If you go deeper and deeper into your own heart, you’ll be living in a world with less fear, isolation and loneliness. Sharon Salzberg
One of the hardest things for me about living with an illness has been how isolating it can be. When I stopped working, it was easier for me to get used to not having a career than it was to get used to not having a social group of adults to form friendships with through the workplace. I had many friendships that had begun as work colleagues that had turned into deep friendships. Being taken out of where you interact with people everyday was a very difficult thing to navigate for me, and still is. As working adults, we spend more time at work with co-workers than we do at home with our families. Being ripped out of that can be very unsettling.
Not only was I not around them everyday anymore, when I did get to spend some time with colleagues, they talked about work. In the past, that had been what we had in common and what we had discussed even outside of work. As a teacher, we discussed students, other teachers, new teaching strategies and workshops. Now I didn’t have anything to contribute to those conversations. It felt very isolating and like I was not a full member of society anymore. Not that anyone said anything to make me feel that way. I just did. I found myself not wanting to hang out with my teaching friends anymore because of it. So I started to hang out with “non-teaching” friends. I stopped work at age 37. I had many other friends who worked in other industries. When we met up for dinner or other social events, I found conversation still was filled primarily with work banter. How tired people were from working, bosses and co-workers they didn’t get along with, social activities they had been at through their jobs. That didn’t seem any less isolating to me. Even talking to my sister and husband felt isolating as they worked and talked about their jobs. It made it hard for me to find new friends as well that were my age because they worked during the days and in the evenings, when they were available, I didn’t have a lot of energy left over. As someone who has always been very social, this was a tough hurdle to get over.
Where I found a lot of new friends was in support groups for people with illness. I joined a group for teachers on long-term disability and a couple of support groups for people with MS. These were great discoveries for me because the members in them all understood the isolation of being outside of the workforce before the typical retirement age. It was so nice to socialize with people who “get it” and I didn’t have to explain if I was too tired to do something. I found a lot of acceptance in these groups and it helped to reduce my sense of isolation. Another place I have made some new friendships is with people who work for support agencies and health care professionals that I have met during my journey. I spend a lot of time with some of them and they really get to know who I am, as well as letting me get to know them. I have become quite good friends with some people who started as part of my support team and now have become friends.
I think for me to get over feeling isolated, it took getting out of my own way. I felt different and not as valuable as a member of society when I had to stop my career. That was on me. I had to deal with that and realize that other people didn’t see me any differently than they did before. For the few friends who did see or treat me differently, I recognized that they were not really the kind of friends I needed in my life. I now see myself (most days anyways) as a vibrant member of society who has a lot to offer the world. I am a great friend. I had to realize that people would love me for the person I am and not what I did for a career. I also now feel that I am still a teacher, just not in a formal classroom. I teach other teachers how to fill the void of missing not being in the classroom anymore if they are on disability. I teach people with MS how to navigate the systems that are so difficult when you are newly diagnosed. I also teach my friends how to paint. I help to teach my niece and nephew how to be good and kind citizens in the world.
Being out of the workplace doesn’t have to stop you from being who you are meant to be. It also doesn’t have to stop you from taking part in the wonderful world in which we live and making meaningful friendships along the way. Try to jump back in to the land of the living. You are missed.