I didn’t want to be. I fought it down to the wire. FMLA is for maternity and paternity leave, I’ve always said, and the occasional need to caregive a spouse or parent or receive treatment for a serious illness like cancer or stroke or heart attack. Any other excuse for using an FMLA shows weakness, shows someone abusing the system to get some time off.
I’ve always said.
Then I got sick.
Well, I’m not really sick, I said. I just have this problem. If you see me out and about, I look fine. I’m strong, somewhat energetic, clear-headed. If I’m in town, I’ll be driving my car. I’m cheerful, clean, articulate, all the things you want in a person you have working for you.
Except I’m not fine.
It began back in mid-June when I missed a step at my son’s house in upstate New York, fell, and hit my head. Hard. I didn’t get dizzy or pass out from the hit. I just got a lump on my head, which I iced, and went on about my business.
Two weeks later, the world began to spin. It was July 4. I attended a cookout with friends. I stood on the side of the road and watched fireworks shoot up from the fairgrounds. It was all I could do to stand, so I sat in the grass, even though I had to look between the heads of those in front of me. I didn’t want anyone to know my world was spinning, so I kept my mouth shut, let my husband do the driving. I didn’t even tell him.
Until the next day, July 5. He drove me to see a doctor, who listened to my symptoms and heard my story. I failed two drunk tests for balance. “Post-concussion,” the doctor said. “It’s not unusual for symptoms to delay for a couple of weeks. And there’s no way to know how long they’ll last. Six weeks to six months.”
Good. I said. I’ll be fine in time for school. There goes the rest of my summer vacation, but if that’s what it takes, then I’ll deal with it.
One week turned into two turned to three turned to four. I saw a neurologist who confirmed the diagnosis. At six weeks past, I was better but not good. I couldn’t drive beyond town. On the highway and interstate, cars whirled around. It felt like I was driving on a pinwheel. I was remarkably fatigued for the usually energetic me, too tired to go anywhere, too tired to work in the yard, even to pull weeds or deadhead marigolds so new ones could flourish.
I began to prep for fall classes, but it meant using a part of my brain that didn’t want to work well, even though I was doing something I’d done many times before. I called my program director. She tried to get me a reduced course load. She tried to get me a delayed start to the semester, a reassignment of duties. Finally, she said, “Barbara, you just need to take an FMLA.”
“I don’t want to,” I said. I wanted to be there with my colleagues as we began a new school year. I love fall semester when students come in fresh from summer and ready to learn. I love being on campus in October and November when cool weather begins to move in, when leaves swirl around the sidewalks. Plus, FMLA means I’m sick, and I’m not sick. I just have this weird thing going on. This is what I told her, told myself.
My friends and family said, “Barbara, take the FMLA. It’s there for you. You can’t do this semester. You shouldn’t even try it. It will just make your symptoms worse.”
I wanted to teach this semester, but, I thought, what if I can’t? What if I try, get a couple of weeks into it, and can’t do it? That seemed a real possibility.
My husband volunteered to drive me to campus. Every day? I asked. For four months?
I called my neurologist’s office. “He can’t support an FMLA after seeing you only one time,” said his nurse. I cried. That’s when I knew I needed it.
I made an appointment with him. Second visit. We talked again about what was going on with me, the dizziness, the fatigue, the inability to drive. Post-concussion, he said again. Yes, I’ll support your FMLA.
I filled out the paperwork, and it began moving through the system, acquiring signatures all the way to the top. Meanwhile, school started without me. If they don’t approve it, I said, or if they approve it but without pay, I will have to go to work. I can’t afford not to right now, no matter what.
School was a week and a half in session before the letter arrived. You are approved for paid FMLA. I cried again. This time it was in relief.
Still, I’ve not gotten over the feeling that people think I’m faking it, that I’m abusing the system. If you see me on a bad day, when my head is pounding and the earth beneath my feet is unsteady, you’ll know I’m not faking.
I’m on paid FMLA.
As I write this, knowing more and more how many hard-working women and men deserve paid leave, have earned it, need it desperately, and don’t get it, I am almost embarrassed by my privilege. Instead, though, perhaps my story can serve as an example of how the system can work, and how it might work for everyone.
I don’t want my current state of health and painfully slow recovery, but one thing is certain: I am glad the FMLA is there for me. I am glad those I work for fully support it. I know every day how lucky I am.
Barbara Presnell lives and writes in Lexington and teaches in Charlotte.