Trapped in A Cycle of Harassment as a Chronically Ill Person

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Here’s the sad truth: I expected to face some workplace harassment when I entertained the entertainment/ journalism industry more than 20 years ago. As a woman and an African-American, I was frequently warned about colleagues who had racial biases, were physical aggressive, would continue to ask for a date or tell inappropriate “jokes.” I wasn’t warned that the chronic illness I was battling would subject me to harassment. It would also prevent me from simply leaving a toxic workplace.

Over the years, I’ve had managers ask me to give details about my illness in violation of my right to privacy. I’ve been questioned about the use of my time off, which a company benefit is provided to every employee. I’ve even had on boss suggest that I was upset about a staffing issues because of my “condition.” I’ve had to work shifts that were tough on my body because asking for an accommodation might make me a target. I’ve stayed when I was ill so no one could look at my hours and try to use short shifts against me. I’ve used my vacation time instead of sick leave or disability so that I didn’t take more time off per year than other co-workers. I’ve returned to work as quickly as possible after procedures so employers didn’t look for a reason to let me go. I had to be better at my job so there was no excuse to doubt my ability.

Other than complain I could do little about these egregious violations other than complain or speak up for myself. Until the Affordable Health Care Act was passed I couldn’t leave a job. Why? I was unable to by health coverage on my own due to my pre-existing condition.

The autoimmune disease that tore through my body robbed me of job choices. My industry was going in a freelance direction. But, with bills piling up and the need for continuous health care, I couldn’t afford to be without a steady paycheck. I couldn’t take unpaid time off. I couldn’t risk having to explain my illness to someone else. Therefore, I endured being victimized repeatedly. I forced myself to work despite frequently being over burden by work while my healthy co-workers took unlimited time off.

Not much has changed over time other than I am now aware that it’s hard to be a woman and to be African-American in my industry and this world. However, it’s even more difficult and lonely to be a chronically ill person in the workplace.

Originally published in the Huffington Post: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/trapped-in-a-cycle-of-harassment-as-a-chronically_us_5a1ecd72e4b00579aa29f91c

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Looking To The Future

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20 years have gone by as quickly as a wave in the ocean. I drifted into the world of TV to help a friend and ended up wading my way through nearly every position that exists. After keeping myself afloat in the business by being a jack of all trades, I finally found my calling as a writer.

I wanted the world to hear my voice through words. So, I expressed myself through my stories, show segments and specials. For two decades, I recorded and relayed information on nearly every major world event for one company. Today, as I arrived home my 20 year statue was waiting.

I don’t have another 20 years of snowstorms, missed holidays and long days of breaking news coverage in me. This is not because I’m not physically up to the task. I don’t want to miss out on the other parts of my life anymore. I also have more to say that won’t fit in a 20 second voiceover.

Yet, I look back on my career with fondness and I wonder what’s next for me? How will I make my mark on the world next and make a difference? I ask myself this a lot and as soon as I have the answer I will wade into my next 20 year adventure.

#journalism #tvnews #careerwomen #disability #chronicillness #autoimmunedisease #invisibleillness

In The Limelight

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I’m used to being behind the camera not in front of it. I write the news but I infrequently make it. But, my memoir Misdiagnosed: The Search For Dr. House inspired organizers of Autoimmune Walk NYC to invite me to be the main speaker and lead walkers on a one mile trek.

Despite a terrible cold, I delivered an address which was captured on camera. This material was later turned into an anchor VO Sot Vo which was slated to air on WABC-TV, the station where I’ve worked for years. My co-worker Jay sent a text to let me know exactly what time I’d be able to view it. So, my friend Kiada and I fought sleep to see it. She set an alarm to make sure we’d be awake at 11:49.

Kiada’s alarm sounded a two minute warning. I sat up, turned to channel 7 then I braced myself to hear and see myself on my 42″ screen. Right on time, Sandra Bookman read the copy about the walk then paused for sound from my speech.

I was stunned by my appearance. My face appeared puffy, my waist seemed thick and my hair was wild. The tone of my voice was deeper than usual too. But, I was standing tall. I was smiling and I was confident. I spoke with authority and the message I wanted to share was delivered. I was able to step into the limelight to raise awareness for people struggling with the more than 100 autoimmune diseases; to explain the pain, challenges, frustration and triumphs of living with a chronic illness in a way anyone could understand. I was triumphant.

So I proudly shared this clip on my Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Here is a link:

 

#invisibleillness #chronicpain #chronicillness #autoimmunedisease #igg4 #disability #abc7ny #autoimmunewalk #eyewitnessnews #tvnews #nyc #RitaWilson

Like Family

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I work a lot. Sometimes it feels like I spend most of my time at work and less and less time at home. Over the course of nearly two decades, I’ve passed my time in the office with people who are now like family to me.

We fight about politics, debate the merit of stories, and discuss our assignments. We mourn deaths. We eat snack, tell jokes, and tease one another. We applaud achievements and support each other’s causes. We celebrate births, weddings, and birthdays. And, tonight we gathered to wish Lori Stokes well on her next endeavor.

We are sad to see her leave our newsroom. But, to everyone smiling in the selfies, her happiness is paramount.

So, She may not be there when we got to the office on Monday. She may not be on the air in her usual anchor chair either. But, she will always be like family.

