Being chronically ill but wanting to make a difference: the balance.

Three years ago today, I spent my day in a traditional Lakota sweat lodge. Two days prior, I had walked away from my corporate job with zero fallback plan.

Already in the midst of a major autoimmune crash, I was also doing work that was breaking my soul. I had been hired as the wellness communications specialist for a 15,000-employee company. The job description was everything I loved – creating messaging and programs to support and inspire health, educating around nutrition and wellness. What my position ended up being was spinning the company’s new high deductable healthcare plan. I could’ve just created the messaging being suggested to me – “Here’s all the ways this will be great for you and your family!”

Because I’m me, I instead started digging. I started running the numbers myself. I started going back to the vendors and actuaries and asking them to give me real-life scenarios I could illustrate so people could at least plan for what was actually coming. I found that, for anyone with any kind of chronic issue – asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, etc. – this plan was going to run them into the ground financially within the first three months of the year. It was a plan designed to cover emergency needs for otherwise healthy people. It was a plan designed to save the company money, not take care of its people so they can keep doing their jobs.

I knew it was backwards, but I didn’t know what to do. I was one person. I was new. This was a massive company and, while I had the ear of the CEO, I had a feeling he wouldn’t much appreciate a 27 year old kid busting in and telling him – “If you don’t know, this is wrong. And if you already know this is wrong, you are ethically abysmal.”

I ended up approaching a VP I trusted, not within my team, with all of the research and the numbers I had been running. I’ll give the company credit – they seemed to have truly not understood the impact of what they were pushing through.

The people at the top making decisions didn’t have chronic health issues, nor did their families, so it wasn’t something they thought to look or advocate for. They were being sold this plan by vendors, who of course wanted to say “look at all this money this will save you. Hire us!”

Long story short, they ended up moving quickly to put an add-on prescription coverage plan in place that would cover the cost of meds for chronic illnesses at 80% rather than being 100% out of pocket, which they had been before.

A few weeks after the plan was announced, I was interviewing a warehouse worker somewhere in the Midwest for a story we were doing on company associates who had quit smoking. He said he always blamed himself for his 8 year old son having asthma. He said that when he saw the new health care plan announced, his heart dropped; he had no idea how he was going to cover his kid’s meds. Then he saw the prescription coverage plan announced a week later. “I’ve gotta thank whoever thought about that. We would’ve been dead in the water without that help. We wouldn’t have been able to afford his inhalers.”

I sat on the other end of the phone trying to hide my tears. It had been months of stress and anxiety and I had run myself into the ground. Getting that plan through was me, at the end of a marathon, legs buckling, just trying to cross the finish line.

And then I crashed. I crashed hard. I should’ve stepped away months before, my system screaming at me to stop. But I was terrified for all of these people, already not getting paid enough nor getting the help they needed, and I knew I was the only one paying attention. So I kept pushing and pushing and pushing.

For weeks after I quit my job, I was sleeping about 20 hours a day. I was in a massive amount of pain. My body responds negatively to inflammation, which stress causes in droves, so my months of pushing certainly didn’t help. If I hadn’t walked away when I did, already too late, I surely would’ve died. Not trying to be dramatic – it just is what it is.

Sometimes we have to push. There’s too much on the line sometimes to not. But that experience taught me just how hard I could, and to what extent I was willing to sacrifice to get something done. I don’t think I would do it again, although I’m proud I did. If anything, for one year until I’m sure they changed the plan again, that kid got his inhalers.

It taught me that I cannot do work that isn’t heart-led. It taught me that I crash harder when I’m not in alignment. It taught me that fighting and paying attention can truly save lives. It taught me that advocates at the top matter. But it also taught me that you cannot stay in the places where you can make a difference if you don’t take care of yourself first. You have to fill your cup first so you can serve others from the overflow.

And so I sat in the sweat lodge, thinking of all that was to come, trying to apologize to my body and call on the strength of people who had come before me. It vigorously threw me on a long road toward purpose and clarity and voice, which I’m thankful for. But damn if it didn’t almost kill me.

~~~

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