On Working Through a Health Crisis

I had mental health issues in 1991 that caused me to be hospitalized for two weeks, after which I received a diagnosis of bipolar illness. My psychiatrist at the time encouraged me to go back to my full-time teaching job immediately after getting out of the psychiatric ward. This was hard, but I think it was the best thing I could have done in the long run.

I remember I was hospitalized in the summer right before the fall semester began. I didn’t have my textbooks to create a syllabus. My brother drove 150 miles over to Pennsylvania to get them. (I was hospitalized in my home state of Ohio.) I remember sitting in the psych ward lounge, writing my syllabus and course calendar. People asked me what I was doing. I guess I looked strange, pouring over a writing text, scribbling notes on yellow legal pads. I guess, I might have looked like I had it all together. Of course, I didn’t, but the drugs I was given had stabilized me enough to concentrate on paperwork.  

After this experience, I stayed two years at the university in Pennsylvania. There, I grew lonelier and lonelier until I decided to move back to Ohio, where a year later, I met my future husband and things got better.

If I hadn’t jumped back into my life as it was at the time, I may never have returned to an existence of relative normalcy, a life of functioning in a job on my own, in my own home.

This same sort of situation happened again when I had breast cancer years later in 2011. I had to have three cancer treatments — chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy. At the beginning of my chemo, I needed to decide if I was going to continue to work at my teaching job, or if I was going to take a leave of absence. 

I consulted with my psychologist, who said, “Keep your job; it will keep your mind off of your predicament.” At her advice, I continued to work all throughout my cancer treatments. I was working part-time, teaching two writing classes at a local university, so this was doable. I could also manage it because I had a great friend, Leslie, who subbed for me when I just couldn’t drag myself in. All in all, during those few semesters, I missed four classes, but that was better than quitting cold turkey, better than staying home and, most likely, sleeping all day, out of touch with the world.

Currently, a friend of mine is having a mental health problem. She’s experiencing frequent, severe panic attacks that are interfering with her day-to-day life. She has a high-powered job in marketing; she creates websites for a financial services company. Her boss knows of her predicament and has offered her a leave of absence. She recently asked me what I thought she should do.

Based on my experience, I advised her to try to hold onto her normal life — to not quit her day job. But I also stressed that the decision was ultimately between her psychiatrist and her.  

Note: For some, the appropriate thing to do might be to drop everything and regroup, to pull back from day-to-day life.  This wasn’t my experience, but it could be the experience of many individuals.

Things have a way of working out. I talked to my friend last night and learned that her boss has offered her the opportunity to work from home for a while — a great compromise. She’ll have the shelter of her apartment, but she’ll still have something productive to do; she’ll have to set goals and meet them. It’s a win/win situation.

The decision concerning continuing to work through an illness can be a dicey one. Again, consulting with your doctor is best. He or she knows you and what you’re up against and what you’re capable of.

I didn’t quit my day jobs. My decisions led me to ultimate success. I’m here to tell about it.

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