When career stress worsened my chronic condition, I had to find my identity outside of the entertainment industry
April is Stress Awareness Month. Here, HG contributor Allyson Byers discusses her chronic skin condition, how the stress of her career worsened the pain, and how she found an identity outside of her job. Trigger Warning: This essay discusses suicidal ideation.
I always wanted to be a high-powered investigative reporter who would do anything to chase down a story. I wouldn’t even mind working 60-70 hours a week if it meant living my dream of being on camera, sharing important stories, and following the latest investigative tips. In college, I was the person who held down multiple internships at any given time—spending over three hours a day on the train going to and from my first journalism internship in Downtown Chicago. I was beyond exhausted but running high on adrenaline and passion.
All changed during my senior year. I was diagnosed with Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS), a painful, chronic skin condition that results in swollen, painful lesions all over the body. My lesions took up residence in my underarms, groin, and chest area. Camera equipment was suddenly really hard to carry. Long days resulted in new lesions and more pain. I was so self-conscious on camera, stressing about what to wear to cover the abscesses. Pursuing my dream job turned into a nightmare.
Surprisingly, I learned that one of my journalism professors had the same disease. She said that because of it, she was forced to leave the world of reporting and become a professor. The hours were more stable and the job was less stressful, so it didn’t exacerbate her condition. But I couldn’t imagine not being a journalist—my identity was tied to my career. I didn’t know who I was without it.
I graduated college and sunk into a deep depression. I applied for less stressful jobs with stable hours, but nothing sparked my passion. It felt like I was standing still as life passed me by, and my disease only got worse and more painful. There were days when I could barely walk due to the inflammation.
I decided not to listen to the advice I received from my professor and doctors. Since I didn’t feel comfortable being on camera everyday, I turned my interests to television writing and moved to L.A. after graduating college. Soon, I landed a job at Jimmy Kimmel Live! and became immersed in my work once again. Back home, I was known as being “that girl who works on Kimmel.” Whenever I met new people, I introduced myself by first stating my name, and then my job title. My career once again defined me.
But as I should have predicted, my mental and physical state started to decline from the inevitable stress of working on a popular late night show of that caliber. A year into the job, I found myself on antidepressants and three new medications for my HS. I had to leave, but not wanting to give up on my dream again, I spent the next three years jumping from job to job in the entertainment industry, working 50+ hours at each one. I ignored the physical pain. I ignored the deep unhappiness I felt. I told myself that if I gave up on my career, there would be no use in living. All I would be was sick, and I refused to let my depression and HS define me. I wasn’t going to be a failure.
By November 2017, I had been seeing a therapist for six months. My body was covered in abscesses. I cried every morning on my way to a new TV job that many people would kill to have. I would go to the bathroom every hour just so I could let out a few sobs before going back to my desk. I couldn’t walk without feeling so much pain that I’d have to bite my lip to bear it. My life was falling apart.
One afternoon, I found myself sitting in my car googling ways to kill myself. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sustain my job for much longer, but I couldn’t fathom walking away. In that moment, suicide seemed to be the next logical choice for me—I hadn’t realized just how sick I’d become, both physically and mentally. I called my mom to say goodbye, and I’m so glad I did because she talked me down. We spent the next few hours talking about my immediate future, and I begrudgingly agreed to quit my job and head back to Wisconsin for a month. It was either that or seek in-patient treatment for my depression in Los Angeles.
Leaving the entertainment industry to go home for an extended period of rest is the best decision I’ve ever made. My days were spent healing and rediscovering who I was outside of the office.
I rediscovered my love of cooking and reading. I started meditating. I began to write just for fun, not for work. I took my dog on walks. I could no longer define myself by my career…but I was still alive. People didn’t look at me differently. My friends still called me and joked around with me and asked what I was up to. I went to bed feeling more relaxed, yet also feeling like I had a productive day. When I met new people, I would share that I was a writer, that I was passionate about animals and cooking. I’d talk about my love for trying new restaurants. I became a whole person.
I returned to L.A. at the beginning of 2018, and my therapist and I explored what life could look like for me. I found a part-time remote editing job that allowed me to do something I love while still giving me time to go to doctor’s appointments. It allowed me to take a nap in the afternoon if I felt exhausted emotionally and/or physically. I could stay in comfy clothes on days when my condition flared up. My therapist continued to remind me that I am so much more than my career and illness.
I’m still learning how to embrace my new identity—one that includes my passions and the values I now hold true, like spirituality and vulnerability. I’m still trying to find a nice work/life balance, but long gone are the days of working 60 hours per week, sharing my job title immediately after I introduce myself, and letting my health slip as I strive for status and fame.
Now when I meet someone, I say, “Hi I’m Allyson.” If they want to know more, I tell them, “I am passionate about mental health and chronic illness. I love food, my friends/family, my dog, and writing.”
I would be lying if I said I didn’t still struggle. I’m still in therapy twice a week. I still deal with chronic, intense physical pain and passive suicidal ideations. But I also feel more whole. I finally understand that my life can still mean something even if I am sick. My new purpose is to share my health story and help others battling illness feel less alone, and that feels so much more meaningful than what I wanted before.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Counselors are available 24/7.