For the last several weeks, I have been filled with ideas for blog posts, but have been working so many hours that I have deferred them to a future, calmer time. In preparation for a long-awaited spinal fusion surgery this coming week, I have been trying hard to clear the decks at work and at home. I don’t know if I have been succeeding, but one thing has become increasingly clear: I would not have been able to put the recent amount of hours on the clock I have without crashing and burning, were it not for the protective bubble of pandemic-related health and safety protocols around me. For the first time in my adult life, I have now passed 13 consecutive months with zero viral illnesses.
Lest the significance of this be lost, let me explain that I have been living with auto-immune disease for about 12 years. During that time, I have frequently become ill from viruses that I have been exposed to at work, while traveling, and out and about in my community. Friends, family, and co-workers can attest that I have probably caught a virus – cold, flu, pink eye, etc. – almost once a month that entire time.
The average adult gets sick a few times per year. I, on the other hand, get sick more easily, more frequently, more severely, and for a longer duration because of my immunosuppressed condition. And I have to manage recovery from all these viruses while I also manage an invisible, chronic condition characterized by pain, swelling, and fatigue, and one that does not abate with adequate rest. If someone would have told me a couple of years ago that I could live in VA for months, drive 2,000 miles, start a new job in Mexico, put up 70 hour weeks, and never once get sick in a year’s time plus, I would have laughed in their face.
Off and on between 2006 and 2014 when I didn’t have work parking, I was more or less a daily DC Metro commuter; I caught pink eye dozens and dozens of times. I bought and threw away cheap drugstore mascaras constantly, and could first detect the first signs of conjunctivitis when I blinked and felt the slightest tackiness, days before any telltale rose color appeared. Although my now-husband and I lived together, I was so aggressive with my prescription medication he only caught it from me once.
Every time someone came into the office with the sniffles, I would catch a cold that would linger for weeks. Colleagues teased me for my liberal use of hand sanitizer and for always being the person to pass it around at work lunches and happy hours – as far back as 2007, when people really weren’t doing this like they are now, I was.
I’m not a germaphobe, but I soon discovered that when I would come zipping into the office and eat breakfast without having washed my hands from my morning commute, within a few days I would get a terrible cold. I cannot even count the times I sat next to someone in a meeting who swore they were “almost over a cold” only to have it running through me like wildfire within 48 hours. “Again?” people would tut, as I felt a defensive shame/anger rise in the pit of my stomach.
As a result of these realities, I have called out sick to work over the past 15 years of my career more times than I care to recall, and burned many, many hundreds of hours of sick leave. I have been on an exhausting cycle of pedal-to-the-metal, work as hard as I can to stay on top of everything, get sick, try to soldier through, crash and burn, try to recuperate, more soldiering, more crashing, coming back up on all cylinders and going hard again, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum. If it were just a matter of “battling,” anyone who knows me knows that I would win every time. Alas, not every battle is mental.
Before very busy times in the office, like high-level visits and all-hands on deck efforts, there have been times I felt I was the intended recipient of pointed comments from supervisors to the team about everyone needing to rest up and be ready to go full throttle. The guilt I always felt at hearing this was horrible, because I already knew that, despite working too many long hours when I was at work, I was already doing everything in my power to stay healthy and manage myself – exercise, sleep, hand washing and sanitizing, compliance with medication, social support, and resiliency.
Again, with invisible illnesses, even when you have an understanding supervisor and team, and backup systems in place, it can be difficult for others to understand the ebbs and flows of energy, and the flare-ups of symptoms (“you look fine”) from one day to the next. When you don’t have a supportive workplace, you may face downright skepticism and dismissal about your health situation and a kind of eye-rolling that you have yet another illness that has you curled up in bed and unable to push through.
If there is a silver lining to this hideously tragic and disruptive COVID-19 pandemic for me personally, it is this: I am now certain of two important things I could not prove before.
One, it is possible for me to live healthfully while still working hard, and it isn’t my fault that I was sick all the time before, but rather a function of what I was exposed to in society, particularly in the workplace, and how the negative impacts to me were both culturally acceptable and totally dismissed. And two, the workplace flexibilities we have made around remote working and insisting that people do not come to work if they have signs and symptoms of illness must continue as we transition to whatever living in a world with COVID-19 looks like.
On the first point, last week marked my seventh consecutive month physically in the office here in Ciudad Juárez, and I have not gotten sick. I have been working 60 and sometimes even 70 hours a week. Sometimes I don’t sleep enough, or get dehydrated. Where’s the crash? Where’s the burn? What’s so different?
Well, I haven’t been in anyone’s home for almost a year. I have not been alone with anyone not wearing a mask except my husband during the pandemic. Ever. None of my colleagues and I come within six feet of one another, and we try to avoid touching each other’s things. I almost never eat out (and in 2021 I have not eaten out yet due to a special diet) and rarely travel. I’m wearing a mask whenever I appear in public. I regularly sanitize surfaces I touch like my keyboard, steering wheel, keys, phone, and so on.
Is all of this sustainable? No, it isn’t. I would like to see a return to a life filled with fun and people together outside of a virtual space, the way my life was before. Will I continue my hand washing and sanitizing the way I have been doing all these years – and, hopefully, the way other people have learned the importance of doing? Absolutely.
But to the second point, I sincerely hope that as people transition physically back to the workplace in the coming months (?), we do not start to become lax about health at work and people needing to stay home when they do not feel well. That goes not only for concerns related to COVID-19, but for any viral illness. No coming to work sneezing (“It’s not the coronavirus, it’s just a flu!”).
I was talking with a few of my colleagues recently about how in the past I felt like if I moved away from someone who was sick in the office, that I was being rude to that person, going to hurt their feelings, or acting “fearful” or “freaked out” about illness, which I am neither. And we were saying that now we all feel it’s the person who comes to work sick that is being rude and potentially harmful to others – particularly if they have sick leave to use or, if not feeling unwell but just concerned they have something contagious, are able to work remotely from home. Why would they come in and expose their whole team to germs? (Of course, I am talking about an office environment that permits remote work rather than essential workers or the American workforce writ large, many of whom do not have paid leave, which is a much bigger issue to parse out.)
We were speculating that we would feel much more comfortable having these conversations now and changing the culture around what it means to stay healthy at work, and over these months I have started to feel empowered and aware and relieved about this. Maybe it sounds obvious, but in the absence of any data (which now I have, 13 months of perfect health that no one else has been allowed to screw up for me), I always just felt like I had to adapt myself and that the problem was with me. Now I see the problem is on a much bigger, societal level.
As we move forward, I will be looking for ways to hold enough space and distance to be newly and fully present, in work and life, and still maintain my health. Will this be wearing a mask sometimes? Will this be no longer shaking hands with anyone? Will this be standing farther away from people? I will have to see what works for me. But protecting myself from the damage that other people’s health choices may inflict will not be something I ever apologize for again. The pandemic, our national response, and the lingering sense that a stunning swath of the compatriots I risk my well-being to represent abroad are fine and dandy with people like me being collateral damage as long as they can carry on with their “freedoms” has made that abundantly clear for me.
For the time being, I am almost ready to go into the hospital for back surgery. In preparation, I have lost over 33 lbs since New Year’s Day in light of my larger health goals and also hoping to ease my post-surgical recovery. I am putting myself first in 2021, and come what may, I have been living the life I have chosen and the life I love.