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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How a Chronic, Unexplained Illness Pushed Me Into My Dream Career

person sitting in a dark room with their hand on their forehead
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On October 28, 2013, I woke up with headache.

I didn’t think much of it at first, just a pesky pressure behind my right eye. But the headache never went away. It’s been over four years now and it’s still there. The constant pain is about a 5/10—not unbearable but constantly present—like there’s an inflated balloon inside my head that’s just a little too big. There are other symptoms too. Pain spikes that make it hard for me to see or be upright. Numbness and tingling in my hands and feet. Muscle weakness, joint pain. The list goes on.

I have a team of doctors working to figure out what exactly is causing all of these issues, but the answers haven’t come yet. The diagnosis they settled on, at least for now, is New Daily Persistent Headache, which is basically a headache with sudden onset and no known cause that simply doesn’t go away. While I’ve tried dozens of treatments—from medications to nerve blocks and even Botox—nothing cuts through my baseline of pain.

It’s been a long process of balancing the search for answers with the acceptance of life in my current state. I need to rest frequently, and even take naps, just to get through my days. Sometimes, I can’t even get out of bed. Staring at a computer screen all day makes my headache spike to unbearable levels.

It’s been a long process of balancing the search for answers with the acceptance of life in my current state.

When my headache began, I was a program coordinator for a gifted education program. But working full-time became impossible. I found myself so exhausted and in so much pain, I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open. By the end of the day, when it came time to drive home, I could barely see straight. I resigned from my position within a month.

Part-time work seemed like the next logical step. I loved kids, so I got a job working as an art and science teacher at a preschool run out of my church, where I’d spent a lot of time volunteering. The best part? No computer screens. But, as much as I loved the children, the physical aspect of the job—being on my feet all day, doing heavy lifting, and dealing with the noise that’s inevitable when working with kids—was again too much for me.

The Mindset Shift

My goal had always been to become a full-time writer. I was on my way when I completed my MFA in creative writing in 2012, full of ideas for books and poetry. I also knew that making a living as a creative writer would be hard, especially at the beginning of my career.

But I had a plan. I’d get a day job for a few years while working to publish my first book and go from there. It seemed like the most prudent path to pursue my writing goals while maintaining a sense of financial stability. That was before I got sick.

When my headache started, my writing stopped. I lost the physical capacity and the mental acuity to write and think creatively, and when I wasn’t working, I was sleeping. I needed to find a way to make writing the focus of my limited stores of energy. So I decided to reevaluate my plan.

That’s when I realized that the only way to pursue what I really loved was to make writing my sole career focus. The day job had to go.

The Freelance Plunge

After much deliberation, I decided to take the plunge into freelancing full time. By that point, I’d written articles for publications including The Huffington Post and HelloGiggles and had also done copywriting and editing for several digital marketing companies over the years. I had a decent resume for this kind of work. I just had to dive in and trust that it was the best thing for me and my health. So, I did.

The first year was hard. Business was slow, an endless string of stops and starts as I learned to navigate the freelance world. Money was a major concern. I’d been living at home with my parents since I got sick and while I was so grateful for the help they were providing, I was ready to get out on my own.

There were days I felt like I could never work hard enough to make enough money to support myself. But I stuck with it because I knew deep down that it was the best option for me.

My illness had just pushed me to take a leap of faith a little sooner than I’d planned.

Eventually, it all started to click. I landed several steady gigs, producing client blogs and even writing regular content for a travel website. My pitches started getting picked up and I was publishing on Grok Nation, Healthline, The Daily Dot, and other sites. I was even able to release my first poetry collection in the midst of it all.

It was undeniable: I was a writer. Like I’d always imagined. My illness had just pushed me to take a leap of faith a little sooner than I’d planned.

An Ideal Fit

I didn’t become a writer in the exact way I’d set out to. But choosing an alternate course turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made. Freelancing means I have the freedom to work when I can. If I need to take a day off because I’m stuck in bed, I can do that and make up the work later. I also have the flexibility for doctors’ appointments and all the other necessary-but-time-consuming parts of my health journey.

It means I can focus only on the work I really want to be doing. I can pick and choose the assignments I’m interested in and pitch stories I feel passionate about writing. That becomes essential when you’re operating with limited physical and mental energy.

And perhaps most interestingly, writing about chronic illness has become one of my most successful niches. I’m able to share my experiences and, I hope, help others going through similar trials.

Freelancing has given me the ability to keep working in spite of the headache that started one morning and never went away. As I face the unanswered questions about what’s causing my headache and how to treat it, writing gives me a sense of purpose and a major boost in confidence.

Every night before I go to bed, I list three things I’m grateful for. “Getting to write” makes frequent appearances. Being sick is challenging, but the fact that I’m doing exactly the thing I always dreamed of helps me get through those hardest days and start fresh in the morning. And it was my illness, more than anything, that pushed me to jump in.