I was 8 years old when I first considered my career choice. As an adult, helping people became my life's work. Within the span of a day, my body settled into various spaces of my psychotherapy office. There was my green tweed chair, the carpet piled with toys and the sand tray area. Regardless of where the therapeutic hour took me, I was trusted as guide and witness to both deep personal pain and growth of children and adults. I got to have intimate relationships for a living.
My plan was to keep my private practice going for a couple more decades and continue after retirement age. As it turns out, my vision was disrupted. One of my favorite sayings is, "We plan, and G-d laughs." This one had G-d rolling on the floor.
A spine disease that had caused pain since early adulthood worsened a few years ago. It hurt whether I sat with adult clients, engaged children in play therapy, or attempted paperwork. Gradually, my concoction of self-care recipes, which made work manageable until my mid-forties, shifted from one of sustenance to empty calories. After exhausting my treatment options, it was time for surgery. I wrote a letter to my clients and explained why I would be temporarily out of the office.
Following surgery, the pre-existing pain remained and invited a new sensation of hot jagged pieces of glass scraping my spine. Multiple follow-up visits to the surgeon were futile; he blamed me, boasting that his other patients had all recovered well.
Determined to get back to work as soon as possible, I consulted another neurosurgeon, who took my concerns seriously. He and the images explained how my first surgery was botched. As we planned a revision surgery, my frustration lessened and I felt relief. I would get better and return to my practice. I sent a second letter to my clients postponing my planned return.
Following the second surgery, the fiery sensation continued and made its way to my hands. Doctors explained that my nerves were likely responding to the surgical trauma. With a little time it should heal, they said. However, the excruciating pain remained, and eventually, I was diagnosed with a neuro-inflammatory disorder called CRPS (complex regional pain syndrome). The condition has spread to most of my body, causing intractable burning nerve pain and multiple other symptoms.
I clearly wasn't attuned to the holy laughter because I was surprised when my plan to return to work turned into a fantasy. I was unprepared for the last letter I had to send--referring my clients to other therapists. Closing my practice meant disappointing people and ending relationships, as well as dealing with the loss of purpose in my life. I was devastated.
In my practice I helped people who grieved the loss of their work lives due to retirement, illness and other circumstances. My clinical understanding of grief, however, was minimally helpful. Like anybody else, I had to go through it. I had to listen to the eight year-old girl inside me who lost her dream.
Over time I discovered ways to cope with the painful loss. Below are six tips that highlight the strategies that helped me move forward. I hope you find them useful in your own quest to rediscover your unique value in life.
1. Name the grief
Acknowledge the monumental losses you experienced because you had to stop working. This frees your mind and body from carrying the burden and potentially creating more problems. It's normal and inevitable for grief and sadness to pop up from time to time, so greet and nurture those feelings. If you feel stuck, consider seeing a licensed therapist. Asking for help is a sign of strength.
2. Create structure.
Plan activities within the perimeter of your abilities and limits. Schedule monotonous tasks and fun, interesting ones. You will sometimes need to veer from the plan (especially if you struggle with pain) and that's okay. This is the time to listen to your body and practice self-compassion. Notice how you feel when you have taken a detour from your path; you may be eager to return. Structure can help you regain the sense of purpose, accomplishment, or routine you may be missing from your workdays.
3. Re-purpose your inspiration for work.
Take a thorough inventory of what work meant to you. What aspects of yourself did you put into your work? Perhaps you valued using your creativity, helping people, or being part of a team. Get these needs met in other areas of life and reconnect to the working person within you that you miss.
4. Express your passions.
Think of what made you feel good before you stopped working. Reignite adult and childhood passions. If you loved sports but can no longer play, go to games, read relevant books, or volunteer to coach. Dream. Don't let "I can't anymore" thoughts stop you. Experience your joys in a new way.
5. Shift your expectations.
Instead of thinking satisfaction can only come from symptom relief and productivity from working or "doing," expect these to show up in the form of good days or good moments. Use positive self-talk to shift your expectations. Instead of saying "I can hardly walk," you might say, "Walking a little bit today was hard, but I moved my body and got to be in the sun."
6. Challenge yourself.
Set small, attainable goals, and when you're ready, move on to a larger one. It can be anything from getting out of bed to learning something new. When your body allows, seek more opportunities within your capacity.
Work is not our identity; we are so much more. The personal qualities we brought to our jobs are what continue to make us whole and worthwhile. Put work aside for now and take a look inside yourself. You'll discover you never stopped being valuable.
Elisa Friedlander is a licensed psychotherapist. Currently unable to practice due to an excruciatingly painful neurological disorder, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), she is active in disability and pain communities. Much like her tendency to belt out 70's music in the bathtub (the sappier the better), she often writes while submerged in said tub and is beginning to offer up her writing publicly. What happens in her tub no longer stays in her tub. Elisa has been published in a local mental health publication and a national medical newsletter distributed by www.rsds.org. Convinced that pain and humor must learn to play nicely together, Elisa can be heard laughing with her wife moments after yelping out in pain during intermittent visits to the emergency room. Elisa loves living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her wife and best friend (one in the same) and their irresistible rescue dog, Zakai. A baby elephant would complete the picture. More of her story and other writing can be seen on her blog at https://www.ElisaFriedlander.com.
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