Note: I started writing this with grad students in mind, but then realized it applied to basically anyone.
You deserve to take care of yourself. No-one else will do it for you, and in fact, everyone will send you clear and subtle signals that you don’t and you shouldn’t. It’s ok to be sick. Skip class, sleep in, cancel a meeting (but see #4: Communicate). The earth will keep turning and you are less likely to get worse. But if it’s a pattern, make it a priority to treat the underlying cause. (See also #3: This shit is hard).
It’s ok not to be ok. Even if you’re not technically “sick”. Anyway, who decides? When was the last time you checked the dictionary definition of “sick”? I just did, and nowhere does it say “each sickness must be validated by societal norms and physical evidence.” If you feel like shit, then you feel like shit. The important thing is to be self-aware, and know yourself, in order to do the things that will actually make you feel better.
This shit is hard. There is a whole world of skills out there that you can learn, to help you make good choices for yourself. Will you feel better or worse if you stay in bed, really? These are questions only you can answer. Be true to yourself. (See also #6: Be true to yourself). And don’t expect to figure it all out the first time, or before you die. This shit is hard, and the trial and error learning never stops.
Communicate. No-one with good ethics can fault you for being unwell and taking care of yourself. If they do, run; this relationship is toxic. But people can and will be frustrated with you if you fail to communicate your needs and your capacity to give. If you consistently leave gaps in people’s understanding of your behavior, they may fill them in unfavorably; and yes, your worst fears may come true; you may be deemed unreliable and incompetent. Does this mean you have to put yourself in a vulnerable position by disclosing potentially stigmatized conditions and circumstances? Absolutely not (but see also #5: When possible, advocate). You do not owe anyone an explanation, and you are, unfortunately, right in worrying that there are people out there who will use anything you reveal against you. You have my permission to lie and invent whatever story you feel is socially appropriate enough to cover for your illness or misfortune (but see #6: Be true to yourself). Communicate the impact clearly, as soon as possible, with as much info as possible as to when you will be able to make up the work/reschedule the meetings/reaffirm your commitment to this project/person/task. Try to be realistic, and if the situation is ongoing and unfolding unpredictably, be honest about your inability to make promises. It’s the best you can do.
When possible, advocate. If you are in a position of relative privilege and have enough spoons, consider being more open than you otherwise might be if you take the path of least resistance. We must all do what we can to destigmatize what society perceives as “weaknesses”. This is advocacy, and it is our obligation to engage in it to the extent that we are able. We are all afraid of being judged, and in many ways, this is much more than vanity. We are afraid - and rightfully so - of consequences to honesty, ranging from the uncomfortable to the devastating. You may be afraid of someone irrelevant idly gossiping about you to pass the time, or of someone who holds serious power over you using your honesty against you. Only you can determine how much is at stake for you if you are more open than society dictates.
Be true to yourself. If you think I’m giving you carte blanche to make up excuses for laziness or negligence, you haven’t understood this post. I thought of including a concrete example here, of someone partying too hard, calling in the next day and never giving it another thought, vs. perhaps looking into whether they might have a substance abuse problem…but I’m not going to patronize you with it. I repeat: This is not carte blanche to behave poorly. But only you can make that call about yourself.
Don’t judge. If you can’t relate, if you have no idea what the fuck these tips are all about, if you’re thinking even that this post is laziness apologetics, get out your gratitude journal NOW and write about how grateful you are that none of this applies to you. Yet. One day it most likely will, and you don’t want to look back at your past self and realize you were a judgmental asshole when someone else was going through a rough time (ask me how I know). Next, educate yourself about chronic illnesses, invisible disabilities, and mental health stigma - for a start. I’m not providing links, because the least you can do, oh judgmental one, is Google them yourself. Your present entourage and your future self will thank you for your increased compassion.