Los Angeles, CA, March 12 – My wake-up call to learned carelessness came in Summer 2021, when a violent crash forced me out of a work-induced haze. Until then, I had spent years in a modus operandi wherein I was expected to treat my pain as though it didn’t matter. Physical, mental, emotional—none of it mattered when I was expected to fulfill the traditional definition of work. “Traditional” is the key word when coming from a background wherein other forms of work were treated as inferior, and illness was seen as an excuse.
For the five years leading up to that crash, I staggered through work as I struggled with two undiagnosed illnesses: hidradenitis suppurative and Lyme disease. I worked as a housekeeper, pet sitter, intern, volunteer mentor, and freelance writer. None of it mattered, however, as it didn’t lead to the “good job” with benefits or offer the opportunity to climb within a corporation. In the days leading up to the crash, I was throwing myself into work in hopes of getting this “good job” at long last.
Had I allowed myself to see the signs, I would have stepped away from work much sooner to take care of myself. In summer 2021, my health was in serious decline after various forms of stress sent it spiraling out of control. Along with stressors from the pandemic and a broken hearing aid, I had been left by my partner because I didn’t agree to his timeline for children. I swallowed Aleve like candy, chased it with caffeine, and tried to hide migraine symptoms under a theatrical smile.
Only my coworkers could see that I forgot basic tasks, was struggling to speak, and intermittently lost the strength in my hands. Pain was only visible if I turned off dozens of lights and pulled all the shades I could reach. It was careless of me to work through every day that I had a migraine, yet I believed this carelessness was necessary just so I could keep a job. Of course, my coworkers cared about me. The pressure I felt had nothing to do with them as people, but rather, the pressure to perform society’s traditional view of “ableness” in a work environment. A corporation can only allow so many absences and I had to be careful to not stretch my “grace period” as I struggled through heartache-induced sickness.
My first major warning should have come when I lost the feeling in half my face during a migraine headache. Nearly a month of sleepless nights, excess sugary sweets, and nonstop work reached what should’ve been their crescendo as I was dragged away in an ambulance. “Hemiplegic migraine” was the diagnosis, not just for that night, but for every migraine that caused severe neurological dysfunction. I had been walking around with a rare yet destructive form of migraine that could’ve been mistaken for a stroke. Instead of giving myself proper rest, I lay in bed for a day and went back to work with heart shaped sunglasses. Carelessness was repeated in hopes of proving to others, “I’ve got migraines, but I don’t let them stop me!” A supercrip trope (i.e., an inauthentic trope often seen in media when a disabled person is portrayed as having overcome their disability, despite the fact that nothing about their body has changed) I often performed in hopes of advancing closer to the “good job.”
Amid MRIs, neurology appointments, and a psychiatric appointment revealing OCD, my partner came back asking for another chance. He apologized for how he had behaved on multiple accounts and wanted to know if we could start over. I couldn’t give him an answer since my health was further compounded by PTSD roaring back. I threw myself further into work beyond chasing the “good job”: Instagramming “positive” things, building IKEA furniture, changing my hair, and clearing out my closet.
Everything seemed to point toward each task serving as a “productive” coping mechanism –physical and mental illness be damned. I was going to beat all my adversity through hard work and prove what chronically ill people could do in the process. My pain would be an attempt to show myself and every other chronically ill person could work through anything. It didn’t matter how many nights the PTSD was starting to steal after a month of lost sleep to heartache. I was going to go to work, drink 3-4 shots of espresso to stay upright, swallow Aleve to stop the pain, and smile my way into productiveness and a “good job.” It was a mantra I preserved all the way up to the crash.
Mentally, I wished I could’ve taken at least a week off to recover from the stress of the summer, but I refused to ask for such an option. I felt I had already missed “too much” work as it was, and I had to conserve my sick days in case of other emergencies. If I had been more aware of learned carelessness, I would’ve asked for that time off, or at least stayed home on the day of the crash.
From the moment I stepped out of the wreckage, my entire world began to change, starting with my partner coming to my side. My psychiatrist could barely get me to calm down, but my partner got through by asking me to speak Italian with him. The change in language was the first of many that would pull me out of learned carelessness, redirecting my mind from an endless chase to immediate need. I don’t know what would’ve become of us had I not crashed in learned carelessness, but it was the first of many vital steps of pulling myself back together. Friends came to my side shortly after he calmed me down, and piece by piece, they all affirmed how much learned carelessness had shaped my world. They may not have used those exact words, but they could all see how overworking to prove myself and get the “good job” was destroying me from the inside out.
