For the last five years, ‘what do you do’ has been a loaded question for me.
I used to dread being asked ‘where do you work’. The occupation question on paperwork would send me into an uneasy spin.
I hated being asked about work.
It seems we are very often defined by what we do for work. We spend the majority of our waking hours there, it is what we do with the majority of our time. Our work gives us a title. It forms a big part of our identity.
Back in 2010 I was a solicitor working for a London law firm specialising in corporate and company law. When I became ill with ME/CFS, after an initial few months off work, I went back part time. I didn’t realise at that point just how ill I was. For 5 months in 2011 I worked 2-3 half days a week. I had to spend the remainder of my time resting just to recover enough energy to return to the office. I refused to give in until my doctor told me I was simply making myself more and more sick by pushing my body in this way. He signed me off work on sick leave. My last day at work was 23rd September 2011. At the time I thought I’d just need to take a few months off to recover and then I’d be back at my desk. Oh how naive was I. I never did make it back to my law firm.
By being off work I lost part of my identity. I also felt like I had lost my purpose. I mourned the loss of my job. It took me a long time to accept that the high pressured world of corporate law was not compatible with ME/CFS and an even longer time to admit to others that I couldn’t go back. I felt the loss keenly but ultimately I realised I couldn’t jeopardise my health. It was just too big a risk. I’d already lost several years of my life and I didn’t want to risk triggering a relapse that could send me back to that horrible time.
After becoming ill, every time I was asked what my job was it was a stark reminder of what I had lost. It hurt and made me very sad for a long time.
So how did I answer the million dollar question then?
For a long time when asked, I would still simply say I was a lawyer. That was the easy option and was technically still true. But as time passed it came to feel so incredibly wrong. I felt like I was lying to myself and to the people asking. It didn’t feel authentic. I knew deep down I would never do that job again.
On occasion, I would say I wasn’t working due to illness. That would usually halt the conversation instantly. But that’s a very personal admission to make and one with which I wasn’t often comfortable. It leads you to a place where your vulnerabilities are exposed.
Or I’d go with a neutral ‘I’m taking some time out’. But when a seemingly fit and healthy 20 something year old (invisible illness…looks are often deceiving) says ‘I’m not working at the moment’ it falls like a lead balloon, echoing in a silent room. I imagine it meant nothing to my companion, but to me it was an insurmountable difference between myself and the world around me. It was just another way in which I felt alienated and inadequate due to ME/CFS.
And yes I know what I do for work is nobody’s business but my own and I also know that the people asking most likely would have not thought twice about my answer. But these truths did nothing to allay my feelings. It was still a massive deal to me.
Being too ill to work is inherently stressful. It has huge practical and financial ramifications in both the short and long terms. But for me it was stressful in a deeper, less functional way, which was just as difficult to navigate.
However, as with so many aspects of being ill, I came to see it as an opportunity. Yes it was heartbreaking that I’d had to give up a career I had worked so very hard to achieve. But that career, or rather the way my body handled the stress of that role, was a huge factor in me getting ill. It just wasn’t healthy for me to do it. And once I’d accepted that, it was easier to move on.
I have changed a lot through being ill. I would say I have become a much better person. I’ve discovered a whole world that I didn’t know existed when I was a lawyer – the suited corporate lawyer version of myself would probably laugh at the meditating holistic health nut yogi that I have become but I put two fingers up to that old me. That life clearly didn’t suit me and wasn’t meant to be.
Today I have two answers to the ‘what do you do for work’ question and I look forward to people asking. I say I am a student and a homemaker – the latter having been an option on a form for a new bank account I filled in recently, the new word for house wife I guess!
I have recently enrolled on a year long holistic health and nutrition health coaching course with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. I feel like I have drawn a line in the sand and am very much moving forward. It is wonderful to be studying and using my brain again. I feel energised and am loving once again having a purpose.
At the risk of sounding very ‘new age’ (or cheesy or something the old lawyer Jess would have smirked at…)I am much more comfortable with myself; much truer and more authentic.
It hasn’t been a quick process or an easy one but I am very happy with where I have ended up, something I never dreamt I’d be able to say when I was in the thick of ME/CFS a few years ago. It’s perhaps easy for me to say now, but if you’re going through a time of struggle at the moment, never give up, there is hope and good things can come from the most difficult of situations. Or at least that is how it has been for me.