Visible and Invisible Illness at Work (the Rock and the Hard Place)

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I traveled back to my hometown, Huntsville AL, this week for business meetings. I picked up some gnarly laryngitis at the airport and was pretty sick for most of my trip. I ended up losing most of my voice, with it being reduced to a raspiness that made my sickness obvious to anyone I spoke to at all. This provided an interesting new experience for me – conducting business with an outwardly obvious physical illness.

Of course I am well used to working and achieving while ill, sometimes quite ill. The difference is that my usual ailments are concealable the vast majority of the time. I have sat through meetings stoically with my bladder on fire. I have walked miles with a heavy backpack with my back aching like its about to break. I have smiled and said “I’m doing good, how are you?” when I am in pain that the average person has never experienced and likely never will. My tears are reserved only for pain that is worse than usual.

With my voice so effected, there was no way of concealing this one. It was interesting to see how people deferred to me, how they wished me fast recovery and told me to rest. The people around me were impressed that I carried on and worked so hard despite being so sick, never cancelling a meeting, pitching again and again despite my speech being painful and difficult.

The funny part for me was of course that laryngitis is no worse than what I deal with everyday with chronic pain. From my perspective, why would I let a stuffy nose and red throat keep me from working? Does my interstitial cystitis keep me from working? Do my migraines, back pain and chronic fatigue? No. Laryngitis is a walk in the park. If my bladder isn’t flaring and I don’t have a migraine, laryngitis is an easy day. And yet I received more sympathy than I have in a long time.

So do I prefer the visible or invisible ailments? While choosing between the two is like choosing between a rock and a hard place, they each have their own unique pros and cons. Being able to hide my pain is convenient when I want to put on a happy face and direct attention to something other than my complicated health situation. However, getting a little extra leeway from an outwardly visible affliction is also helpful at times. I think in the end, I am satisfied that most people forget about my illness or fail to notice it most of the time, but it’s also nice for them to be generally informed so I can ask for a little extra consideration when I truly need it. So in a way, I am not unhappy with my position.

What are the unique implications of your health at work? Here are some suggestions for dealing with invisible illness in the workplace. 

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