I’m still processing this one, so I will likely have further reflections down the road, but like many others, chronic illness has dramatically impacted my ability to work. In fact, it led to my involuntary disability retirement.
I served on active duty in the US Air Force for close to 11 years. For the first 6 of them, and much of the 7th, I was the picture of health. Then a deployment to Afghanistan and toxic exposures led to declining health–acute for a very brief time, then gradual, until I slipped off the plateau in 2015 and steadily declined from there. So now here we are.
I have a much longer post that I’ve been working on for a while that goes into a lot more detail about my illness history, but suffice it to say, my health became bad enough that, having a career that carries certain physical requirements and regular health and physical fitness check-ups, I couldn’t hide my illness forever and wound up under medical review, then facing a medical board to decide whether I should be allowed to continue serving or not.
Last week Friday, 16 March 2018, was my last day of work. After some touching and very kind farewells, I came home and took off my uniform, presumably for the last time. Tomorrow, Monday, is going to feel very strange, because I won’t be getting up for work. The future is now uncertain. I know that geographically I am where I want to be. I live in the home where I want to live, in the town where I want my kids to finish growing up (my oldest is already getting close), with the family I always wanted. I have a guaranteed pension, as I was forced into early retirement, which means military pension, and rated 100% disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which means disability compensation for my service-incurred injuries/illnesses, so money is not the all-consuming problem it is for many people in my situation–chronically ill and unable to work full time.
Still, there will be a fairly drastic reduction in income, and that means either applying for more disability benefits (Social Security, which definitionally should be very easy to get, but according to friends is in fact very difficult to get without hiring a lawyer and fighting the Administration tooth and nail to follow their own regulatory guidance), or trying to find a new job, or do independent work on an unpredictable basis. At times, that terrifies me, while at others I feel at peace with it and confident that everything will work out, because I know I am where I am supposed to be, and did not choose my life circumstances or the premature termination of my career. On the other hand, a great many people who do not deserve to be in poverty or struggling to survive, are forced to do just that, so one cannot be too confident in his First World privilege. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Outcomes are not always determined by merit. I’m sure we can all think of rotten people who seem to have “all the luck,” and saintly people who have had to struggle all their lives and face unspeakable pain on a recurring basis. Still, I feel in my heart that everything will be all right, even if my thoughts sometimes turn to panic over the future.
To make a long story short (for now), though, chronic illness doesn’t just take away our ability to attend late-night outings with family and friends. It doesn’t just keep us away from the movie theater or make travel difficult. It can affect our very ability to make ends meet financially, and put unbelievable stress on a family and on relationships. It can also take away our sense of self-worth, since so many 21st Century cultures place value on an individual’s productivity, i.e. see people as a tool or a means to an end, rather than recognizing the intrinsic value in that person’s simply being. This is a particularly difficult problem for those of us with chronic illness, as losing the ability to advance in careers or even to have a career can drastically diminish our sense of self-worth, and lead to a whole host of mental health problems as a result.
So last week was my last week wearing the uniform of my country, and the end of a decade+ career. I wonder how I’ll feel about that in a week, in a month, in a year? For now, I plan to focus on healing and rest. I’ve been in a negative spoon trap (using more energy each day at work than I had to give) for at least the last 2.5 years, and it was slowly killing me (and making my illness worse). And that was with accommodations in place that reduced my working hours to 6 hour days and included a mid-week day (Wednesdays) teleworking to reduce the impact on my body.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that just like facing a chronic illness itself, losing a career to a chronic illness is a mourning process, with all of the stages of grief. And in my case at least, the stages are not linear–it’s possible to be at acceptance one day and go all the way back to denial the next. Somehow, though, I trust that things happen for a reason, and that looking back this will have been a positive step, since as I mentioned before continuing to work in my present career was slowly killing me. Now I can focus on wellness, my family, and trying to find something that is less demanding on my both physically and cognitively.
Yes, I know I’m “out of uniform” since the #BlueHeartBadge is not an authorized uniform accessory, but not all disabilities are visible and it’s pretty hard (and senseless) to prosecute a retired guy for such a minor infraction.