 

No Nonsense, No Excuses

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Every bone in my left foot, knee and spine hurt as I made my way home. I was tired and still rattled by the news that my longtime co-worker/friend abruptly stepped down from the anchor desk.

I’d arrived at work in time for our morning show producer, Tyler, to tell me that Lori was still inside. I’d missed her goodbye speech and cake but I was determined to say farewell to her in person. Lori was standing, talking to other people when I arrived in the newsroom. I waited to tell her that I wished best and that I knew she would continue to honor her father’s legacy.

Lori turned to me and said, “I’ve told you before. You are one of the strongest people I know.”

I forgot back tears as I embraced her. I tried not to think about what her loss meant to me for the rest of the day. But, suppressing my feelings left me mentally exhausted by 6:15. I couldn’t wait to get home. My body made getting there difficult.

I dragged myself the final block to my townhouse. Then, I decided to stop at the mailbox. There was package wedged in it with a name on it that was unknown to me. It was clear the package was for me because my entire first name was written on it, not just Nika.

16 stairs later I ripped my shoes off and leaned on the kitchen counter while I opened the package. Inside was a t-shirt that read “No nonsense. No excuses” in purple glitter; that’s the name I gave to my Autoimmune Walk NYC team. My cousin Darcelle told me she had a shirt made for me to wear but I’d forgotten. I was so thrilled to see it, I didn’t feel the pain as I walked into the living room and slipped it on.

I stared at myself in the mirror and repeated, “no nonsense will deter me from making it through work or anything else every day. And, there are no excuses for not living my best life by showing the strength others see in me.”

#LoriStokes #tvnews #noexcuses #nononsense #autoimmunewalk #chronicpain #chronicillness #autoimmunedisease #igg4

A Career To Remember

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I was in the middle of doing a cut sheet for an insert on Charles Schumer’s fight to restore mandatory sleep apnea testing for Metro-North engineers and writing and editing Vo Sot Vo about the British model who claimed to be kidnapped when the camera crew arrived. I’d reluctantly agreed to take a photo and provide an on camera quote as part of my company’s celebration of my 20 year anniversary.

I’d chosen a job behind the scenes decades ago, in part, because I can’t stand the sound of my voice on tape and doing hair and makeup aren’t things I enjoy doing. Yet, I flat ironed my hair for the occasion. Unfortunately, the moisture in the air took out the curls and made it puff up.

I placed my cane behind the assignment desk and waited for instructions. When the lights were turned on and the camera was pointing towards me I almost decided to cancel.

“How does it feel knowing you’ve been here for 20 years?” The producer asked.

I paused and and replied, “Do you really want me to answer that?”

“I can ask you something else,” the coordinator said. “What’s the best part of spending 20 years with the company?”

I responded as I looked around my corner of the newsroom at all the faces. “I’ll answer.”

I thought for a second and said, “The years have flown by. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years; most of my adult working life. I’ve had steady work for the last two decades covering world events. I’ve written about fires, births, deaths, wars, trials and elections. I’ve learned about budgets, foreign affairs and health breakthroughs. But, the job isn’t what I’ll remember most; the people are unforgettable. The people make the long hours, the irritation, and the writer’s cramps worth it. I didn’t intend to be in the news business this long now I don’t know what I’ll do next.”

#tvnews #journalism #disability #chronicillness #chronicpain #autoimmunedisease #nomakeup #anniversary

Half My Life Recording History

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“Can everyone gather in the middle of the newsroom?” My boss said. 

I cringed.

I don’t have time for this, I thought.

I was looking for new video of a stranger punching a bicyclist in the face when my boss called out. I was also waiting for the Belmar drowning package and looking at an update about the jury in Cosby Sex Assault trial. 

“Nika!”

I didn’t know who called my name but I figured I’d better take a few moments away from my desk to see what was going on.

As my boss strolled towards me, I realized all eyes were on me. 

In a panic, I turned to walk away. When I did, I hit a cup in my co-worked Bryan’s hand. Soda covered his jacket and t-shirt. I broke away from the gathering, limped over to to my desk as fast as my cane would carry me, and grabbed napkins.

“Where are you going?” 

“I don’t want to leave Bryan soggy,” I replied. 

Seconds later, I felt a hand on the small of my back.

“Nika has been at ABC 20 years,” my boss said as she extended her hand forward. It contained a pin.

Wow, I’ve come to this place for nearly half my life, I thought, as she continued speaking.

“She always comes in with a smile on her face even though she’s been through so much. She deserves to be here. She deserves to be on this Earth.”

Her words choked me up. They made me think about all I survived in my years there; it’s enough to fill a medical journal. In fact, I had one of my two mini strokes when i was sitting at my desk.

Despite my health battles, I showed up to give a voice to other people’s pain, as well as the struggles and triumphs of the world. 

Through my medical strife, my job was a refuge. For eight or nine hours a day, I didn’t fret about the tests, the pain, the pills, the surgeries or the bills. I didn’t worry about my mortality. 

As I made my way back to my desk, there were hugs and shouts of congratulations. Sometimes I said thank you. Other times, I said, “is this really good news? I still have another two decades to retirement.”

I was uncomfortable with the attention. But, I was glad anyone cared that I reached a milestone that I wasn’t sure I’d live to see 20 years ago.