Working With Chronic Illness

Rhode Island
Therese Borchard doesn't have CFIDS -- she has the also very challenging illness of manic depression. But I found many parallels to my own situation, and much inspiration in the interview I did with her for Rosalind Joffe's Working With Chronic Illness blog:

Therese Borchard struggled with manic depression during her college years but went on to earn a masters degree and establish a stellar career in journalism and book publishing. But the hormonal shifts of motherhood, a geographic move, as well as the switch from sociable on-site office work to an isolated, home-bound freelance life, created a perfect storm of factors for mental illness to burgeon once more.

After a harrowing, months-long stay in an institution, she returned to home and children and went on to become the author of the hit blog, Beyond Blue on, where she shares her continuing struggles with anxiety and manic depression, from her own particular Catholic perspective. This year she published her memoir, Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes, along with The Pocket Therapist: An Emotional Survival Guide, which offers concise techniques to help anyone living with a chronic illness get through the demands of a day.

We spoke with her about how she manages to work, raise a family and keep her manic depression under control.

CG: What are your biggest challenges in navigating your health condition, your job and your home life?

TB: I suppose my biggest challenge is managing my health in a way that I can concentrate enough to meet my work deadlines. Fortunately, my schedule is flexible enough that I can write extra blog posts on a day where Im feeling good, and bank them for the days my head isnt good for anything. But Im always nervous to commit to a meeting in person, because I dont know how I will be feeling that day. So I fake it as best I can. Ive had to do that a lot lately with the publicity efforts for my books: Ive had to plaster a smile on my face and spit out nice sound bites all the while I am thinking that I wish I were dead.

What is a typical work day like?

I drop off the kids at school at 8, and usually work out for an hour. From 10 to 2 are my golden hours, where I try to get the posts written, or follow up on a story I was supposed to write for other magazines and newspapers I write for. If its sunny outside, I will take 20 minutes and eat outside, because its crucial that I get that sunshine and fresh air. By 2:30 I usually need to pick up the kids, start homework, get organized for lacrosse practice, etc. My work window is fairly small, so I try to get as much done as possible in the hours they are at school. And two days usually go to doctors appointments, blood work, and therapy.

What, if any accommodations do you/your employers make for yourself? (I know you have to stop yourself from overwork sometimes!)

My editor, Holly, is very understanding that things like Twitter tutorials and SEO (search engine optimization) training can sometimes activate my inner energizer bunny that I want at rest. Its difficult, especially in the blogosphere, not to make my writing my life and tweet all hours of the day. I need boundaries between work and home life. I try my best to shut off my computer when Im not working, and to leave it closed during the weekend. I find that when I ignore my sensitivity to online chatter, that I will have to invest a lot of time into getting myself well again so I try to be as prudent as possible.

Your blog is about coping with mental illness, so your employers knew of your condition. But your illness is "invisible" -- you look super healthy, you run, etc. Did they really know what it entails, how hard it is, that it could ever become overwhelming?

Thats a good question. I think Holly is as understanding and empathetic as any editor could be. And the manager editor, Michael Kress, and the editor-in-chief, Ju-Don Roberts, too. They want me to publish the real stuff like the video where I sobbed and said depression wasnt always pretty as that is what best speaks to people in the throes of depression. So if I cant stay as up on current events or celebrity gossip as some of the other bloggers, they are fine with that. Sometimes I need to write pieces a few weeks in advance, to give myself a little time of rest in a depressive cycle. Thats not a great formula for search engine optimizationas you want to write on all the hottest search termsbut if the content is authentic and resonates with folks, thats what is important.

You started out with great qualifications, a masters degree, a magazine career and book publishing. After you had your kids and a breakdown (no connection there!) -- you had to rebuild. Can you detail those challenges a bit? How did you negotiate with your prospective employer?

All I can say is I had to take it in very small steps. I was unable to produce anything for about six months. Every time I sat down to write, it was awful. I would just cry and cry.

So I relied on my great aunts advice to just take it very slow, one step at a time. I first signed up to be a writing tutor at the Naval Academy, because I wanted to see if I could concentrate for three hours a week. Getting through some of those first papers was more challenging than getting my masters degree. But, at the end of that, I had the confidence to ask an editor if I could have back my assignment of bi-weekly columns. Twice a week I had to come up with something coherent on paper. That was quite a challenge, too! But together, the tutoring and bi-weekly column, gave me the self-assurance to pursue Beyond Blue, the blog, and then later, Beyond Blue, the book.

Negotiating is VERY hard, especially when you are feeling so unsure of yourself. What I did was to speak with anyone I could who might have information that would help me negotiate. I then pretended I was them my friends who had just gone through this and came out with favorable working agreements. I told myself that it wasnt me who would be doing the talking, but my friend, and that somehow made it easier.



Phoenix Rising Founder
I loved the part about separating work and home life and finding ways to cut oneself off from the stresses of work and even family, if necessary, and give oneself room to renew and heal. I find that very important.

Everybody who has the chronic illness has to deal with how to fit that in with work - if you're still working. that adds another layer of stress to the whole thing; there's the stress of having a chronic illness - not having your body or mind be able to do what most people's bodies or minds can do - and then figuring out how to make your way financially in spite of that. What a challenge! :)