Careers and Chronic Illness: How Do You Find One That Honors the Other?

This was my general state of being in one job in Cincinnati.

This was my general state of being in one job in Cincinnati.

I caught the end of The Devil Wears Prada the other night and something hit me.

Yes, I admit I’ve seen it more than once. And again I completely sympathized with Anne Hathaway’s character, whose job becomes her life even though she initially scoffed at the world she would soon give up everything to excel in.

For the first time, though, I got why I feel that way.

Only in the past year or so have I accepted that maybe I’m a bit of a workaholic, overachiever. People have started using the “type-A” label on me. The emotionally laid-back, tree-hugging, mantra-chanting side of me would never agree to that. But the work horse in me… yeah. Not that I’ve excelled to the furthest reaches of one career, mind you. But I’ve noticed a theme that I usually give 120% for as long as I can until I a) lose interest or b) my energy completely wanes and I’m left depleted, either with a momentary hiccup in health or a wallop that takes more than a year to bounce back from.

The most prevalent of this cycle was when I started teaching kiddie programs for wealthy Manhattan families. At each location I soon progressed from the basic art and creative movement classes developing new classes, cleaning up shoddily put together lesson plans and organizing or ordering new supplies in my free time between classes.  I did not get paid more for this. I was running ragged daily.

I got fidgety, and bumped my schedule down to mornings so that I could babysit for a family I had fallen in love with in the afternoons… and then I’d go rehearse or perform or produce whatever show I was doing at the time. I slept maybe four hours a night for weeks on end. I performed as Miranda in the musical premiere of The Tempest while designing and building costumes for a different show. Then I went directly to directing an adaptation of the Orestia I had written, a new three-month obsession. I wasn’t eating right, sometimes grabbing a gluten-full soft pretzel from a street vendor as my meal between morning classes, afternoon nannying and night rehearsals/performances.

The layered schedule that I had been mastering for years stopped working.

I crashed. Big time. I got really, really sick. Over the course of a few months my body pain became excruciating. I stopped being able to keep any food down. I lost my appetite completely, and dropped 25 pounds. I stopped getting my period. I was put on narcotic pain medication through a patch on my skin for ten months straight, so I was medicated 24/7 just to be able to walk. I had to quit my jobs. I stopped performing. It was bad.

It took over a year to get past that flare, and now, almost 4 years later, I still have to think very hard about how I move my body and for what length of time. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, and for a few years I did; I moved to Cincinnati, got a low-paying and long-houred but lovely job at one theatre where I met incredible people, performed regularly throughout the season and had time to bake, blog and sometimes spend hours in bed or on my yoga mat, restoring. It was good life, and I was happy.

After that contract ended I moved back to New York, promising to not teach again (far too much energy expenditure). I tried the auditioning thing steadily for a few months. I did get another few shows I loved and shot a few web commercials, but it was clear that I no longer had the energy for the pavement-pounding thing, especially as theater is such a low-income profession. I started exploring the idea of web videos for gluten-free baking. And then writing full-time, which would be much easier on my body. I felt healthy… enough.

So when the opportunity arose, I took on a full-time private chef gig on top of my writing clients.

I lasted ten months.

Interviewing the delightful chef Jehanjir Mehta for my column. I look SO TIRED in all of Brent's photos!

Interviewing the delightful chef Jehanjir Mehta for my column. I look SO TIRED in all of Brent’s photos!

So, here’s what I’d love to hear back from on your end: when you have a chronic illness, how do you choose a job / career that keeps your body happy, but also makes you a decent living and satiates your personal creativity?

I believe we have a short amount of time with this game called living and I’ve spent too much of it being sick to waste time doing things I don’t love. Of course no job is perfect, and there have been things about all of them that I would chose not to do if given the option. But I love to do so many things – write, bake, cook, provide, teach, play, discuss, create – and I have a habit of doing even the things I don’t beyond my physical capability.

Which is where this circles back to Anne Hathaway’s Andrea; the dangerous combo of a) wanting to do good at any job, even better than the person before me and b) being afraid of leaving it / doing a sub-par job and then having that job be the thing that could have taken me to the next level in my work. Andrea wants to be a journalist and a letter of recommendation from Miranda could get her practically any writing gig she wants; the startup company that I write for, build recipes for and edit for for free and spend the extra spoons I don’t have on may be the one to take off and start hiring on a full-time, full-benefited level… after I’ve walked away. It’s a deadly combo of fear.

But how do we have it all? I’ve been working with the theory of “enough”, lately. I don’t need as much of an income as I’d like. I just need enough. I don’t need a laundry list of accomplished pieces and projects at the year’s end. I just need enough to make me feel like I’ve contributed some good work. But unfortunately enough income in New York City with a chronic illness that I treat mostly naturopathically still means I need a healthy income. And creative projects? I have to work really hard at saying no to things because there’s just so much awesome stuff to participate in and write about.

So, there’s the rub.

How do you do it?

How do you have it all?!

Looking forward to your thoughts,

– Jacqueline


  1. Great Post! First of all I do not have it all and really do not think I want it all. Second I give my 110% 40 hours a week and want to play, travel, explore and adventure as much as possible. I live with a chronic illness and added another chronic illness to the one I already had in May 2012 – stress is SO NOT WORTH IT – LIVING MY LIFE IS!!! I recently sold my home and not being a homeowner does not define me. My greatest someone is my home and where he is I want to be:) Have a Great Day!

  2. Kim says:

    I think you are on the right track. There is a good bit of trial and error. Having good food close at hand and easy, stacks the deck in your favor for when life speeds up. ‘Cuz that happens.

  3. While I do not struggle with chronic illness, I do have IBS, which is certainly miserable at times. My work – and stress level and eating habits – hugely affect my health, and it’s a struggle I’ve had for a long time.

    Anyway, I appreciate your honesty. And I can’t even say I know the answer to the question. I know that I work way too much. And that I’m stressed out, and that I don’t feel good when I’m stressed out. And you’re totally right, that all I need is enough. I don’t have to have it all.

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