As I regained clarity post-crash, I realized the circumstances leading up to that day extended far beyond the summer itself. Blaming my partner, the hemiplegic migraine, lack of sleep, and so many other things would’ve been far too easy. Learned carelessness was something I had embodied my entire life to perform the concept of “ableness.” Instead of giving myself proper time to rest, I was expected to act as though nothing was wrong solely because my illnesses were nonvisible. In health issues extending as far back as lifelong chronic ear infections and subsequent hearing loss, my pain was regarded like it didn’t matter. If I took too much time to rest, it was deemed “laziness” and an “excuse,” with no one believing me until I was profoundly ill. Even then, a visit to the hospital or a test result would only buy me a few months of time before I was treated like a faker again. Living by their definitions of health and laziness became the only way I had shot at a “good job,” but the carelessness demanded could’ve easily taken my life.
Day by day, I am learning to free myself from the shadows of learned carelessness, examining its effects beyond the workforce. Mess in relationships becomes the product of learned carelessness because the care given to friends and lovers is equally flimsy as the care given to oneself. While a messy work performance may not come right away, it will happen eventually when learned carelessness creeps into the workforce. Looking back on it now, I realize the crash was inevitable and would’ve come about as long as learned carelessness reigned supreme. As long as I put my pain and needs second to portray “ableness” in the workforce, there was nothing I could’ve done to stop it.
The rescue my partner offered extended far beyond the crash itself, helping me through a multitude of steps to recover my self-care. In any moment where my mind jumped back to the crash, I called him immediately, as per his request, so he could talk me down until I was stable. Our conversations about how our relationship came apart continued, but in the steps of unlearning carelessness, I became more vocal about what I needed in a relationship. Sometimes, I was vindictive while I tried to unlearn carelessness, yet I did my best to correct myself as I further learned healthy self-preservation. All through my mistakes and apologies in my unlearning process, my partner forgave me because he could see me as a full self. I didn’t need to perform ableness for him and living in learned carelessness caused him just as much pain because he hated to see me suffer. He still admires my work ethic and how easily I’m able to “make things happen,” but he also keeps me grounded by reminding me, “Tesoro, you work too much.”
Since the crash, I’ve had the “good job,” only to find that its stability was overpromised because I still found a part myself feeling empty. The company will always hold a place in my heart, but to stay there would’ve been to stay in learned carelessness because I would’ve ignored the things I wanted for my life. It was a risk to leave the “good job,” just as it was a risk to say “yes” to my partner after months of indecision. Nevertheless, both categories required that I listen to the needs of my body and heart, as reflected in their presentations in everyday life. I left the narratives of the “good job” and “never go back to an ex” in the past, realizing that my own narrative as a disabled woman was far more important than a performance of “ableness.”
As I take these steps to unlearn my carelessness, a myriad of things have begun to change. I don’t have migraines anywhere near as much as I did in the summer of 2021. Caring for my things has become much easier, as I’ve made space for what matters and what I can give away. My partner and I have a stronger unity in what we want out of life and know that our future paths must find a way to incorporate each other. Most importantly, I am learning what I as a disabled woman need to fulfill for self-care and self-love. This isn’t to say that I am without regrets, as I will always feel sorrow about needing a crash to learn this lesson. Losses and trauma are their own teachers, but now I know to look for others beyond the misery expected of chronic illness.
My teachers now include my body and my heart, though sometimes I need my partner as a TA to teach me patience. I’m still learning lessons from all of them as I go, and there is much I still have to learn in the future.
Of all the journeys I’ve traversed, unlearning carelessness is the one that’s fulfilled me the most. I’m ready to embrace how my world will open when the carelessness I have held for so long is replaced by love. It may be a while before I recognize this change, but in seeing myself thrive through my current steps in self-care, I know I will see what has yet to come.
Christina Lisk is a Philanthropy Apprentice with RespectAbility. While the month of March is traditionally recognized as Women’s History Month, RespectAbility is using this moment to amplify the voices of all underrepresented genders in the Disability community, with a month-long editorial series titled, “Empowering the Next Generation,” acknowledging the important role each of these voices plays in the overall goal of building gender equity and equality for future generations. Stay tuned for more pieces all month!