It’s always so awkward. There we were, standing in the kitchen. He was fixing his coffee, and I was getting hot water for my tea. I could feel the question coming, but kept hoping that maybe this time, the moment would pass and what had happened the day before could go unmentioned. No such luck.
‘Hey, you feeling better? I saw you went home sick yesterday. Did you catch that cold that’s been going around the office?’ ‘Oh,’ I replied vaguely. ‘I was just feeling really run down and unwell, and with everything that’s been flying around, I figured I’d head home and try to sleep and take care of myself.’
Technically, it’s true. I was unwell, but what I’m not telling my well-meaning co-worker is that the reason I went home sick the day before is not because I got a cold or a stomach bug. It’s because I have an ill-functioning immune system, and yesterday was one of those days where it randomly decided to kick my butt.
Since I’m not fully ‘out’ at work, many of my co-workers don’t know that I have rheumatoid arthritis. I purposely decided to keep this information to myself when I began a new job a year ago for a variety of reasons: protection, privacy, and because I felt I could. My meds are doing a good job of keeping my RA under control, so most of the time, there is nothing in my appearance or behavior that would indicate that I have a chronic disease. And hey, it’s nice to not have RA attached to my identity in at least one part of my life.
But despite the success of my meds, there are still days when my RA sneaks up on me and decides to show me who’s the boss. Sometimes, I manage to pull through a full day and can nurse my immune system and joints in the evening once work is over. Since I don’t have kids or anyone at home to answer to besides myself, I can go to sleep as early as is necessary. In fact, I’ve been known to crawl into bed at 7:30pm on days when my RA is really taking it out of me. Other times though, my RA is as insistent as a whiny, implacable child, and there is no alternative but to give in and go home.
The other week, this exact scenario befell me. Heavy with fatigue and feeling feverish, I packed up my belongings at noon and took half a sick day. I went straight home and straight to bed. The next morning, I woke up feeling better - not 100%, but well enough to head back into work and begin playing catch up. And that is when I found myself in the office kitchen facing the ever-awkward well-wishing questions of my coworker. And it wasn’t just one of them- every time I ran into someone in the hallway, I got the friendly ‘Oh, are you better? Did you have that cold?’ A few caring colleagues even made a point of coming into my office to check in on me.
That’s the glitch about working with nice people; they notice and care if you leave because you weren’t feeling well, and when you return, they want to know if you are feeling better and express concern for whatever ailed you. All of this is perfectly normal and kind, but it always leaves me feeling uncomfortable and squirmy. I don’t want to be dishonest and say that I had a cold or a stomach bug, nor do I want to give the impression that I was slacking off and taking a sick day when I wasn’t really sick, but I also don’t necessarily want to disclose the larger, more complex reason behind my sick day.
Maybe it would be simpler if I came clean at work and used these moments as an opportunity to spread some good old (and much needed) rheumatoid arthritis awareness. After all, it’s no fun keeping a part of yourself a secret, pretending that an entire aspect of your life doesn’t exist. It feels slightly dishonest to give these vague, noncommittal replies to people I like and respect. And yet, since I still feel the need to keep my health status under wraps, my only option remains that indistinct reply.
Of course, it wasn’t always that way. At my former job, people knew the reason behind my constant fatigue and swollen joints. When I would return to the office after a sick day, I didn’t have to face the awkwardness of a hazy answer when coworkers asked how I was feeling; instead, I had to deal with a barrage of well-wishes and concerned ‘how are you feeling? No really…how are you feeling?’ Back then, all I wanted was to forget that my RA was making my life miserable and making me different. The last thing I wanted to do was continually acknowledge to people that I had an illness that wasn’t going to go away. I wanted to sweep it under the rug and bury myself in catching up on an overloaded inbox.
At moments like these, I realize how absurd it is that even simple expressions of kindness can become distorted and bogged down by the weight of RA. What should be an innocent inquiry instead feels like an interrogation. A few times, I have chosen these moments to confide in someone and disclose what is really going on with me. Other times, I’ve politely let people know that I’m doing better and then moved the conversation on to another subject. However we choose to deal with these morning after conversations, it’s important to remember that the folks on the other end do mean well, and on the bright side, it means we are having a better day than the one before!
Sara is the author of the blog, The Single Gal’s Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis.