I never disclosed to my college professors that I live with Primary Adrenal Insufficiency (PAI). Even when it caused me to fail a couple of finals or I had to miss class to have scary medical tests run, I kept it hidden from them. I did not want to single myself out. I did not want to appear weak.
I quickly learned that I must disclose to my managers my disease. Within the first couple weeks on my new team, I informed my manager. I mentioned how I sometimes suffer from extreme fatigue that can come on suddenly without warning. I told him if I suddenly become illogical, irrational, combative, or extremely emotional that those actions are not me. Those are warning signs of low cortisol.
I also told him that I try to be extremely mindful of how I am feeling. If I start to feel myself go downhill, I take actions to place myself into the safest environment as quickly as possible. My manager stated that he trusted me to know my limits and he would respect them. All I need to do is speak up.
“You have already pushed yourself too far.”
In November of 2014, our team hit a specifically stressful period at work.
Around 4pm on that specific Friday, I knew I needed to go home. I had already worked late two nights that week and began to fade. I started to grow increasingly frustrated and was struggling to understand simple instructions. I had not revealed my disease to my coworkers. They did not comprehend the urgency of my statement that I needed to leave.
My manager walked into the lab. After one look at my face, he asked if I needed to go home. I said yes. By this time I was shaking from low cortisol brought on by extreme exhaustion. As we left the lab together, he mentioned “It looks like you have already pushed yourself too far, Amber.”
One of the most difficult things about living with this disease is that I never know my breaking point until it is too late. I will be feeling somewhat ok. Then, suddenly, I will be feeling awful. And I won’t even realize that I’m feeling awful. At first, I just appear extremely combative and irrational.
“I don’t want to appear weak!”
By this point, I was on the verge of tears. In desperation, I threw my hands up in the air and stated, “I just don’t want to appear weak!” I rushed away from his presence as I could not stop the tears from flowing.
My manager did not immediately chase after me. Instead, he waited a few seconds and then stopped by my cube asking me to step into his office on my way out. When I entered his office, the first thing he did was apologize. He wanted to make sure that he did not imply I was weak. I responded my gratefulness that he has been so incredibly understanding.
I explained to him how fear of appearing weak is a personal demon of mine. I have never been healthy. I have never been normal. I have survived living in this world by comparing myself to those around me and trying to not fall behind. I am working on growing more confident in who I am as just Amber without comparing myself to others.
“YOU are irreplaceable.”
He paused before he spoke. And when he spoke, it was only words of encouragement. He stated that every engineering problem I feel I must personally complete does not rest solely on my shoulders. That is part of working on a team. We help each other out and share the load. He pointed out that my contribution to the team in terms of completing tasks is completely replaceable. But he did not stop there.
“What is irreplaceable, Amber, is you. Do not push yourself to the point of collapse. That helps no one. You need to take care of your health first. You need to do what is best for you. A healthy Amber is a better team contributor. A healthy Amber is better for the entire team.”
I left his office incredibly encouraged, humbled, and in tears.
Setting proper boundaries takes great STRENGTH.
Over the past few years, I have actively been working on this. I previously held the belief it was selfish to admit that I did not have the strength to complete a task. I would try to muscle through things to the detriment of my own health.
The verbalization that you do not feel well and need to take a break, eat a snack, or walk outside of the lab is not a sign of weakness. Setting proper boundaries actually takes an enormous amount of strength.
This may seem harsh, but from a task standpoint you are completely replaceable at your job (If you think you are not, reality check: you are).
While you can be replaced in your job, you can not be replaced as a human. We must protect our health and our spoons. It is much better to speak up and say, “I need a break” rather than push ourselves to the point of collapse.
It benefits everyone.
And helps us remain Clearly Alive.