I started my business for several reasons: to have more time freedom and location freedom, to be able to leave college but still start a career, because I’ve been building websites for free for years and I have a lot of fun with it. Those are usually the reasons I lead with when people ask me why I became an entrepreneur. However, there’s another reason that I don’t talk about quite as openly: I wanted a job that would help me to better manage my health. Today, I want to talk about the intersection of entrepreneurship and chronic illness, and how being a business owner has helped me be healthier and happier despite my limitations.
As anyone who knows me well could tell you, I am a fiercely stubborn person and I refuse to let the fact that I have health concerns limit me. There was a point in my life that I was too sick to work or function like a “normal” adult. After I healed enough to go back to work and take on more responsibilities, I promised myself that I would seize every day that I could and live it to the fullest.
That said, there are still days that I am well, and days that I am unwell. The good days almost always outnumber the bad. If I’m being honest, though, the past couple weeks have had a lot more bad days than good. I spent most of last week sleeping, and when I wasn’t sleeping, I was wishing that I was. I felt like I was drowning under the weight of symptoms that I thought were long gone. I felt hopeless, helpless, sad.
Even though I work from home, I don’t work in a vacuum. People sent me emails last week that went unanswered until yesterday. I was sent updates that didn’t get completed in my usual quick fashion. I tried to pull it together enough to do the things that were critical and time sensitive, but by Thursday, I just had to power down my laptop and crawl back into bed.
Managing the Environment
If I had to go into an office or restaurant or store to do my job, I absolutely wouldn’t have been able to work last week. The small amount of work I did complete was only completed because I could do it in my moments of lucidity, from the couch or my bed, in pajamas with dirty hair and smudged day-old mascara. I even pointed out to Nick, my very patient boyfriend, that some moments of entrepreneurship are glamorous but some are really, really not. Last week was full of those very un-glamorous moments.
I don’t feel 100% quite yet, but I’m back at it. I’m writing this from a coffee shop in New Braunfels, at the start of my Tuesday workday. I’m wearing a full face of makeup, my hair is clean, and I’m on my third cup of coffee. The cumulative couple hours of work I managed last week kept my business running enough that I am not overwhelmingly behind this week.
I didn’t dream of working in tech. I will tell anyone who will listen that I was a bleeding-heart social worker before I was a tech girl. I am the most unlikely and least tech savvy of all the web developers I have met. Building websites isn’t my passion, wasn’t what I fantasized about when I was a little girl. However, the lifestyle is allows me is worth it. I would never be as happy and healthy as I am now if I was a counselor, or a teacher, or a nurse. Those are all careers I considered, but that wouldn’t have worked for me. I am not built for long hours and high-stress, high-sensory environments.
I started drafting this post a couple weeks ago, before this health crisis. I was going to write about pushing through, and how running my own business is predicated on my ability to “rally” and get things done even when I’m sick. Of course, then I was hit by something that I couldn’t push through, couldn’t rally out of. I lost a week… but my business survived.
Navigating entrepreneurship and chronic illness is tough. In some ways, it might be easier to have a conventional job, claim FMLA, and be able to take some real time off. When I was sick, I still thoughts about my business every day. I can’t turn it off. I can’t step away. If I don’t nurture it, it will fall apart. I am my own boss, the sole officer of a one-woman operation. In that way, I do miss the days of being able to call in my illness to a kind-voiced secretary and then fade back into a Nyquil-induced slumber. I miss having a job that would survive without me for a little while.
…And When You Can’t
That said, last week was the first in 14 months of business that I have been truly unable to pull it together. The rest of the time, integrating entrepreneurship and chronic illness allows me to be healthier. I work fewer hours because I can charge more for my time. I can work from home if the outside world is too overwhelming. I can take afternoons off or sleep in late if it helps me manage my stress levels. I can turn my laptop off after 5pm and on weekends. The time and location freedom I enjoy as a web-based entrepreneur allows me to travel and explore, both activities that fill my heart. Having a career that I take so much ownership in fills my heart, too. I am proud of what I have created over the last 14 months and it feels good to know that I built it myself, from nothing. Because I take so much pride in what I do, I have been able to push through my day-to-day struggles in the other 55-ish weeks of my business. Because of the flexibility of my career, I was able to rest for that 56th week when I really needed the break.
Returning to Work
Perhaps most importantly, my career now is easy to come back to. I have quit jobs I liked because I was sick, perhaps hospitalized, and then too embarrassed to return. I felt hopelessly behind, fragile, and ashamed of myself. Working 8 hours on my feet in the aftermath of a health crisis was exhausting. The lights and sounds of my workplace were overwhelming. I’m already sensitive to external stimuli, and when I’m unwell, that sensitivity feels like every loud noise and garish color are brushing up against a raw unsheathed nerve.
Comparatively, on my first day “back at work” after this bout of illness, I was able to do most of my work from Nick’s car while he taught lessons. I was able to manage my environment. I was able to take a half day. Today is more of the same. I was able to wake up peacefully. I can manage my environment. I’m done working for the day once we drive back to Austin. I’m able to take the time I need to heal, and to manage my sensory stimulation while I do so.
The Bottom Line
There’s many types of chronic illness. Everyone has different symptoms and struggles. That said, running my own business gives me the freedom to manage my particular symptoms. I can make informed choices about my health without sacrificing a satisfying, successful career. For me, mixing entrepreneurship and chronic illness means I can have the best of both worlds. I can love my job and succeed at it, but I can also manage my health.
Do you have any experience integrating entrepreneurship and chronic illness? What is your story? What about your career helps you manage your symptoms and live your best life?