Real-Life Tips for Staying Positive When Leaving the Workforce

Making the decision to retire early can often feel like a blow to your psyche. It’s easy to flashback to a moment during a job interview when you’re asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

For Willeke Van Eeckhoutte, her aspirations included studying psychology and climbing the corporate ladder. She also had just started a new relationship, and professionally things were moving along nicely — at least until a multiple sclerosis diagnosis felt like her life plan was derailed.

“No one gets to practice what living with a serious illness is like, so I had to improvise as I went along. There were no magical cards to show me what my five-year plan would become; whether I would still be at work, or whether I would deteriorate more quickly.”

Four years after her diagnosis, fatigue, pain and related periods of sick leave kept growing in time and space. The idea of early retirement started to take hold, as she saw a future where she could not regularly work because of her symptoms. She knew it might be time to leave her job because she refused to be a liability to her colleagues.

“They deserved a colleague who could be there 100 percent,” Willeke said, ‘Not someone who pops in one morning only to be absent again the following day.’ There were many times of doubt—her heart said, ‘You love your job, stay at work,’ but her head knew that retiring was the right choice.

Willeke had to learn to engineer her life around her new reality, one that to this day still consists of hospitals, neurologists, treatment plans and early retirement. “It was not what I had in mind when I emigrated to Ireland, but this was it, and life had to go on. A few weeks of feeling negative turned into many years of positivity.”

So what advice does she have to share with others who have had to change the course of their professional careers because of their MS?

Mind over matter.

“Mentally it will get better,” she says. “It’s a cliché I usually refer to…not to shield their emotions or lie to them, but simply because it really does get better. I still wonder about the ‘having to grieve the old you,’ adage that sometimes comes with receiving a diagnosis of a chronic illness.

“Perhaps I still tend to believe that it’s just better to get on with life, but we’re all different, and the more people said I had to grieve, the more I wanted to get up and run a marathon. Mind you, a marathon run in my dreams, in high heels, going backwards on a high hill.”

You might not see it when retirement becomes a reality, but there are many benefits and opportunities that come with finishing your professional career.

Do what suits you.

As Willeke tells it: “My five-year plan turned out completely the opposite of what I wanted at first, but it’s made me psychologically richer than any kind of materialistic life ever could. I am 100% intent on experiencing life as much as I can; it really is just out there for the taking. It doesn’t always have to be about being neurologically compromised; just enjoy life within the limit of your abilities.”

So maybe being on your envisioned career path just isn’t in the cards at the moment. That’s okay. And it also doesn’t mean you’re out of options. It could be that you want to spend more time studying, or volunteer for that cause you always felt passionate about, or that you simply want to spend more time with family at home or abroad.

Explore your options.

Willeke worked in a library before emigrating to Ireland, and had many interests—history, psychology and literature and reading. Once she retired, she rekindled her love for each of them. She also started to pursue her passion for writing, and started a blog on life in Ireland and living with MS. She has even been working on writing her first book.

Being a passionate patient advocate, Willeke also took on a role as a representative for her national MS society, to make sure that people with disabilities have a voice. Being involved in policy work and working to influence government changes is what Willeke credits with her drive to get out of bed each morning.

Look ahead.

Leaving the workforce isn’t always permanent. With technology getting more and more advanced, options like starting your own business, freelancing or telecommuting are more within reach than ever.

Willeke learned it’s important not to rush to the process. As she said, “Consider it the first year of the rest of your life, and go from there.”

How was your experience leaving the workforce? Any tips for others going through the transition? Share them with us on Facebook.

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