Hi Captain Awkward,
To make a long story short, I was recently diagnosed with a genetic condition that explains why I’ve had full back pain for the past five years. In those five years between symptom onset and a diagnosis the pain has just gotten worse.
I’m only 19 and going to university but I come home during the summer so I can save money (the city where I go to university is so ridiculously expensive) and be with my family. Unfortunately, my family is not the most understanding when it comes to my pain. My mum has the same genetic condition but a much milder form and while she seems to acknowledge on an intellectual level that I am in constant pain and because of that am suffering from depression, this doesn’t translate well into words or actions. She just seems exasperated that I’m not able to work 9 hours a day 6 days a week anymore. (My dad hasn’t voiced an opinion on the matter but I sense he’s disappointed that I’m not living up to my full potential.)
I need your help with the following two situations:
1. I need to resign from my job. I work at a small independently owned business and my boss has been nothing but understanding when it comes to my pain. However, I can hardly make it through even just 5 1/2 hours of work and I feel it’s unfair to my coworkers that I can’t show up to work on anything resembling a consistent basis. What can I say to my boss when I quit that is short and sweet so I don’t burst into tears in front of him? I want to thank him for being understanding while acknowledging that I have not been the best employee of late due to my pain.
2. I then need to tell my parents about my resigning. I have to go back to university in September so I’m only really quitting a few weeks early but money is tight for me and as I said, my mum isn’t the most understanding when it comes to my pain. Do you have any scripts for saying, “Hey, Mum, I’ve quit my job a few weeks early so when you come home from work you’re going to see me lazing around on the couch but I’d like you not to judge me for that?”
The good news is that when I go back to university I can access proper health services again (because rural Canada absolutely sucks when it comes to healthcare access) and get the specialized physiotherapy I need to help manage my pain. But in the meantime, I can’t really do much about my situation. If you or your readers could help make my remaining weeks at home a little less emotionally painful, I would appreciate any scripts/advice you have.
Sick and Tired
(female pronouns please)
Dear Sick and Tired,
This is a lot to handle all at once. I’m sorry your family is not being supportive. You don’t need pressure from your folks on top of everything else, and you aren’t doing anything wrong or “lazy” by taking care of yourself for a few weeks.
I am wondering if invoking the doctor who diagnosed you (& possibly getting some kind of doctor’s note from that person) would help with your parents, since they aren’t really listening to you. I am also wondering if attributing everything to your doctor would help you frame your resignation from work more easily for yourself. To be clear, you *shouldn’t* have to have the doctor’s say-so to be believed and be allowed to care for yourself, but our culture has a horrible tendency to discount women’s experiences of pain, so if being able to say “My pain is making it impossible to work and my doctor recommends that I take the next few weeks off to recuperate before school” helps you get the words out, don’t be shy about cloaking yourself in that authority, with or without a note or even contacting the actual doctor.
To resign from work without crying in front of your boss, write it down in a resignation letter or email.
I am resigning my position effective [date]. I am very sorry not to finish out the summer or provide more notice, but at my doctor’s recommendation I am taking a few weeks to recuperate before returning to university in the fall. I’ve enjoyed working with you and the team, and I greatly appreciate your flexibility and understanding these past few months.
Your boss has seen employees quit their jobs before. Your boss has most likely noticed that you are having trouble working and that you are suffering. It will be okay! You don’t need all of your medical details in the letter, just mention that there are medical reasons so that’s on record somewhere. Your boss will come find you after he or she gets the email, and you might cry. It’s okay. The hard part of delivering the information will be over.
As for your parents, I think you want to deliver something close to the same message:
“At my doctor’s recommendation, I am taking the last few weeks before school to rest and avoid further straining my body and aggravating my condition.”
See what they say to that. Their reaction is theirs (not something you caused, and not something you can prevent). If they make disappointed faces but keep hurtful things from coming out of their mouth-holes at you, call it a win and cut the conversation short for now. If they hit you with a lot of skepticism along the lines of – “Are you sure you really need to stay home?” “I have the same condition and it never stops me!” – try the blunt truth:
“It was not an easy decision, since it means trading financial strain for the hope of some physical relief (or at least not making the condition worse). Also, on top of feeling physically terrible and worried about money I have been very anxious about telling you, because I was worried that you’d be disappointed in me.”
Hopefully they’ll get it – btw a good parent answer here is a variation of “I’m not disappointed in you! I could never be disappointed in you! I’ve just been worried, for all the same reasons that you are. It’s really hard for me to see you in so much pain. I’m sorry if that’s been coming at you like disappointment when it’s the opposite of what I am feeling.”
If they don’t get it, draw the line:
“The decision is made, so can you try to be supportive? Dad, I would 1,000 times rather be at work than have you adding to the stress by acting like you don’t believe me and treating me like this is something I brought on myself. Mom, we have the same diagnosis but you don’t live in my body, so please don’t tell me how serious my pain is – you don’t know.”
Then end the conversation and see how it goes the next day.
