”Have you considered that you might not be able to work as a lawyer now?”
I was presented with this question when I first got diagnosed with lymphedema – and you’ve got to be dreaming; no, I was not going to put all my professional dreams aside because of that change of situation! I truly believed in being able to practice law and I fought my way through the remaining part of law school despite constant hospitalization and side effects of the cancer treatment. And when I finished law school, I was offered the exact job, I wanted, in the top of public administration.
I had proven to both myself and others that I could go where I wanted to go professionally; nothing was going to hold me back. But it turned out not to be that easy.
The job, I said yes to back then, is in a place where things can suddenly explode and you need to react fast and produce the relevant material immediately. At the same time the workload is – as in many other places – much larger than what you can actually manage. Officially my co-workers and I work 37 hours pr. week, but realistically it is more like 50. And we are always a bit behind.
In the early spring of 2017 – after having been working full-time for 1 year – it got too much for me – and I did not realize it until it was too late to salvage with just a few days off. Both my body and my mind broke down. I called in sick for work on a Monday morning and I was not able to return until a Monday 6 months later. I had been struck by stress.
This was a wake-up call like I’d never could have imagined. And it made me realize that I would have to make some groundbreaking changes in the way I think and act. Especially when experiencing what an effect this mental and physical mess had on my lymphedema. (You can read more about lymphedema and stress here.) This experience made me realize that some ways of working and living just don’t work when you have lymphedema – at least not in my case.
And what is most important; my health (and myself) or work?
A change of mindset
I grew up in a family that did not have a ton of money. It was a natural part of everyday life that we kids – from the early teenage years – had some kind of job after school, so we could earn money to buy that new bicycle, the newest clothes in the local clothing store or the new pink Samsung-mobilephone. I have – thankfully – been brought up with a high working morale and I have seen my parents putting in many hours to work their way up the latter. I knew from the age of 10 that I wanted to be a lawyer, even though nobody else in my family had an academic education. I wanted to get far; I wanted to use my brain to get ahead in either a public or private work setting.
After being diagnosed with cancer, there was already a change of mindset. Not dramatically, but some. After being sick I realized that I did not want to work in one of the top law firms, putting in 60-70 hours a week and focusing on just my career. I realized that there were so many other things I wanted to get out of life and I wanted to focus on being happy; writing, having time for my family and friends and learning new things, like speaking French or drawing. However, the high working morale kept the same and working hard to fulfil the expectations of the work place was still a natural part of my work related instinct.
When I started at my first full-time job as a lawyer, I dived into it completely. I worked late on many evenings if I felt like the 37 hour work week was not sufficient for me to keep up and I automatically skipped things like my yoga class or going to swim if it made more sense to me to get more work done instead. At some point it escalated; I was not capable of “shutting down” my brain when I left work and got home; I kept on thinking about all my cases and all the things I had to do the following day; if I could have made mistakes in the latest material for the boss or that I would not be able to meet a deadline. I was not able to sleep. I was not able to concentrate because of the lack of sleep and I had to put in more hours to be just half as productive as I used to be. My brain seemed to be burning out – and as things got worse and worse in my head, my body began to struggle as well and the erysipelas infections kept on knocking me out and leaving me sick in bed. At some point I finally broke.
The whole experience with stress – in combination with my lymphedema – taught me that I would have to make dramatic changes if I wanted to stay healthy and be capable of working at the same time. Even though it meant changing my whole way of thinking and acting in relation to work.
Work will never be the same again
Work will truly never be the same again. I have realized that I undoubtedly had some unhealthy working patterns and ways of thinking. And at the same time I did not listen to my body and especially my lymphie legs.
I am now therefore doing things very differently in relation to work. Because I found out that I need to have a work-life balance that works for me and my body.
Down below I have listed some of the things that I now focus on in relation to work to create a healthier living.
- My health and I are the most important things. Previously I might have felt bad if I could not manage to do all the things that I felt my employer expected of me, but I now prioritize my well-being instead.
- I do not work more than 37 hours a week. This makes it possible for me to have time for other things that are important, both to me personally and my lymphedema, like exercise. Also, it is just not working well for my legs to be sitting in an office chair-position much more than that; it will worsen my edema. Any way, my employer has hired me to work 37 hours a week and if I should be asked to solve more tasks than can be managed within that amount of hours, then it is too bad. They can hire more people!
- I now focus on listening to my body; can I handle the workload, should I ask for some of my tasks to be taken away from my desk, am I sure I have the resources for that big assignment I have been offered and so on.
- I might have a lot of ideas of what I would like to do work-wise, but they might not all be possible. I will not be able to work at the largest law firms or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because I simply cannot handle the pace and the hard working environment, especially in relation to the amount of working hours expected. And that is okay. When I first accepted this, I actually kinda liked the idea of working less and having more time for all the things I love to do.
- Life is what happens outside of work. That might sound natural to some, but for me it has taken some time getting in to the habit of actively thinking like that. That means that I will not prioritize work over exercise, plans with friends and family and so on. If I am mentally feeling happy – which the things outside of work has an important role in ensuring – then my lymphedema will not be as problematic. Because my body is connected to my head, so if the head is not doing well, my lymphedema is not either.
- When I walk out of the gates at work, I stop thinking about work. This is also a matter of mental well-being. I used to continue thinking about my cases when I got home, but this is an extremely unhealthy habit and now I stop this line of thoughts when I realize them going through my head.
To some people all or some of the things listed above might sound unrealistic, but that is not the case. It is a simple matter of you making the decision that this is the way it should be.
I have learned the hard way that the head and the body is much more connected than most people ever come to realize. That is why it has become so important to me to actually having a well-functioning work life-balance – because that it what will keep me going in the long run and keep my lymphedema at a level where it does not spin out of control.