Awkward Conversations…

I’ve already told you the rather dramatic incident I had at my current job when I tried to talk to my boss about being invisibly ill. You can read all about it here. Let’s face it – being invisibly ill is going to start a lot of awkward conversations. ESPECIALLY in the workplace.

My invisible illness is endometriosis. Endo is hard to talk about without mentioning unmentionables. Men who are faint of heart might want to skip to the next paragraph. When I explain endo, I have to use words like “uterus” and “ovaries” and that tends to freak people out. And hey, I can admit it, endo is gross. I’m certainly not a fan. But moving on, I have a little story to share.

Once upon a time, me and my then-fiance worked in a really great restaurant. He waited tables and I hosted. I mean it when I say we adored working there. It was one of my favorite jobs I’ve ever had. One of the reasons we loved working there were the people we worked with. We were very good friends with one of the managers – the young one who was in charge of scheduling. He was a newlywed himself, and he had honeymooned at the exact resort we had booked. I had already had my surgery for endo and was doing much better, but still had to take days off occasionally for pain. Since the schedule manager was such a good friend, I thought I could share with him my true reasons for taking off work, rather than having my fiance just tell them I had a cold or something.

I don’t remember how this conversation started, but my memory begins around the time I said the word “endometriosis.”

My manager buddy – we’ll call him Mike – was sitting at a table with me, smiling as always, and replied “Yeah, I think I’ve heard of that. It’s uh…what is it again?”

Being a very young, very newly diagnosed girl, I was SO excited that someone wanted me to talk about being sick. I was hungry for understanding. So I launched right in. I told him how I was born with my ovaries just not quite set up perfectly, and that once a month–

At that point, Mike hastily stood up, looking at the front of the empty restaurant and saying “Yeah, I think I have heard of that, will you excuse me I think I–”

And he was gone. I sat there, at first shocked and hurt, followed by feeling deeply embarrassed. Very young, very newly diagnosed me had just learned a hard lesson: Don’t talk about being sick.

Of course, that’s NOT the lesson to take from this at all. There’s a definite stigma about illness, and we’re trained not to talk about it, ill and well alike. In fact, one of my closest friends was sick for years before telling me about it, and she only told me because I shared my diagnosis with her. I noticed her taking pills and taking sick days and even asked about it all. Even between two close friends, the subject is taboo.

I have one more story: Once upon a time, I was working at Party City. It was the WORST job I have ever had. I did not know I had endo. One morning before work, I woke up in agonizing pain and begged my mom to take me to the ER. Now, work should have been the last thing on my mind, but I did call them while I was on the way to the ER. I told them “I am sick and going to the ER.” Their (unedited) response?

“Okay, well your shift starts at ten and you’d better be here.”

I quit that job.

At every job I’ve ever had, being ill has come up in one way or another. And every manager, boss, or shift leader I’ve worked under has had to have “THE AWKWARD CONVERSATION.” I can’t think of one invisible illness that isn’t awkward to talk about. Weather it’s physical or mental, if you don’t look sick, it’s awkward to say you are. And people don’t know how to react.

So I want to hear from YOU GUYS!

How do you let your boss or teachers know that you’re sick? How did they react? Have people been jerks to you? Was it totally awkward? Do you have any success stories?

We need to end the illness taboo. So leave us your stories in the comments, and we’ll post our favorites on the blog!

8 thoughts on “Awkward Conversations…

  1. I’ve had similar experiences and sympathize with ya! I have Crohn’s disease, and when it comes to discussing it with people, I find that more generalized opening statements traumatize newcomers less, though I can’t help those who’ve heard of the disease because, “Oh hey, my friend’s aunt had that or something,” jump to conclusions, and bellow, “OHMYGODDDD YOU MEAN YOU POOP ALL THE TIME?!”

    It’s like, honestly, people? Guys, you should be more ashamed of your browser histories than of your bodily functions. Guess which one’s been around longer? And guess which one’s normal?

    As a cashier at a grocery store, I am required to stand in one spot for eight hours a day, with two breaks and a lunch. I finally got around to telling my boss about it a few months after working there, because I’d started getting sicker. I’m very lucky because she was incredibly understanding, but I’m willing to give myself some credit here, too, because I didn’t lead with: “Well for starters, I have to poop a lot.” Instead, I helped her understand by saying, “Ever heard of lupus?”
    *slow nod*
    “Well, it’s a bit like that.”

