I want to tell you a story about my sickness anxiety.
“Teacher, your eye… it’s..,” said little Dana, squinting one eye in lieu of words. She was a four-year-old English language learner trying to explain my swollen, infected, leaking eye and ask what was wrong.
“Yes, Teacher is sick,” I said, nodding and moving on. I didn’t have the energy to get into an explanation. My little Korean kindergarten students knew the word “sick” and that was enough.
At lunch break, instead of eating the kimchi-and-rice lunch provided by the school, I followed my co-teacher to an optometrist down the road. On the third floor of one of thousands of five-floor concrete boxes stretching across Incheon, Bucheon, and Seoul, a doctor gave me drops and time in front of a face dryer before sending my back to work.
Other illnesses brought on needles filled with who-knows-what (my boss assured me, after speaking with the doctor, that it was fine), and once I was “allowed” to sit in the staffroom with my head in my hands as I shook and sweated out a fever and another teacher took on some of my classes. This system kept me from taking more than one sick day in two years. On that day, I felt terrible for inconveniencing my coworkers when there was no one to take my classes and forcing them to come in on weekends for my missed time.
I don’t want to blame Korean hagwon work culture for my anxiety about taking sick days, but I emerged from that time with a weird sense of pride about working through illness. I would certainly not inconvenience people by staying home for a cough of sniffles.
My first sick day in Canada was because I was in the hospital after a bad bout of food poisoning left me severely dehydrated.
However, the longer I lived back home, the more my Western norms reasserted themselves. I didn’t want to infect other people and I deeply resented sick people for coming into work and exposing me to their germs. But this weird guilt lingered.
It’s worth pointing out that I catch everything. If someone I pass on the bus is coughing, I will probably be wheezing by next weekend. I catch the flu, bronchitis, strep, sinus infections—at least two or three of these illnesses each year.
When I’m ill, like most people, I’m tired and less efficient in my work. My mind has a hard time focusing and it takes longer to complete things. A day or two of rest makes a tremendous difference in recovery and I come back weirdly excited to go back to work.
Yet, when I wake up knowing a bad illness has taken hold, I turn to Ryan and look at him imploringly, “Do you think I’m sick enough?”
This need for permission is hard to wrap my head around. I work in an office where my day-to-day work can be taken on by several other people and most of my deadlines are flexible. I have a laptop to work remotely from home.
Yet I feel like I’m committing a subversive act if I take a day off (and I have sick days!) or even work from my couch. It’s a mental struggle on top of the physical struggle of fighting off infection and fever.
And though I come back refreshed, happy to be feeling healthier and out of the house, I keep expecting someone to comment on my absence. I expect someone to suggest I lack fortitude and perseverance, that I’m putting my job in danger, that I don’t deserve any of the things I’ve worked for.
It’s a struggle I haven’t figured out how to navigate yet. I am glad to be in a work culture that doesn’t overtly throw shade for being sick or insist I see doctors on very short lunch breaks. But the subtext still feels very real: I should not be sick, I should be working, I should be productive or I am failing to be a responsible adult.