The Sick Days: Part 20 – Into the Frying Pan
When I was a young reporter, there were no “self-help” books about how to manage your workload, ask for support from your employer, or even disclose an illness.
By Shelley Page
I’d like to torque my personal narrative and claim that I left my ‘dream job’ because I’d had an epiphany: journalism would never be a cure for lupus.
Except, I wasn’t that clever.
These days, there are many books written for the chronically ill about how to scale back your dreams and still find career success: Despite Lupus, written by a former NBC producer who quit her job to control the constant flares of her illness, which eventually attacked her kidneys, arguably the most serious manifestation of lupus (a stage I didn’t yet have to worry about). The writer encouraged readers to work smart, or in bite-sized chunks, and sometimes not at all. Fabulupus (yes, that’s really the title), is filled with similar advice.
When I was a young reporter, there were no “self-help” books about how to manage your workload, ask for support from your employer, or even disclose an illness. And there was also no wise counsel from medical professionals.
Instead, my rheumatologist, one of the best in Toronto, fed my personal mythology that I thrived on stress. How else to explain that all of the blood tests to measure the severity of my disease activity were sky high, but I wasn’t defeated by the chronic fatigue, arthritis or the ripping pain of pericarditis (inflammation around the lining of the heart) or pleurisy (inflammation of the lining around my lungs)? Somehow stress gave me energy, or so his pep talk went.
Two points. Maybe the results of my blood work were so bad because inflammation was running rampant and the resulting damage had not yet been detected. And maybe I was pushing through pain because it was a life-long habit.
I had been a competitive athlete my entire life, swimming 24 hours a week, through knee and shoulder injuries and tear-filled goggles. As a university basketball player, I competed with a fractured tibia for months before agreeing to a cast. I approached all activities with a winning game plan, including journalism.
What was a front-page byline worth?
I kept my eye on the prize, which increasingly didn’t seem like much of a prize at all. What was a front-page byline in the storied Star worth to me?
In the midst of all this, if someone had grabbed me by the shoulders and attempted an intervention, how would I have reacted? Someone as competitive as me wouldn’t likely back down.
But, as it turns out, I could run.
When my long-absent boyfriend was permanently posted to Ottawa, I made hasty plans to follow. He may remember differently, but I don’t think we had a heart-to-heart, let alone a face-to-face, about whether I should quit my job. I don’t think I could afford to second-guess this decision, considering how hard I’d worked to get hired at the Star in the first place.
Instead, I made plans to run.
Run from an unpredictable, stressful job that undermined my lupus.
Run from a sexist, madcap newsroom that I loved and hated.
Run toward someone who’d been a constant and cared for me, albeit for many years from a distance.
Keep in mind it was an arthritic, hobbling run.
First, I had to find a place to land.
My instinct was to not ditch reporting. Frankly, after being turned down for numerous beat jobs at the Star, I didn’t think anyone would hire me in Ottawa. Instead, I applied to do a Masters at Carleton University, where I’d received my bachelor of journalism.
My state of mind at the time influenced what I wanted to study. Since arriving at the Star, I’d devoured populist feminist books, from Germaine Greer to Simone de Beauvoir. I read them out of intermittent anger and curiosity. I wanted to know why some men were still so threatened by, or clueless about, working women.
A better course of study might have been examining how to negotiate the working world while chronically ill, especially since the number of people living with chronic disease is still increasing most rapidly among people aged 34 to 65, the working population. In addition, 35 per cent of workers do not get their doctor recommended accommodations so they can keep and excel at their jobs. And these stats don’t even begin to tease out the stubbornness and resilience that ‘working while ill’ requires.
But back then, a key requirement to take a Masters of Arts in Women’s and Gender Studies was a practicum as an assistant in an office where feminists congregated, whether with an activist group or the government’s Status of Women department. I argued that after being a journalist for a top newspaper, my real life experience was worth more than stuffing envelopes with letters asking for donations from sisters in arms. The administrators were inflexible, which didn’t bode well for the program.
Instead, I applied to the Norman Patterson School of International Relations at Carleton. One of my former journalism Profs, George Frajkor, wrote me an academic reference. I hoped to study the biological basis of warfare, which wasn’t unrelated to the battle of the sexes. I was accepted.
… The number of people living with chronic disease is still increasing most rapidly among people aged 34 to 65, the working population. In addition, 35 per cent of workers do not get their doctor recommended accommodations so they can keep and excel at their jobs.
I was leaving journalism.
Then, my long-time friend Anne McIlroy told me she had just taken a new job and her old job as science writer was open at the Ottawa Citizen. I remember envying her new post as Environment Reporter for the Southam News Chain. She’d travel the world exploring the early warning signs of climate change, including the ill-fated negotiations in Kyoto, Japan. I knew that with my health that was something I’d never be able to do. I accepted travel as a limitation, especially after being caught in a Trinidadian prison without my prednisone. But I thought I could still partially follow in her footsteps. She’d been an outstanding science journalist.
I’d read as much pop science as I had feminist fundamentals. I never stopped to consider whether I should keep walking away from journalism and never look back. I was so keen to have a beat of my own, that I arrived for the interview with a list of 25 story ideas. The two editors sat behind a desk and scrutinized me as I ad-libbed about quantum physics, DNA and the mystery of why the night sky is dark, despite all the stars. I remember one of the editors, who had a 1980s pornstar moustache, seemed to stare at my chest throughout my entire pitch. I had to raise the file folder that contained my story ideas, so he would look at my face. Or maybe I was just imagining that.
When I told Prof. Frajkor I’d been hired at the Citizen and wasn’t going to do my Masters, he said, “Of course you did, you’re beautiful.”
Or, just maybe it was big, beautiful “ideas” that impressed the men that interviewed me.
So, I wasn’t leaving journalism, but instead, I was finally getting a beat job. If I stopped to consider my health at all, I rationalized that a slower pace and greater control over my schedule would help me get my disease under control.
I told my editor and colleagues at the Star that I was leaving to go to Ottawa. They found this odd. You generally only leave the Star to go to dry out. The deputy national editor, Ian Urquhart, tried to find me a position in the Ottawa Parliamentary bureau, because he thought I’d been doing a great job covering the delegate selection process for Liberal leader, between Jean Chretien and Paul Martin. But the head honcho didn’t really see me as Ottawa bureau material. After four years and a bit, I walked out of the door of One Yonge Street, a newsroom I’d fought so hard to find a place in.
I’ve always wondered what would have happened to my health if I’d remained at the Toronto Star. Because once I got to the Citizen, it all went to shit.
The Sick Days continues in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.
THE EX-PRESS, February 8, 2016