    Which caused her to prompt me for more information. It got her interested without scaring her away. Makes a big difference!

    As for jerks, I’m happy to say I haven’t encountered any. I’m sure the day will come when someone will try to let their ignorance get to me, but honestly, the way I see it, they don’t know any better. I’m the smarter one in that particular situation and that suits me just fine.

    I say, fight the stigma. Because really, everyone perpetuates it with ignorance. For those who don’t have an invisible illness, LISTEN. For those who do have an invisible illness, don’t pass off your disease as the flu or a tummy-ache because everyone else will be conditioned to assume that’s all the disease supposedly is. Finally, by all means, tell the truth about your respective illness and know that you’re not alone!

  2. I know I mentioned in a previous comment some of my experience in college with my illness. I honestly cannot remember how many times I was asked if I was pregnant. My answer of, “No,” to this very repetitive comment was usually met with a, “Sure,” and “knowing look.” This experience happened with other students, professors, family, and what I feel was the most appalling, the campus nurse. I had gone to see her because I was urinating essentially (shy readers look away) straight blood. She asked if I was pregnant. When I gave her my “sample” and she refused to submit it because she said there was no way that that much blood was in my urine & I had contaminated the sample with vaginal bleeding. By the time I made it to a doctor outside of the school, and they tested my urine, they were shocked that I had not had it tested sooner and that I was not lying in a hospital bed at that very moment.

    The other incident I’ll share happened with my employer. I was going through the murky depths of trying to get a correct diagnosis (most people with chronic illness take years to get properly diagnoses – partly because of experiences like the one I just mentioned). To put it mildly, things were not good. My supervisor, who encouraged us to have an open conversation with him, just wanted to know when it was going to be “fixed.” Let’s just say I didn’t feel open telling him that I had no idea (and later that it never would be). Instead I felt pressured to drop to part time so I wouldn’t cost the business as much money. And I learned a hard lesson about being open.

    Unfortunately, this is all too common in the workplace. I actually just discovered the podcast Sick with Success which talks about the cost of chronic illness in the work place (which is unavoidable & more prevalent than is realized), how the air that’s created costs companies more money, and that there are better ways to utilize those with chronic illness to actually improve productivity & save companies money – starting with educating management & employees. Thought I’d share the link with you since it’s right on point with your topic:

    As always – love what you’re doing for awareness and education!

  3. I too have Crhon’s Disease. Well, okay, let me just list off everything I have, since this is (what I feel like) a safe place. I have Crhon’s Disease along with Irratable Bowel Syndrom (so basically, the second I eat something bad, it bugs all the way through my digestive tract. Fun stuff), Artritis from Crohn’s, Endometriosis, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Depression (which, as anyone that is well versed with chronic illnesses knows, mental disorders and physical disorders typically can go hand in hand. I mean how can you NOT get derpesssed?)

    Honestly, when it comes to employers, I don’t always tell them. I feel like it’s a need to know basis, and I don’t like to get treated differently. That being said, if my absences become frequent or it I have to go home sick, in the case of an employer, I generally will tell them I have a chronic illness. By law, they can’t ask you more than that. Maybe I’m overly cautious, but I definitely don’t want an employer to treat me differently because I’m chronically ill.

    With Professors, however, it is a completely different story. I am fortunate to go to a school that has a disability policy. Through my disability adviser, i am given a University document that basically tells the professor these things: I need to have the ability to make up missed work, I have an absence accommodation (so I can’t fail a class at the maximum absences), I have preferential seating (near the door to go to the bathroom), I may leave class if I need to, and I have the ability to make up missed work without consequences. This is SUPER handy. However, if the professor is nice, I’ll generally tell them what I have when I begin to rack up absences.

    I have had some professors who are not willing to work with me on this. In fact, this semester I took a class offered by the head of the English Department. The lady was all high and mighty and wasn’t willing to work with me on my participation grade, which was 10% of my grade, which doesn’t sound like much, but the class was insanely hard so I knew I needed that 10%. She managed to abide by all of the rules with what she was doing to me, and no one was willing to tell her what she was doing was wrong because she was the head of the department. I ended up having to drop the class because, honestly, at that point, I had completely lost my respect for her.

    I hope my insight has helped someone out!

    1. Thank you so much! Readers, please do check out her wonderful post linked above – who doesn’t need a smile today? Thanks for sharing some hope with us!

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