In honour of the title of this post, I thought it was time to show my face. This is me.
Last week I left the friends, workplace and town that became my world over the last three years. And for those three years, I am extremely grateful.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so sad to leave a job. I’ve always been too busy looking forward, excited for new adventures and that’s exactly how I was feeling until the final day arrived. Chatting and laughing over our annual Christmas lunch I was having a great time when my boss stood up to give his end of year speech. And it hit me. Here was a man I respected and admired. A man I considered lucky to have as my boss. This was the last time I would sit in this room and listen to him speak. Oh dear, here come the tears.
And boy were there tears. I wasn’t the only one leaving that day and I certainly wasn’t the only one to shed a tear. But I’m pretty certain I was the only one to shed that many! As I tried to explain to my fiancé later that afternoon, in between sobs, this workplace wasn’t just any workplace. This workplace was special. The people were special. This was somewhere I didn’t have to wear my mask.
In January 2013 I moved to a small coastal town that 4 months prior I didn’t even know existed. I was there to complete my “country service”, working in a rural Queensland town. I had signed up for a 3 year stint but it was well known that you had to complete at least 5 before getting a transfer back to the big smoke. So 18 months after moving back home following 2 years in London, I once again waved goodbye to my hometown excited for the new adventures that lay ahead. Looking back, I’m not even sure if I recognise that Elizabeth. She’s me, but so different. She has no idea what’s in store for her. She has no idea how dramatically her life will change in those 3 short years.
The first few months were great. The change to small town life was relatively easy with a bunch of new friends to share it with. Work was challenging and fun, weekends were spent socialising; BBQ’s, drinks, exploring our new surrounds. If this was what “country service” was all about, I had certainly hit the jackpot.
Four months in my legs decided I was having way too much fun. It was time they reared their ugly heads or should I say, their ugly knees. At first I thought nothing off it. If 16 years of chronic knee pain had taught me anything, it was that I should not be surprised when three days of long, cramped bus rides followed by a long period of standing still at an ANZAC Day service was met with anger, heat, inflammation, stiffness and pain, lots of pain.
It’s just my knees. They need to rest. They’ll be right in a few days, a week tops. Oh Elizabeth, how naive you were.
You see, as it turns out, that was the start of what would become The Great Shutdown of 2013 (aka when every joint, muscle, fibre in my body decided to stop working and instead scream out in agony). So, less than a year into a new job, I ended up back in my hometown, in hospital with my mum calling my new friends and my new boss to explain that I would be away for a while.
Over the next 2 and a bit years, those new friends, colleagues and boss would help me return to the small town, return to work and return to socialising; very, very slowly. Those new friends, colleagues and boss would see me in a light that no one had seen me before. They saw me at my absolute worst. They stuck by me at my absolute worst. And without their unconditional support, I know I would not be as far along in my chronic life journey as I am today.
Earlier this year I wrote about living life under the mask of an invisible illness. But for so many of those beautiful new friends that I made only 3 years ago, for so many of those colleagues and for my boss, there was no mask. When you are at your worst, there is no energy left to put on the mask. Your invisible illness suddenly becomes visible and once it is seen, truly seen, it is rarely forgotten.
Two years after my invisible illness came out of the shadows, I walked into my bosses office. “How are you?” he asked.
“Good,” I replied automatically.
“No, really, how are you?”
“Buggered,” I sighed while smiling on the inside.
“How are you?” is such a common question nowadays. But it is rarely a question we expect an answer to, not a truthful one at least. What might have once been a genuine enquiry, is now a passing turn of phrase, a greeting. “Hi, how are you?” rolls off the tongue so quickly, so automatically as does the “Good” response. To have someone know you so well that they know this “Good” is just that, an automatic response which does not really have anything to do with how you actually are is amazing. Because this means you no longer have to pretend. For a brief second, you can take the mask off and say what you really feel. For a brief second, you can talk to someone, honestly, and they will understand.
To have a friend know you this well is amazing. To have a boss know you this well is unheard of. And that is the environment I was so lucky to be a part of for these last three years. The workplace where nothing I said about my chronic life and its impact on my work was too much. The changes I required to my working space, done. My timetable, done. Time off was not questioned because everyone knew I was working my hardest to get back to a full time load. On the rare occasion when I’d walk into my bosses office, or more accurately, call him from my office so to avoid the stairs, and say I needed to go home, the response was “Okay”. That was it. No questions, no concerns regarding how I would be covered. A simple “okay” was all that was needed, and everything I needed to hear. My boss knew that I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t need to (and was encouraging me to speak up rather than my continue with my usual MO of staying long after I should have left) and I knew that he would take care of whatever I left behind.
To have an absent employee is a nuisance. It must be a pain to have to rearrange timetables and people. I know this. Yet my boss never let me see this. He never voiced any annoyance at having to cover me when I was away, at having to rearrange my work schedule time and time again as I tried to figure out what I could and couldn’t do. My boss didn’t want me to be concerned about any of those details. My only concern was my health. He would take care of the rest. I know this is how an employer should respond but I don’t know of any other who would respond that way. To say I hit the jackpot is an understatement.
To leave this workplace after only 3 years was not the plan. “I’ll do 5 years and see how I feel,” was the line I gave whenever questioned about when I was moving back home. Sometimes however, life has other plans. In my case, my chronic life had other plans. Living so far away from family and my medical team was taking its toll and, in the end, I had to accept that it was no longer practical. So it is with that decision that I had to say goodbye to this workplace, this boss who saw me for me, chronic life and all. I doubt I will ever be so lucky to find a workplace, a boss, like this again but I am grateful for the time I did have.
It wasn’t just at work either. My new friends saw the true me as well and helped me to work within my limits. A dinner suggestion would be qualified with “if you’re not too tired”. Turning down a social invite was never a big deal and did not mean I would be forgotten on the next occasion. Friends who make an extra plate for dinner and drop it around to your house because they know you haven’t been able to cook that week. These are the friends I made. These are the friends who saw me without my mask and accepted me nonetheless. These are the friends who would be disappointed if tried to put on the mask around them because that’s not what friends do. They don’t pretend, they don’t hide, they are true to themselves and each other. These are the friends I shed a tear for last week. But I know, these are the friends who will always be in my life. Regardless of where I live.