To Suffer in Silence?

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Often, people like me with chronic pain issues like to put on the brave façade and try to push themselves through each day, thinking they are making themselves stronger for suffering through it all. Are you kidding me? Who is going to pat you on the back at tell you what a great martyr you have been at the end of each day? No one! Someone told me one – “if you don’t care for yourself, no one else will.” This is the absolute truth.
For example, I went back to college to get what I though was going to be a Master’s degree. Due to some logistical errors and blatant lies by administration, I ended up with nothing but another Bachelor’s degree. Had I been a bit more self-empowered, and had a few less surgeries, I would have walked out of that university with the Master’s degree – but that is another story.
I went back to university after my third back surgery. Sure, sitting in those wooden, auditorium seats was just what my back needed for a speedy recovery, but it was the drive to do what I had always wanted to do that got me there and kept me there. I soon learned that my chronic pain (first migraines, then, nerve damage in my back) interfered with my ability to focus in class, to recall material for tests, to study effectively, and to just plain sit still in class. I had heard about a program for disabled students that allowed them extra time to take tests, to study in special groups, and to record class sessions – but I wasn’t disabled! I just couldn’t sit in a classroom without being in excruciating pain and/or discomfort. After struggling through a test in that I could not complete as sitting in the same position for 50 minutes without tears was nigh impossible, I sheepishly stopped in the student disability center to find out exactly what was athe university’s definition of “disability.”
Pride swallowed, and two weeks later after two notes from my back surgeon and my neurologist were faxed into the disability center, I had the distinctive advantage of being a disabled student. Again, my disability was invisible to most – those that knew me well could see the differences in my eyes and skin color when I was having a severe migraine, or notice how my left leg turned inwards when I was experiencing lack of control of the nerves in that leg.
I did not take advantage of this gift of “disability,” but I used it wisely to the got the extra time I needed on tests, the ability to take tests in a quiet place away from the rest of the class, and to take part in special study groups. However, the most empowering gift endowed upon us disabled folks was the ability to report those professors who scoffed at “people like me,” chided us in front of the whole class, about how we were slackers looking for a handout, and made jokes about how we were allegedly taking advantage of the system.
Sometimes coping mean using the strength to admit to yourself that you need and deserve the extra help, and not just gritting your teeth and suffering through the pain.

To tell the truth – or – Is honesty the best policy?

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So here I am, 45 years old, and considered “disabled.” I don’t look like I have a problem, but the truth is, I have many. Five back surgeries, employers that are less than understanding about recovery from being sliced and diced, plus chronic daily migraines and insomnia all lead to depression and chronic pain. Add several medications to the mix, and, that is why I get a check from the government every month.
I do want to work. Really. Ask anyone that knows me – they will tell you I am the most motivated and energetic person they know. I would not have left a lucrative career, physically struggled through three additional years to get another degree, just to sit on the couch and collect disability. I can get around OK – so, what is stopping me?
The truth – that is what is stopping me. What do you say to the interviewer when you have an invisible disability? Don’t employers get little gold stars for “hiring the handicapped” and “embracing diversity?” I do have job restrictions – I cannot do continuous manual labor, I can’t lift items over 30 lbs., I can’t sit or stand for more than an hour at a time (read: I need to keep moving around like many chronic pain sufferers), and, I have lots of doctor appointments – I average one per week. If I condense the appointments into one day, then that would mean I have to take an entire day off from work every week. This just won’t fly at a new job!
I have held two jobs since I graduated with my new degree. The first job I was basically squeezed out of because the new medications to help my chronic pain slowed me down. I could do my work, I just needed to move at a slower than my usual Type A pace. I tried to explain without telling the manager what I was taking but he just didn’t understand. All he heard was “medications” and “decreased energy” and I was moved off of my projects, and I was left to do nothing but wash glassware and order supplies. And, my reference from this company isn’t exactly stellar – all because of my “disability.”
At the second job, the interviews went beautiful. I mentioned that I needed to keep moving and that I had a condition which required frequent doctor visits, but that was OK since I would never be gone an entire day. The job didn’t work out (for other reasons), but the Chairman of the department told me that on hindsight, he should not have hired me due to my back issues. Lesson from this one: don’t tell the truth.
I have now been looking for a job for over ten months, playing the recruiter – game. I get the occasional interview but never get hired. I never get a straight answer as to why. Do the medications affect me so much that they crush my chance of working? What is wrong with me? According to my best sources, I look and speak just as well as any other job applicant – probably better since I have a full command of the English language.
When I finally meet with a recruiter that I had been working with for a month or so over the phone. I decide to be open and honest. I tell her I am technically considered disabled. I have limitations on standing, sitting, etc. And yes, I will need to work for a place that will not have a meltdown if I need a few hours off (which I would happily make up) for a doctor’s appointment. She has never had to handle someone like me before, so she doesn’t have advice for me. She is hesitant to recommend me for jobs as you will never know what an employer may ask of an employee, like pack up and move a lab two towns away (which I had to do at my previous job), or rearrange heavy pieces of equipment. I am not a good risk – if I don’t work out, the recruiter doesn’t get paid, and no one is happy.
So honesty is not always the best policy, but holding back information that you feel is not anyone’s business can come back and bite you later on. And, I am left sitting on my couch, collecting disability, even though I want to work.