When Hardship Strikes: How to Balance Career Through Personal Struggle

We’re all going through something in our lives. Here are ways to manage your career as you navigate personal hardship.

When hardship strikes, it doesn’t play by our rules, respect our schedules, or wait for opportune moments. It has a funny way of not caring about what’s going on in our lives. There’s no rhyme, reason, or care – it simply strikes.

I know because I was a successful editor who recently shifted my writing and digital strategy skills toward a new professional venture: full-time freelancing. As I began to work from home and get into the habit of expensing Starbucks receipts and self-managing my own time for projects, hardship struck in one of the most unfathomable skins imaginable: my 25-year-old boyfriend had Stage IV esophageal cancer.

Personal hardship doesn’t have to equate to cancer; it can encompass many avenues. I struggled with grief, panic attacks, anxiety, and depression while in the workplace, which is why I felt working-from-home was a more impactful career option for me. I began full-time freelancing in October 2016 but by November, Matthew’s first round of chemo had stopped working. Doctors gave us the medical term for plan B, which was second-line chemotherapy. If that failed, we’d move to third line, which was the toughest, hardest stuff.

Meanwhile I kept sending cheery emails to my editors, kept writing about the Kardashian sisters’ latest scandalous outfit and how to prevent urinary tract infections. I signed every email, ‘Thanks again! Best, -Stephanie” as if I was as merry and perky as the conversational tone of my articles. But I wasn’t. I was sleeping alongside a 25-year-old man whose tumor was growing into the mesh of his stomach, causing him to toss, vomit, and dry-heave throughout the night.

As his body continued to fail him, I lived through my denial by focusing as much as possible on being a good lifestyle writer. I took on as many hours as I could, working full-time even on the weekends. After Thanksgiving, Matthew was hospitalized for severe stomach pain. While I speculated about Kylie Jenner’s inevitable breakup with Tyga, Matt’s cancer had metastasized, the second-line failed. This thing was growing inside of him, planning to wreck our lives as I focused on my career. It felt like shit to realize my attempts to ignore what was happening were futile. Cancer was and is a relentless force with no cares, fears, or thoughts.

Are you dealing with a personal hardship? Maybe someone you know is struggling medically or you’re going through a rough time in your relationship. Perhaps you’re grieving the loss of a loved one or coping with trauma. No matter the hardship, balancing adversity and work is extremely challenging and arduous. Here are some tips I’ve learned through my own personal struggles:

Work is work.
You’re there to work, whether that’s in a cubicle in a fancy building or from the swivel chair of your own bedroom. Do your best to remove the personal while working and simply focus on the job. I’m not the biggest proponent of the phrase “keep busy,” but in the case of personal struggles, doing so gave me something to focus on when everything else around me was falling apart.

Know your limits.
That said, know your limits. There might come a point when you can no longer focus at work because things have become too blurred. This is especially true in the instances of family or medical issues. Eventually, I had to take time off work, which leads to my next point.

Key your superior into your situation.
No one wants to be the person crying in their cubicle or in a superior’s office detailing what’s going on at home. Even though it can feel undermining, unnerving, or even embarrassing, remember that in many cases, your company and bosses will work with you. There came a point when I had to tell my editors about Matthew’s cancer. It was hard; I was deeply embarrassed when I couldn’t make deadlines but they reassured me with immense sincerity that I needed to be home, focusing on him. I finally turned off my laptop and left it behind instead of bringing it to the hospital every day.

Always, always, always be kind.
Matthew died of complications from esophageal cancer on December 9, 2016. It took me a long time to write the email letting my editors know of his death. It took an even longer time for me to get back to work. The people who showed me kindness, I will never forget. From my former job sending me a card signed by my whole team to an editor who sent a basket full of cheese, chocolate, and wine directly to my house, the kindness I’ve been shown in the wake of Matthew’s death has been unimaginable. The point? Always be kind– you never know what battles others are fighting. That’s a saying for a reason; it’s so true and your kindness really does go a long way.

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