My body has the really lovely habit of only getting sick during those work periods when I absolutely can’t afford to get sick, with the exception of those times I get sick for the entire duration of a long-awaited vacation.
This first came to my attention when I suffered a bout of conjunctivitis (which tailed a cold) so unpleasant that all of the veins in my eyes burst from being inflamed and infected for so long. This was after a hard few months of a long commute to work and paying off lots of student loans by tightening my belt, so I really appreciated spending my vacation in a dark room with sunglasses on, continually re-applying ointment to my infected eyes.
When I returned to work I felt much better, but my eyes looked like something out of a horror movie, and I had to explain to everyone that no, they’re not infected, that was just the aftermath.
A year later, I woke up the morning I was scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C., to run a conference I had been planning for months to find that both my eyes were crusted shut, thanks to yet another conjunctivitis infection. (I never got this illness as a child, but apparently it’s my go-to as an adult.) Absence was not an option, so I spent much of those first two days running things while feeling like I was about to keel over, and not taking it personally when no one would shake my hand.
This past week, I woke up feeling as though I had been run over by a truck, with a sore throat that makes my occasional hacking cough that much more unpleasant. This week is, of course, one of our busiest all year, and my attendance is near-mandatory. This time I’m lucky not to look like one of the waking dead, but I do wonder why this tends to happen when I’m at my busiest, and if I handle myself as well as I should.
Part of my problem is that I don’t like to be seen as a complainer, and I like to make sure my work reflects my abilities. Illness, then, gets in the way of my ultimate financial and professional ambitions. Unless there is something visibly wrong with me, I feel that I should continue on as normal, with only multiple extra hand-washings a day to mark any difference.
I don’t want to get people at work sick — and in the case of the conference-conjunctivitis, my attendance really was mandatory and I touched nothing that other people would be touching (or my own face). If I had a fever, for instance, or something that made my presence truly disgusting to work around, I would stay home.
But I do sometimes think that though my attitude of “work through the pain” may not come at a cost to my career and my bank account, it could come at a cost to my health. These choices would, of course, be easier to make if they appeared during our less-stressful months — I wouldn’t hesitate to take a day off when I could easily catch up on emails at home — but even so, every time I wake up feeling horrible and know I need to finish a project, I wonder if it would be so terrible, in the long-run, to put myself first and email my boss that I can’t make it in, or if this is a generational weakness I’m trying to correct through my own stubborn inability to say no to anything and anyone.
For now, I’m downing orange juice and washing my hands every time I cough while I make it through an abnormally long day.