I'm a business owner with a chronic illness. This is what I want you to know
plus how to be a supportive friend to a sick friend, collaborator, or client
by Brittany Taylor
published November 8, 2017
updated June 5, 2018
¶ Hi. My name is Brittany Taylor and I am a ghostwriter with a chronic illness. I have an autoimmune disease called ulcerative colitis. And I’m OK with that. It’s better to know what it is than to not know, which is what some of my professional friends are struggling with at the moment.
I have good days—great days, even. Great weeks! Great months! And then, with no warning, I careen down a Chutes and Ladders-style slide and I’m back at the beginning, feeling sick and miserable and weak and depressed, wondering how the fuck I’m going to run our businesses when I can’t muster the energy to make myself a sandwich or get my behind out of the bathroom.
Today is one of those days, and this is what I want you to know about what it’s like to do what you do, only sick.
We deal with life differently
When you’re a person with a chronic illness, sometimes it helps to recognize that there are people out there who have it worse than you do, for whatever reason. It makes you feel lucky in comparison. It makes you feel like Fate didn’t hand you the shortest straw in the hay stack. It’s a shitty way to feel better about yourself, but you have to take the good vibes where you can get them.
When you’re a business owner with a chronic illness, though, pushing yourself to realize how relatively fortunate you are can backfire. It can make you take your illness less seriously than you ought to, and it can make you hustle and grind until you incapacitate yourself. It’s doubly important for sick bosses to know our limits and practice self-care. If we don’t, we risk being out of commission. We risk relapse. We risk hospitalization. We risk all sorts of things I don’t even want to think about.
Sometimes, the choice is “feel better” or “do the work”
I’m rounding the corner into my fourth hour of stomach cramps so bad, I’m doubled over in my comfy chair. They’re like food poisoning cramps, when you're pretty sure that bad chicken salad you ate is going to kill you.
There’s a bottle of pills in my nightstand that would take them away in about 10 minutes. I’m fantasizing about that pill bottle right now; it’s not a healthy fixation. The thing about the pills, though, is they make me so loopy, I can’t do anything other than sort of stare at a television. I once responded to a client email after I thought one of these pills had worn off; I had to apologize the next day after rereading it.
So, instead of taking a pill, I’m writing this to you now to let you know that even when there are “feel better” options, those options come with fine print that can derail any sort of business-running plans we’ve made.
We’re really good at hiding the bad times
People with chronic illnesses tend to experience depression and anxiety. I check both of those boxes. It’s not a constant malaise, either. It truly does come and go, and when it comes, it settles in like a fog over my brain. Sometimes, I can work through it, just like sometimes, you can put your fog lights on and keep on driving. But occasionally, it’s a cloud that envelopes me and blocks everything else out.
If I was working with you, I’d never tell you this.
If you follow me on social media, you might be able to pick up on a bad day if I was feeling share-y on Instagram. Probably not, though, because I’ve gotten used to straightening my spine and walking like a normal person through the grocery store when I’d rather be balled up in bed, eyes clenched shut against the cramping. I’ve perfected my “I can’t video call today because my wifi is down, let’s just hop on the phone” explanation when the real reason is that I don’t want you to see me grimace. I’m great at summoning a full day’s worth of energy to make it through a client pitch, and then sleeping ‘til dinner.
Because this is normal.
These are the choices business owners with chronic illness have to make sometimes. These are the ways we cope. These are the excuses we’ve mastered to avoid talking about how much time we’ve spent agonizing over whether or not we can do the thing today or if we can make it through the call without running to the bathroom or if it’s realistic to schedule work after a treatment.
Why I’m telling you this now
The easiest thing for us to do is not to talk about it. We don’t like to ask for help. We don’t like to ask for allowances or an extended deadline or to reschedule an appointment. And when we do, we really don’t want to give you the real reason we’re asking—and you don’t really want the whole story, either, because it’s not pretty. It’s exhausting and frustrating and tear-jerking and, quite often, TMI.
I’m telling you this so you can bring empathy to the table.
Here is another working woman's experience with chronic illness (hers: Diabetes)
How to be a good friend, collaborator, and client of a business owner with a chronic illness
How can you help? How can you be supportive? How can you put a smile on our faces? What should you say? What would actually help? These six things:
The next time you see a boss post a “just can’t,” “sleeping it off,” “taking a sick day” update on social media, send them a hug. Send them a heart emoji. Let them know they’re seen and loved.
The next time a business owner asks for advice on a roadblock they’re facing, don’t tell them to grind through it. “Work harder” isn’t constructive and it can make us feel like shit because sometimes working harder isn’t an option. “Try this” or “keep at it” is much more helpful.
The next time you reach out to a boss and they aren’t responsive, give them the benefit of the doubt. If you need to follow up, do so kindly and suggest options for moving forward or responding that are easy and don’t require a lot of groundwork, thought, or effort. Think: “Checking in on this. To meet our deadline, I do need X by Y date. If you can give me a thumbs up/thumbs down on the color/layout/filter/whatever, that’s enough for me to continue work.”
The next time you’re scheduling or rescheduling an appointment, provide a link to your calendar or a wide range of options rather than replying with a curt, “I have Tuesday from 3 to 3:30 open.” More options means less back-and-forth to find a date and time that will work for you and find us at a time when we’ll be working at our best.
The next time you see an entrepreneur talk about their chronic illness, support them in raising the topic because it’s hard and sometimes embarrassing to admit. If you’re dealing with one, too, raise your hand. We truly are all in this together, whether we’re working through the same struggles or not.
And don’t offer medical advice unless you’re asked for it, OK?
My name is Brittany, but my friends and clients call me "Britt." Online small business owners hire me to create content strategies and write their blog posts, email newsletters, and social media updates. I work with bosses around the world from the marshes of Charleston, S.C.
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