Finally, if you want to, there is some stuff you can do to try to make the optics of staying home go a little smoother for the judgey “I guess you just did nothing all day like a goddamn princess” brigade. I say “try” because again, your parents’ reactions are about them, not about you. You do not have to be a certain amount of “productive” in order to be worthy of love and support. However, it if it will help you be able to say to yourself “I did my best to make this go okay for a couple of weeks” or “I am doing my best to have an adult relationship with my parents” or even “I’d like to feel like I could control something, anything right now” it might be worth it to try some new things out.
a) Do you know about ChronicBabe, a web community for young women with chronic illnesses? Now you do. You’re far away from school and far away from the reliable medical care you need, but you can talk to other people who are navigating the same life stuff as you.
b) To the extent that you can, try to get on a similar schedule to the rest of your household, and try to get up and go to bed at the same time every day. You may need a nap in the middle of the day to catch up on sleep when your parents are at work, and that’s fine (the point of taking time off is to rest, right? GET YOUR SLEEPS). There’s just something about a young person sleeping late that brings out the “It must be nice” in an already-critical parent, and no amount of linking to scientific literature about how much sleep young people need is gonna fix your parents’ attitudes about this between now and when you go back to school.
c) Break up the routine, especially the bad routines. For example, right when your mom comes home from work seems to be a point of maximum tension/worry for you- the idea that she’ll see you “lazing around.” Back in this letter, the LW found herself bracing for when her roommate comes home from work, because she knew it would be COMPLAINING TIME. What could you do to make that particular time of day less fraught? Is it simply a matter of being up & dressed & not in front of a TV & not easily available to her during that window right when she comes home? (This is all stuff that shouldn’t matter in how she treats you, but removing the source of friction might head some of the stuff you’re worried about off at the pass, plus it’s a thing you can control.)
d) Are there some routine household tasks that are within your current physical abilities that you could take on, without being asked or making a big deal of it? If your parents usually do the cooking, could they come home from work to dinner on the table a couple of nights a week? (Protip: Keep it simple and clean as you go so they come home to dinner and not a giant dish-pile). Does the living room need a duster run over it for a second or the kitchen floor need swept or the bathroom wastebaskets need emptied? Have the pets been watered/walked/litter boxes scooped? Do NOT do anything that hurts or strains you, and do NOT become Cinderella in an effort to “prove” your worth to others. Think: 15-30 minutes of “work”/day, and think of it as deciding to take up some space as a fellow adult in your household.
e) This may sound counterintuitive, but also on the subject of forming adult relationships with parents, see if you can spend positive time with them, like, family movie night with whatever’s new in at the library, playing board games together, asking them to teach you a family recipe, etc. When everybody’s shields are up, sometimes low-stakes positive interactions can release the tension.
f) Think ahead to the classes you are taking in the fall, find some good books at the library (your friend, when money is tight!) or articles or online tutorials on the topic, and dive in. My recommendation? Delve into the fun, interesting topics that you enjoy, not the ones that you have to slog through right now. You only have to do a little bit every day to be able to supply “I did some reading for my courses this fall to get ready” or “I taught myself some video editing” to a loaded “So…what did you do all day?” A dubious “Hrmmm” from your folks (vs. starting an argument where they get to say how disappointed they are) is a victory here.
g) Lean on your local friends and do things that you enjoy outside the house with them when possible, and Skype/text with your non-local friends. If your parents make you feel judged and lonely, one of the best things you can do to take care of yourself is to get around people who like you and who are nice to you.
I was raised with a “If you are too sick to go to school or work you are too sick to do literally anything that might give you pleasure” mentality. When I got older and I got dx’d with some mental health conditions (and lately when I’m dealing with some chronic mobility & pain issues) it’s been really effing hard to get the voice out of my head that says I don’t deserve to do anything enjoyable because I haven’t “earned” it. If I give in to that voice, it creates a self-defeating cycle, because avoiding the good/fun stuff isn’t gonna suddenly make me able to do the stuff I can’t do right now – it’s just gonna make me more depressed and isolated. If your parents try coming at you with the “Oh, you couldn’t work but you can go swimming with your friends! I see how it is!” bullshit, remind yourself and them: “When I was working I was in so much pain and so exhausted that swimming with my friends would have been impossible. Now that I am learning to listen to my body, I can go swimming for a little while, and being in the pool takes the pressure off my back. That’s good news, right?”
h) Remind yourself: It’s not forever. One day at a time. One week at a time. Soon you’ll be back at school. The time is gonna go so fast.
Edited to add: i) Remind yourself: BREAKS ARE VALUABLE. For you, a break is essential, because you are in pain and maybe rest can help your body feel better. Even if you weren’t dealing with a health condition, breaks/vacations/holidays would be valuable and good. So: Read for pleasure. See your friends. Catch up on your sleep. Watch some movies & TV. Do your hobbies. Work at being alive and feeling good. Resist the idea that you must be or appear “productive” at all times or you have wasted your time. ❤ ❤ ❤