Graded exposure to work: How I did it with the help of some furry friends

Change was the only constant during my years of pain.  For a year, I flew weekly from Albuquerque to Denver for treatment.  Then we moved from Albuquerque to Chicago.  Then we moved into a new condo, then my husband took a job out-of-state for a year, and then he moved back to Chicago. 


And then… it looked like life was going to stabilize.  It was August of 2015 that I told my amazing physical therapist, Sandy, that I was ready to go “PRN” – medical lingo for “I’ll visit as-needed, but I don’t need regular weekly appointments.”  That announcement to Sandy was a huge, terrifying, thrilling moment, and it marked a turning point in my life.  I was no longer a professional patient.  I now had the time and energy to be an attorney – what I’d trained and prepared to be!  I began interviewing for jobs, and I received an offer from a well-reputed, high-brow firm.  Then, as if the universe were finally smiling on my little family, in October of 2015, my husband was also offered a job back in Chicago.  We both took the jobs, and in a twist of fate and coincidence, we started those new jobs on the exact same day.

As we waited for the train on our first day of work, I sipped on my $6 latte and felt exhilarated to be wearing my new suit, traveling to work with my husband and hundreds of other professionals.  Our dog had been dropped off at daycare that morning.  My salary and firm were fancy, and I even had an indoor plant consultant visit my office that first week.  That only week, it turns out.

The thing is… that firm had plans for me.  Big plans involving long work hours, little time for self-care, and penalizing glares when I stepped out for an 8:30 am physical therapy visit (because stress’ll do crazy things to the pelvic floor).  I talked to my supervisor, my mentor, the HR manager.  “I’m just coming off of an illness!”  I implored them to reduce my workload (which was pre-negotiated to be reduced, in exchange for a significantly reduced salary).  When they didn’t listen to me, I listened to my gut.  I quit.

Self-care > lawyering

In a former life, I would’ve stayed in the job and thrived professionally while suffering internally.  But I had worked too hard to let anyone dent my progress.  My health and happiness came first – even if that meant that my choice would rock our finances and disrupt our routine.  This wasn’t some liberating experience; it angered me that my chosen profession and dedication to self-care seemed to be at odds. My stomach was in knots that first week after I quit.  I implored my therapist to reassure me – had I done the right thing?  What should I do now? Who will ever hire me? She encouraged me to do nothing.  Let it settle.  Don’t act hastily. 

Recovery: the epilogue

A week later, I was perusing the job listings in the local paper, and I spotted one for a part-time kennel attendant at my dog’s daycare facility.  As I had come to know from dropping Crosby at their door each morning, they were the most gloriously kind, animal-loving, playful people in town.  Plus, the place was packed with adorable dogs.  I emailed the daycare’s owner immediately and told her I’d love to be considered for the job.  Seriously.  I really wanted the job.  After an interview the following week, I was hired and began work.

My months at the daycare were some of the most powerful in my recovery.  When I started work, I struggled with the basics – keeping a routine, maintaining enough energy to get to work, and learning new tasks.  The job was fun and challenging: the dogs needed to be watched closely, there was lots of poop to clean up, and I was surrounded by snuggly critters.  Sometimes the dogs bickered with one another, or my back ached from mopping the floor for a 10th time or from shoveling the snow from the patio.  It was manual labor, and it gave me confidence in my strength – and, importantly, in my ability to integrate my strength into my responsibilities.  Previously, I’d kept the two separate: my responsibilities lived in my laptop, which I used from the security of the sofa; meanwhile, my strength lived at the yoga studio, but I didn’t push its limits outside those walls.  This job, though, combined the two, and it taught me how to harness my energy, keep a regular sleeping/eating schedule, and [literally] play well with others again.

After a few months, I was healthy again – with some blips.  I had a rough pain flare-up in my fourth month on the job and pulled a bit of a disappearing act, of which I’m not proud.  I was frightened by the perceived “return” of my pain (though it wasn’t), and I briefly took to my bed again.  I briefly left the house only to see Sandy, and I briefly thought of myself as sick again.  It was bound to happen (recovery is a non-linear process, as I’ve learned so many times), and when it did happen, I felt like a huge flake.  I flaked on my dog daycare job, flaked on my friends and brunch plans, and I flaked on my responsibilities. And then, one day, I harnessed my strength to fulfill my responsibilities again, and I was back on my feet.

Thankfully, I haven’t flaked since – and that was 12 months ago.  And so, I celebrate a year of confident health and strength – a beautiful experience that was cultivated by my wonderful months at that doggie daycare.  And my snuggle buddies there  helped me heal in an incredibly integrative, hands-on way.  They gave me the gift of “graded exposure to work,” something I didn’t know existed before meeting them. 

© 2017 Inspire Santé