I’ve had a weird week. I realised that I am going to be (medically) retired by 40 years old, if my application runs smoothly. It is a complete mind melt – retired by 40? It’s my own doing, so of course I shouldn’t be shocked. It was me who, earlier this week, told my Manager that the reasonable adjustments that they put into the place last summer at work just aren’t working anymore. It was me who wrote to our HR department to ask the pensions officer to start the ball rolling by sending out the forms for my application for ill health retirement. But, really? Retired by 40?! I wish that it was due to winning the lottery, but, alas, that isn’t the case. It is because of my worsening MS.
If you had told me 10 years ago that this is what would be happening to me at age 39, I wouldn’t have believed you. 10 years ago, I had a one-month-old baby son and I spent my days in a loved-up bubble, staring at his gorgeous face, feeding him and trying desperately to get him to sleep. I had MS, yes, but I was lucky in that I hadn’t had a relapse since before I got married, 3 years previously. I didn’t suffer from any MS symptoms and had been told by my neurologist that my prognosis was good, due to the length of time I had had MS for (15 years by this point) and my very few and far between relapses.
Fast forward the ten years and everything has changed. The tiny baby is now a pre-teen with a penchant for swimming and gaming and I am now a mum of two who uses a scooter and struggles to work due to her illness. The thing is, it’s all happened so gradually that I almost can’t remember when the turning point came. But, I think I do: I remember being on holiday when my daughter was two (I know the exact time as we were in the middle of the joys of potty training!) and having to have a nap in the day for the first time since she was a tiny baby. That was the first time I felt MS fatigue, and soon after that, I went for a run and realised that I couldn’t lift my legs up properly. That was almost 6 years ago and I have since been confirmed as having Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis.
I’ve known for a good while that I was struggling with work and that I would not last until normal retirement age. Looking back at previous emails, I had last contacted the pensions officer for a pension forecast in 2016. Since that time, I have had 4 months off on long term sick but, apart from that, have maintained my 3 days a week at work, working 7.5 hours a day, and usually more. I have had to embrace adaptations to my work when otherwise I wouldn’t have had to, but they have helped me stay in work longer, and I am grateful to my Managers for putting them into place. But, ultimately, the fatigue has got me. My mobility is rubbish, but I can safely say that the fatigue aspect of MS is the most debilitating for me.
So, why now? That old saying ‘you know when you know’, is so true. Since Christmas, my days off have literally been spent in bed; not just to nap then get up again, but actually staying in bed whilst my husband gets the kids ready for school and out the door, then still being there when they arrive home again. I get up for dinner, put the kids to bed, then go back myself (or fall asleep on the sofa). My husband is amazing, and takes it all in his stride. But I have realised, once and for all, that this is not how I see my life being – spending the tiny amount of energy that I have on work, so that my kids, my husband and my health all become neglected. I hate to admit it to myself, but I am not irreplaceable at work. They will find another one of me and the department will keep going on, just as it always does.
No longer doing 3 full days of work will mean that I can focus my energy on family, taking my kids to school and having quality time with my husband. It will mean that I can focus on one aspect of the Overcoming MS programme that I have also been neglecting of late – exercise. I want to try and build strength and up my yoga to help my spasticity. I’d like to read more – luckily The Surviving Life Book Club has come at just the right time – and perhaps pick up German again. I have a vision of me crocheting tiny prem baby hats and donating them to the local Special Care Baby Unit and catching up with friends over coffee. This all sounds idyllic, but the reality is that I will probably spend a great deal of time sleeping and just trying to deal with my myriad of MS symptoms. They’re not going to go away, just because I’m retired. I’m retiring because they won’t go away.
The feelings associated with admitting defeat are complex; on one hand, I feel relieved, happy that I have finally made a decision and I am confident that it’s the right one for both my health and for my family. But I spent six years training to do what I do for my work. It is a massive part of me and my identity. What happens to me when I can no longer do it? Who do I become?
I mentioned on my Facebook page that I had made my decision about ill-health retirement, and the responses I received were amazing; so supportive and lots of assurances that I was doing the right thing for me and my family. I suppose it’s like doing anything new; you just need to try your best to embrace it and focus on the positives. It helps so much to know that others have been through the same and that they don’t regret it one bit.
So, onward and upward with the new phase of my life! Apparently the process of applying for ill-health retirement in the NHS can be a long and complex one, trying to coordinate the pension coming through before you’re officially ‘medically dismissed’ from your work (because it is two completely different pathways). If anyone has been through the process, I’d love to hear. Luckily I have my trade union on board for support.
So, yes, I will likely be medically retired by 40. But that doesn’t mean that my life is over – it means a new one is just beginning, and I am excited to see where it leads me. If it means that I will be able to be more present for my family, it will all be worth it.
I hope that you all have a lovely week ahead 🙂