higher quality work. There are likely people on your teams at work that are going through something right now. Even if you can’t talk about it, begin to give people the benefit of the doubt — just in case you are in those shoes one day yourself, because we all go through something…

For a more in-depth account of my battle with Lyme disease journey: Conquering Chronic Illness

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.