At 38 years old, I had fast tracked my career to Senior Vice President of a global, publicly traded company. Based in Plano, TX, but working for an India-based company, I found myself suddenly traveling the globe. My job demanded long hours, strong relationship skills, the ability to multitask, giving presentations to large groups, learning new information to help spin the company and interacting at the most senior levels. I was building a new sales channel for the company that would contribute millions of dollars to annual revenues.
Five months after joining my new employer, I suddenly fell ill with a series of neurological phenomena … forgetting how to talk, walk, swallow or emote at the onset. Tingling, headaches, blurry and lost vision, loss of short-term memory, lack of concentration, dizzy spells, slurred speech, among a host of others suddenly distracted me from my job, which used to come easy to me. After the onset, life took a different path … and one that forced me to not travel domestically for 6 months or globally for at least 12. For the first time in my career, I feared losing my job. I felt forced to “conceal” my symptoms as best as I could to protect my income. Because problem solving was most impacted, I “didn’t know what I didn’t know,” so reports to doctors were vague as I knew I was completely different, but I couldn’t place my finger on what was wrong. An example: I lost 20 pounds in a month because I could no longer taste or smell, so I’d forget to eat or food was so uninteresting that I just pushed food around the plate. Yet I didn’t grasp this, so I didn’t report it.
After 27 months and becoming more aware of my disabilities, doctors finally determined that I had suffered an acquired brain injury (encephalitis) from a mosquito bite. Since my employer didn’t have a Texas office, my home was my office when not traveling. This allowed me to sleep the sometimes 18 hours a day in the beginning without my employer seeing how impaired I actually was. During the most critical part of the recovery, my husband and I came up with “work arounds” to help me cope with my new reality. We set timers for medications. If I had to conduct a briefing, I scripted it out. If I had a business dinner, I brought a colleague and compared notes afterward to “borrow” their memory. I carried a notebook with me everywhere to jot down items I needed to remember. I scheduled meetings around my numerous doctor appointments, blocking my calendar to appear otherwise busy.
Fast forward nearly 6 years later and I’ve “come out” about my illness. At a new company now, I’ve hired an all-star team to help accommodate for my deficits. I’ve come clean on what’s difficult so they can slow down in delivering info or wait for me to take notes. During the interview process, I told my “boss-to-be” about my situation to be forthcoming about my illness. At times I laugh, thinking, they just hired a brain-damaged Chief Marketing Officer … on purpose! But the meds for concentration, memory and sleep help me function somewhat normally so most people don’t see my residuals unless they spend hours with me.
My suggestions for people with rare/chronic illnesses who work out of the home are to limit distractions, have a regimented program to split your work/personal life (it can easily get intertwined), and allow yourself to get the treatments/therapies that you need. If your illness causes stress, find a good therapist. Join a survivor group on Inspire.com, which can be extremely therapeutic to interact with others going through the same thing. To the extent you don’t destroy your credibility, be honest with others so they can help accommodate your limitations versus running from them and potentially exacerbating them. For me, keeping a sense of humor has been the most helpful. I laugh at the silly things I do now and don’t take myself so seriously anymore.
About the Author: Becky Dennis
|With 21 years of experience in the professional services industry, Becky Dennis, chief marketing officer for EXL, has played a critical role in global business development. She was recruited to create a marketing function for EXL, a North American-based company with global operations. As CMO, she has led the company in rebranding itself, rolling out a new Website, developing key programs such as a digital strategy, campaigns, public relations, influencer relations and a client advisory council.In addition to CMO, Ms. Dennis is also the author of Amazon’s top-rated “Brain Wreck,” a memoir about a patient’s unrelenting journey to save her mind and restore her spirit. She’s a patient advocate and public speaker on a wide variety of topics, including patient advocacy, rare illnesses, encephalitis, patient-doctor relationships, acquired brain injury and mosquito-borne illnesses. Ms. Dennis is actively working with medical professionals across the globe to establish standard protocols for acquired brain injury survivors. For more information, visit www.bdbrainwreck.com.|