Maintaining A Career With Chronic Pain


This post was originally posted on Skyword

Imagine waking up every morning with a headache. And not just any headache, but one that’s been there for days, weeks, months, years even. An ordinary headache that appeared one day and then never went away. Do you think it would affect your freelance writing career? Would you still be able to maintain the same client load you have today?

On the morning of October 28, 2013, writer Stephanie Harper woke up like on any ordinary day, except this morning she woke up with a headache. It’s been there ever since. Yet while chasing first a diagnosis and then treatment, she’s still been able to maintain a writing schedule. Her freelance writing career has waxed and waned as she’s moved through her new life with a chronic illness, but finally she’s found a way to balance—if there even is such thing—her headache and love of writing. Here is her story.

To understand the impact your headache has on your writing career, it’s first important to identify and understand the pain. Can you tell me what the pain feels like?

I have a constant, unremitting headache that sits behind my right eye that’s there 24/7 and rests at about a five out of ten on the pain scale. I haven’t had a second without this pain since it started. The constant pain behind my eye, which I think of as my baseline, is aching but I’ve gotten used to it. It’s more of an annoyance, like the way you feel a pebble in your shoe. When the pain spikes, it gets throbbing or sharp. Then it’s like something is stabbing at my head from the inside. Sometimes there’s a lot of pressure. It also never stays in one place. It moves around or can be my whole head. When my nerves are really irritated, it’s like electrical currents are running through the skin on my face and my scalp. I want to scratch and pull—anything to make it go away. It’s overwhelming.

On top of that, I get symptom flares throughout the week or, sometimes throughout the day, [symptoms] that are more like migraines. This is an increase in pain, also dizziness, nausea, numbness and tingling, and those sorts of things. That’s usually brought on by exposure to light, over-exertion and exercise, exhaustion, changes in weather, and sometimes just random occurrences.

How have your thoughts on your condition evolved since the headache first started?

For the first year and a half to two years after my diagnosis, I was so focused on fixing my headache. I convinced myself that there had to be a cause and that once we found that we could figure out a way to put an end to the pain. It helped me stay positive, but at the same point, it kept me from settling into the idea that this pain could be a long-term part of my life. I treated my illness as a phase that I just needed to get through and then I could move on to the next thing.

I’ve been able to accept that my headache is a part of my life now and that, while I don’t have to accept any kind of lesser life because of it, I also have to plan my life accordingly. I can’t keep holding out for something different. This is it. I have to start living my best life with what I have to work with. This acceptance has really freed me up to find ways to thrive despite the obstacles of my diagnosis.

How has your freelance writing career evolved since your headache first started?

This has certainly been a work in progress. For a while after my headache started, I simply didn’t write. It was difficult and exhausting, both mentally and physically. I had so much on my plate with tests and treatments and trying to figure out what my long-term financial situation would look like that I couldn’t take on the unique stresses of freelance life on top of it.

But I have slowly gotten back into as I have gotten a better handle on headache life, and I have actually found that it fits rather well into my life. And I’ve missed the work a great deal. It’s nice to be getting things going again.

What’s it like working with chronic pain?

I always try to strike the right balance of planning and flexibility. It’s important for me to really stay on top of things and know what I need to get done, what my priorities are, [and] when I have deadlines approaching. That way, when or if I have to take a day off, or postpone working on something, or if I don’t get to everything I had planned because I end up taking a nap on a particular afternoon, it doesn’t automatically send me into crisis mode. Everything in my life right now is about being organized enough to know that I’ll be OK when things don’t go as planned. It’s a good life lesson for everybody, I think, but I can’t even begin to tell you how important it is when you’re living with a chronic illness.

What gets you through when you’re in pain?

The reminder that of all the things I could be doing in the world, I get to do this. What a wonderful thing that we get to craft words all day to help people communicate with one another. Now don’t get me wrong, not all assignments are created equal, and I’ve written plenty of fluff pieces or copy that isn’t really going to rock anybody’s world, but still. Words matter. Communication matters. I try to let that be enough for me.

Do you have a freelance writing niche? What is it that you write about?

I have worked really hard to not have a niche, which I know a lot of people say is not what you should do, though I think we fall into niches naturally anyway.

In my creative writing life, I write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. My debut poetry collection, Sermon Series, is actually due out this fall with Finishing Line Press. And my first novel is under representation at Writer’s House (still waiting for that big sale). I’ve published several creative nonfiction pieces, many of which have to do with my headaches, so I have sort of fallen into a niche there.

Professionally, I am pretty much willing to write whatever anybody needs me to, though I have done a fair share of copy for travel, health, and education websites. But I like to keep my portfolio as diverse as I can. I also edit professionally as well, anything from novel-length manuscripts to academic papers.

Have you ever considered that you should stop writing because of your headache?

In some ways, I think I have this conversation with myself every day. Writing is hard work. It’s creatively taxing, and it can be mentally exhausting. The physical aspect of staring at the computer screen isn’t always compatible with my headache. It’s probably not the most ideal thing for me to be doing. But, honestly, I’m not sure there is an ideal in my situation.

And even if there was, at the end of the day, I have to be writing. I’m miserable when I’m not. It’s a part of who I am. The fact that I have been able to take the thing that I’m most passionate about, the thing that gives me life, and do it professionally, is all the more reason to struggle through those times when I feel like I want to stop.

Do you have any tips for how to continue to write while managing pain?

Cut yourself some slack. You may not write every day, and that’s OK. You may not always mark everything off your daily “to do” list, and that’s OK too. Grace is the most important thing I have had to learn—and am continuing to learn each and every day—through all of this, and it’s life changing in your professional life, your personal life, in everything.

You can be so good at what you do, and still have grace enough to say, “Nope, not today” and the amazing thing is, that assignment will still be waiting for you tomorrow, and you will write it just as well, and your clients will love you just as much, and you will continue being just as awesome. Don’t ever forget that.