I’ve learned a lot in the 4 years since being diagnosed with MS. The first lesson I learned was the awkwardness. Even telling family felt…awkward. And then you find yourself telling strangers when they give you the evil-eye for parking in the handicapped space, even when you have a handicap placard!
I admit, I was a smidge of a goof who fumbled and apologized to Mrs. Stink Eye at first, “Oh yes, I’m um multiple sclerosis. I mean I’m not the disease itself. I have it. Yeah, um here’s my doctors number if you want to check. Aren’t these spots handy? Have a great day.” Awkward. But I never knew what awkward was until I had to talk about my disease with my boss.
Thirty-four didn’t sound THAT young. But when I was diagnosed, I was in a sense very young and naïve compared to my current 38 years-of-age. I thought I was taking the noble route. So when the time came to talk to my boss, I started off with full disclosure for two reasons:
1) I couldn’t walk. How the heck would I hide THAT teaching a classroom of kids and navigating, a building the size of the Taj Majal?
2) I wanted him to know I was sick, so that he would see me as a fighter and not a slacker. In theory it sounds lovely, but looking back, it does not always work this way.
The first time he walked into my classroom, I had been diagnosed for maybe a month. I was struggling hard just to get from my car to my desk. I’d have to walk the length of two football fields, carrying books. I was trying to rearrange the room when he walked in. There was an awkward minute-long stare, and he said, “Mrs. U., I think you should go on leave, for your students.”
It was not contempt. For the first time in my numerous years of teaching there, I saw concern in his eyes. My response was, “If I just leave now, without trying, what am I teaching my children? I want them to fight in the face of adversity, not lay down. I want them to try. They are watching me, more now than I even know. I want them to know you can find new ways to navigate this world. I can’t go on disability now BECAUSE of my students. Some people can work and be sick. I will know when it is time.” He shook his head solemnly, didn’t look up, and left.
The next time we spoke about my condition I was walking down the hall, shuffling, holding on to walls with one arm to guide me. I could feel my boss walking up behind me. He says, “Hey Jamie, rough night last night? You better hurry and get up those stairs.” Did he forget I had MS? I was also carrying a crate of test papers they should have assigned a monitor to carry to the third floor for me. I looked at him and said, “That’s not a party, that’s my MS. Have some class.”
Once again he looked down, but he looked truly ashamed. I almost felt bad, except I had to make it up all these flights of stairs with this heavy crate. I didn’t have time to feel bad.
These days I don’t have too many awkward chats about MS with bosses because now I’m a writer and an author; I work from my office in my home. I made it a year-and-a-half from that first conversation that I had with my boss, but over time as my health deteriorated, I made the difficult decision to leave and to pursue a new career in writing. I don’t regret the way I handled myself and the awkwardness that I felt during that conversation. I bet if other employees were as open as me, we’d see just how many people were dealing with something. Like I say at the tippity top of my blog—not everyone has MS, but everyone has something.
Any awkward boss chats out there that need to be shared? It’s healing. Share with me on our Facebook page.