Finding a new purpose in life after MG took mine away

Taking medical leave from work had a big impact on a columnist's sense of identity

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by Mark Harrington |

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Years ago, a colleague shared her morning ritual with me. After waking, she thanked God for restful sleep, the excitement of a new day, and the caring people in her life. I adopted this ritual. Each morning, I’m reminded that the new day is an adventure. The little boy in me gets excited by all the possibilities.

For more than 25 years, this routine was wonderful. Even on those days when the weather was foul, or an unappealing task was on my to-do list, I enjoyed mornings. My commute to the school where I worked provided downtime, allowing me to listen to music or a comedy channel. The affirmation I received from staff and students gave my life meaning.

Then, three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, myasthenia gravis (MG) entered my life. For more than a year, I taught school virtually. While it wasn’t the same as teaching in a classroom, the validation was still there. I was still a teacher. I continued to interact with students and staff. Teaching via Zoom allowed me to rest between classes, and I came to enjoy the situation.

Eventually, my condition required a medical leave of absence. My teaching career was put on hold, and my life changed dramatically. I thought of Athol Fugard’s “‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys“: “Just when things are going all right, without fail someone or something will come along and spoil everything. Somebody should write that down as a fundamental law of the universe.”

If I wasn’t a teacher, who was I?

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Questioning my identity

Humans have long defined themselves through the work they perform. The high standard of living we enjoy as 21st-century Americans links directly to the cultural revolution several hundred years ago when humans ceased subsistence living and transitioned to societies composed of individuals with specialized skills. As a BBC article notes, by the Middle Ages, “a person’s job was such a defining characteristic, it became their literal identity.” Think surnames like Smith, Carpenter, Weaver, etc.

In the U.S., a large part of our identity is linked to our jobs, so job loss is often accompanied by emotional stress. According to a Psychology Today article, “We often equate our jobs with our selves. … So if you lose your job, you can easily lose your identity, too.”

Being on medical leave made me feel inadequate. These feelings, coupled with my changed economic circumstances, led to depression and anxiety.

I had little experience with mental health issues and assumed these were side effects of the medications I was taking to bring my MG under control. Only when I shared with family, friends, and doctors did I learn differently. I also discovered I wasn’t alone.

A Gallup poll published in 2014 found that 19% of Americans who’d been unemployed for a year or more had or were being treated for depression at the time the survey was conducted. Connecting with other MG patients helped me gain clarity about how to cope with the stresses of job loss. But I still faced the dilemma about who I was without my career.

Finding a new purpose

After many dark nights of the soul, I began to recognize a different identity. I learned a valuable lesson: When we allow things to unfold rather than trying to force them to unfold as we would wish, we can find a purpose for our lives. My vision of Mark changed.

I now see myself similar to a matryoshka, or Russian nesting doll. Mr. Harrington, the teacher, is only one of the dolls. Within the teacher there is an MG patient. Within the MG patient is a brother. Within the brother is a lover. Within the lover is a little boy. Within the little boy there is a loving God. Each can be examined separately, but take one away and there’s no longer a matryoshka.

I now see that life purposes aren’t static. As life unfolds, that which we are called to do can change. Life can offer new purposes when old ones die off. BioNews, the parent company of this site, has connected me with many others who have adjusted to life’s changes. Cystic Fibrosis News Today columnist Brad Dell wrote of his health journey that “Through the breaking, he became whole.” That resonates so clearly with me. We can be broken. What once seemed essential may turn out to be trivial. We’re more than what we do to earn our keep.

As I continue to discern a purpose for whatever time I have left in this life, I work at allowing things to unfold. Now, I’m certain things will be OK.

“That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done.” — Ecclesiastes 1:9

Note: Myasthenia Gravis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Myasthenia Gravis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to myasthenia gravis.


Kathryn Lee avatar

Kathryn Lee

What an inspiring piece of writing. I will take heart from your experience and hopefully make come positive changes in my life too.

Thank you for your post

Kind regards

Mark Harrington avatar

Mark Harrington

Thank you for your kind words. I am glad to know my writing has touched you. Best. Mark Harrington

Robert Rumph avatar

Robert Rumph

very nice piece Mark, and well said! As a fellow MGer here in San Angelo I completely agree. The MG silver lining is the new perspective we have on the priorities of life.

Mark Harrington avatar

Mark Harrington

Thank you very much for your feedback. I truly appreciate it. Mark Harrington

Mark Harrington avatar

Mark Harrington

Thank you Robert. I continue to struggle. Knowing my writing touches others is inspirational. Best. Mark


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