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Productivity and Worth in Society

I've been struggling a lot lately with the idea of being productive.

Because I'm not.

“Both good and bad days should end with productivity. Your mood affairs should never influence your work.” ~ Greg Evans

Productivity before my COPD diagnosis

Sometimes I can't seem to unknot this tangled mess of the reality of illness versus the societal construct that a good person equals a busy and productive person. I know that's not true in the real big scheme of things, but sometimes it gets to me.

When I worked and had a career, I could choose how many hours per week or per day that I worked. I also worked at home. Because I loved my job, and, as an independent contractor, working from home meant more pay for more hours, I spent as many hours working as I possibly could. I worked when I had a cold and I worked on holidays and weekends.

Then I got sick.

I feel like that sentence alone could be the basis of a stunning book about trials, tribulations, healthcare, Social Security, and the whole gamut of psychology. I would read that book.

Who I was vs who I am

I was pretty young and didn’t fit the profile of the usual suspects who get diagnosed with COPD. I was only 42 and never smoked. I’d been pretty healthy and worked hard all my life – at school, at jobs, at relationships. Before COPD, I felt like a good, productive member of society.

And now – now I’m not. This disease has stolen my energy and a big part of my intelligence. I went from being the top contractor for the company I loved to requesting less and less work, turning in assignments late sometimes. I went from organizing large events and putting out a quarterly newsletter to sometimes forgetting my name and address for a moment if the doctor asks for them.

My new normal

A few years ago I sat in a hearing with a judge who later deemed me legally too sick to work anymore. I’m now officially disabled. Lately, I've had to admit to myself that I've gotten worse as far as some things go.

It hurts to breathe in big so I can sneeze. It hurts to bend over because my lungs squeeze in my diaphragm and I can't breathe. Taking a shower is a Big Ordeal that's exhausting. Any movement I make feels like I'm making it underwater and I have to force myself sometimes to walk from one room to the other. I sleep 16-18 hours a day. And I need it.

So why -- WHY? -- do I still feel so guilty about not working? About not working, or cooking (because I like to cook), or doing something useful for my family like teaching, gardening, and preserving food.

Reframing productivity with COPD

Whenever I feel this way, it helps me to remember four things:

1. Forgiveness

The times when I cope better with my limitations are the times when I forgive myself for being sick. It’s a process and it may be one I’ll go through for the rest of my life. I never wanted to be sick. I never asked to be sick. I don’t believe in the notion that our bodies somehow “betray” us. My illness just happened.

2. Do what I can

“Think of many things; do one.” ~ Portuguese proverb

I think of this proverb a lot when I feel unproductive and down. When I’m feeling overwhelmed about all the things that need to be done, if I can do one thing, just one thing, well, that’s enough to make me feel better. I may work little by little at a slow pace, but that’s okay.

3. Permission to Rest

“My goal is no longer to get more done, but rather to have less to do.” ~ Francine Jay

Giving myself permission to rest, to be leisurely, to take it slowly, has been a revelation. I’ve come to accept that that’s my life now: life in the slow lane. Even more, some days I just need to rest and do nothing. That’s all right. Resting is actually a form of productivity because healing helps me regain my energy, or get over a COPD exacerbation.

4. Rethinking productivity itself

“...I pushed myself to take a wider view of what was “productive.” Time spent with my family and friends was never wasted.” ~ Gretchen Rubin

I think of this every day. For me, it ties into my purpose in life: love and service. Being with my teenage son and my husband is much more important than anything. I wouldn’t trade all the wonderful conversations I’ve had with the kiddo for all the work I’ve ever done. All the great times I’ve had with friends and the memories we’ve made are what I think of to get me through the days, not all the deadlines and assignments employers gave me.

Moving forward

As long as I can remember these four points, most times I can overcome my self-doubt and my self-blame. Sometimes I can’t, but luckily those days are fewer and fewer.

If you have ever felt this way, you have my love and my sympathy. And, most of all: my admiration for dealing with it.

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