Now Hiring: Living with CSU and Maintaining a Job
For as long as I have had a professional career, I’ve had chronic spontaneous urticaria (CSU). Having said that, with my past six employers over the last 10 years, I have only opened up about my disease with one of them. Sure enough, that was the only time I was ever fired. Some people have all the luck, right?
Let’s back up a bit. Overall, I’ve had a very healthy professional career. I’ve climbed the ladder, worked my way to the top, **insert obligatory workforce mantra**, you get the idea. I also think it is important to mention that I didn’t share my skin condition with anyone at work, and I mean, anyone. Not even the mice in the basement. I liked to keep it a secret because I couldn’t stand the attention, nor did I want pity. It’s work after all, right? Among friends and family, it's different, but at work you carry yourself like a professional, do your job and make no excuses. There I go with the obligatory workforce mantras again.
I’ll just hide it
Working with hives is like working with any skin condition – You probably initially hide it. Or rather, that’s what I did because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do. I dreaded the days when my condition was bad, yet I still forced myself to roll out of bed, put clothes on and drag myself to work. If the breakout was bad and I had hives all over my face, I’d call in sick sans excuses for the fear of someone finding out. And that’s just what I did for a long while.
Poor concentration + low productivity = unhappy boss
The biggest challenge during a breakout at work is to stay focused, and try not to scratch or draw attention to yourself. I can remember having an itch that was so intense, I sprinted to the washroom, unbuttoned my dress shirt, and clawed my body in a state of ecstasy, creating blood stains on my collar from the excessive scratching. Now, imagine this conversation:
Boss: ‘Where did you go?’
Me: ‘To the bathroom.’
Boss: ‘For 25 minutes and now there is blood on your collar?’
Me: ‘Ummm. Yes.’
Boss: ‘sighs and walks away’
If anyone pointed out my hives on my neck or hands, I would respond “it's allergies” because to me, allergies was something that they can understand and relate to, while Chronic Spontaneous Urticaria is not. I would much rather lie and tell them it's allergies than a skin disease.
The F word
In 2011, I got fired from a job mainly due to the amount of sick days I was using. My boss seemed like a very understanding and open person, so I felt that I could let him in on my CSU secret. I told him that I get hives from time to time and that I'm a little embarrassed when they're on my face, since I deal with clients on a day-to-day basis. This was the reason I gave him for my numerous sick calls. He would downplay it and compare me to a colleague of ours who had a birthmark on his face. “Do you see Jose's face? He's not embarrassed. He doesn't call in sick. You're the only one making a big deal out of it and if you didn't, no one would even notice.” He did not make me feel any better with that speech. He basically told me that if I ignored it, no one will notice.
Naturally, he was wrong, because when angioedema takes over your eyes and keeps them shut, 100% of people you talk to will notice. Trust me.
I'm not sure what I was hoping for when I told him about my hives: Compassion? Assistance? A month or two after I told him, I was let go from my job because of my absenteeism.
Getting back on the horse
Getting fired was tough, especially when I had little or no control over what happened. I was feeling very down on myself. I had a wife and young son, and the stress of not having a job was overbearing.
It took me a few days, and then it finally hit me: This was not the way to go about this.
I needed to get up and find another job. I decided to create these ‘rules’ that I stuck to every day. It looked something like this:
Rule 1: I will not let my CSU get in the way of how I perceive myself
Rule 2: Every day, I will make getting the right job a priority
Rule 3: I will be confident and engaging when speaking to someone and will talk openly about my CSU
It may sound silly, but these rules actually helped me out a lot. It instilled a confidence in me that I didn’t think I had. When looking for a job, if I didn’t hear back from a potential employer, I shook it off and moved to the next. If someone asked me in an interview if I was let go before, I would explain why and discuss my condition. Although it was tough, I believe my honesty truly helped me excuberate confidence and show my self-worth.
Moving on up
I am happy to say that I eventually landed a job. I feel a lot less pressure as my new boss knows about my skin condition, and I don’t need to feel the stress of trying to hide it. So what is my advice to those in similar situations? Staying positive and confident is the best interview tool you can have. Living with CSU makes you a fighter, and if you can show that you have that inner tenacity, watch out other job candidates, because here you come!
Overall, the most important part for me and for others to take away is that you keep going, keep striving for your best, regardless of your CSU. It’s not always going to be easy, and not everyone is going to understand, but you can’t let your disease control your life. I’m proud of my work accomplishments, and make sure I give it 110% every day. If my disease has taught me one thing, it is to be an out-of-the-box thinker.
Okay, those were the last obligatory, cliché workforce mantras, I promise!