Day in and day out, I wake up with a foggy feeling. My forehead feels like wires stretch across it from temple to temple. Joints crack like bubble wrap. The slightest movement highlights tense, inflamed muscle groups. Pain radiates down my extremities and into my digits. Even as I sit here typing up this post, my fingertips feel swollen with each push on the keyboard.
It has been like this nearly every day for the last three years. However, during the first six months with these symptoms, nobody knew what the hell was going on. It took an three doctors, five blood tests, a x-ray, and an emergency room visit to finally receive a formal diagnosis. I was finally being treated for fibromyalgia. I knew a little bit about it at the time. My ex-girlfriend dealt with it, and I did some preliminary research prior to my diagnosis since my symptoms somewhat matched hers – joint pain, fatigue, stomach issues. When the doctors finally decided to throw that label my way, I was not too taken aback.
I educated myself further about what caused it and any remedies. There were a few issues though. Fibromyalgia is still a relatively new diagnosis in the medical field. There is no cure for it. There are only medications and treatments that help alleviate symptoms and make it manageable at best. Even among available options, there was no guarantee that they would work. It was a lot of trial and error.
On the other hand, there was enough research out there to give me a good understanding. From what I found, research going back nearly two decades showed a strong link between psychological trauma and fibromyalgia (Fibromyalgia, 2017). Plenty of that. Check. It was a nerve pain that spread throughout the body and primarily affected joints. Check. Fibromyalgia has rates of insomnia and sleep apnea nearly tenfold than that of the general population (Rosenfeld). Check. The combination of stress and sleep disturbance causes serious, frequent flare ups of pain and fatigue. CHECK.
Working in the mental health field coupled with a diagnosis of fibromyalgia was a dream come true. Please note my sarcasm. I was in store for a roller coaster ride the next two years full of countless medical appointment, medication concoctions, and missed days of work. I pushed through when I could and rested when I needed to. Deep down, I knew the flare ups were partially due to my stress levels, history of severe depression, and anxious tendencies. I worked with at-risk populations that often required intensive therapeutic contact. It was a recipe for disaster.
Nine months ago, an amazing opportunity presented itself. A management position at a former employer opened up. It was working with my ideal population, and I knew I had a good chance of getting it. I was qualified and left on okay terms. My fibromyalgia felt under control. I figured it was worth a shot.
Fast forward three weeks. I got the position. No real surprise there. The time came to clean up the program and get the ship sailing upright. The first few months went well. I brought everything up to speed. My staff seemed content. The census went up. The clients seemed happy. My bosses were generally pleased with the program’s progress.
I always prided myself on my work. It was the one area of my life that was under my control. It provided me distraction and a confidence boost when the rest of my life was in shambles. Throughout my teenage years and young adulthood, it was common for me to work (employment, school, internships) to pull between sixty and seventy hours in a given week. I also did it with relative ease. It made me feel good. When I had a goal in mind, I pressed onward until I achieved it. With this program, I had a vision of how it could help our clients, their families, and the community. With that in mind, I worked extra hard to make sure it was successful. If we were short staffed, I would take over those responsibilities. If a deadline approached, I stayed late to finish the task. If a client needed a later appointment, I cancelled my personal plans and saw them instead.
As you probably suspected, this eventually caught up to yours truly. It was around six months in. In the beginning, I missed a day here and there, which was not out of the norm. A day turned into two, two turned into three, and it got to the point that I missed full weeks of work. Over the next three months, I only worked two full five-day weeks. This was, by far, the worst flare up since being diagnosed. I saw every specialist -all four of them- and tried out three new medications in an effort to get it back under control.
The symptoms waxed and waned. I was backing myself into a corner, stuck between Scylla and Charybdis. Something had to change. Looking back at what contributed to the pain, there were several factors at play. I already tried medications and alternative treatments at this point, so it was not that. The other players I looked at were sleep, mood stability, and stress levels. Sleep was not great, but I was working on it. I saw my pulmonologist and was waiting on results from an in-lab sleep study. Not a whole lot I could do but wait on that one. Surprisingly, my mood was generally stable. Of course, I had good days and bad days. A funk hit me every so often. Overall, I managed that quite well.
Stress. Everyone’s favorite. It stemmed not from family, finances, or relationships. Those areas occasionally bothered me but only lasted a few days at most. Even when something happened, I coped with it well. I thought about it. What trigger consistently creeps up on me? What stressor is always there no matter what? Which area would I ignore as a problem and deny that it causes me harm? The signs all pointed to work.
A sudden, daunting realization struck me. I was preventing myself from being able to be the best version of myself. My health interfered with my ability to fulfill my job’s responsibilities, and my work-related stress hindered my health. It was a vicious cycle that needed to be broken.
It was time to make a tough decision. Do I take a step back from a position that I loved and focus on my health? Or do I continue pushing forward with work and risk my health getting worse? My common sense easily prioritized my health over work. My heart reminded me of my passion for this line of work. I was torn.
I scheduled appointments with both my therapist and primary care physician for the next morning. I saw my therapist first and informed her of my conundrum. She sat back and listened for the hour long session. She provided reasonable feedback throughout though. Ultimately, she echoed my logic and agreed that I need to cut back on work. If I resigned, I would be putting up the white flag, which was out of character for me. I seldom let anything get in my way when I had a vision. I was known for my work ethic. This would mean admitting defeat to a condition that was out of my control.
I consulted with my doctor later that morning. She knew me well, and I always respected her opinion. I brought up the matter to her. The first thing she asked was, “Do you have a plan?” Of course I did. I never made big life decisions without having a plan in place. I would simply pick up more hours at my part-time gig. That job possessed what I needed- flexible hours, twenty-five to thirty hours a week, and decent money. My physician went on. She described how stress directly impacts the pain and fatigue. “Anything you can do to reduce the stress I am in support of. I support the decision.”
Two experts validated the decision. I wanted a personal perspective. I called my dad and told him about it. He was shocked at first, “What?! Why?!” As I explained both sides of the argument, I could almost hear his voice soften in agreement. I spoke to a friend about it too. “You’re doing the right thing.” Later that afternoon, I emailed my supervisor with my resignation effective two weeks from now.
As hard as it was to send that email, I knew I was doing the right thing. Am I happy about the decision? Absolutely not. It pains me to think about. It is going to hurt my heart to pack up my office. It frustrates me that I have to go through another transition. I am grateful that I put myself into a position where I could take on part-time employment and still be financially stable. I will still be able to work towards my goals. It will also give me the time I need to focus on my health.
I am not the young man I once was. I am older now. I have a chronic medical condition that usually puts people totally out of commission and on disability. I am not one to give up. I just need to be more mindful of my body’s limitations. That is the harsh reality.
“It’s hard to feel like you are doing your best when you are constantly comparing yourself to the best version of yourself.”
-The Caring Counselor
Fibromyalgia. (2017, August 11). Retrieved August 4, 2019, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/fibromyalgia/symptoms-causes/syc-20354780
Rosenfeld, V. (n.d.). Sleep Apnea in Patients With Fibromyalgia: A Growing Concern. Retrieved August 4, 2019, from https://www.practicalpainmanagement.com/pain/myofascial/fibromyalgia/sleep-apnea-patients-fibromyalgia-growing-concern