When Your Luck Runs Out: Knowing When to Leave Work

As I write this, we are a couple of days removed from one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks, Andrew Luck, shocking the sports world by retiring at the young age of 29. The Indianapolis Colts’ signal-caller had been enduring what seemed like a never-ending cycle of injury and pain, mixed with long stretches of rehabilitation. While he could have continued on that path, he took a step back and made the realization that not only had his body failed him, he mentally could not take the anguishg it would take in order to continue playing. As someone who had to leave their own career at a young age because their body finally failed them due to Multiple Sclerosis, I sympathize with his decision. Not only does Luck’s retirement demonstrate the difficulty of living with pain, but it brings up the difficult decision of recognizing when your body has failed you to the point that you can no longer work.

A few more words about Andrew Luck

Before I go on, let me address what many may be thinking, that his situation doesn’t compare, that he is probably rich and very lucky. Yes, chances are, he is not in the same financial mess many of us would be if/when we leave our jobs. He is, however, estimated to be walking away from somewhere in the neighborhood of half a billion dollars (yes, billion with a “B” - no matter how comfortable you are financially, that’s not an easy decision to make). Now, I doubt he will struggle financially, but I can’t be sure. Anytime someone takes a sudden and unplanned hit like that financially, nothing can be assumed. If he had planned to keep playing and expected to be making a certain amount, then that could very well impact him.

Leaving behind his passion

Still, I get it, he’s coming from a very different tax bracket than most of us. That doesn’t mean his decision wasn’t difficult. If you think otherwise, I encourage you to watch his press conference regarding his retirement. He is also leaving what was not only a passion, but the only real job he’s ever known. As I’ve said recently, pain changes you, and it did for Andrew Luck as well. Pain not only made him walk away from a tremendous amount of money, but it also took the joy from one of the things he loved most in life, the game of football. That says a tremendous amount about the effects that pain can have on us, both mentally and physically.

My story

While it was nothing compared to an NFL player’s salary, I too left a well-paying career because of my body. Suddenly and unexpectedly dropping from what I was making at my job to what I get from disability was a massive change for me. No matter who you are, the amount of money you get on disability is paltry compared to what you previously made. While I left my career fairly early (in my mid-30s), I didn’t leave on my own terms. I was at work one day, then not the next, and I never went back.

How my abilities began to falter

One of the things that haunts me to this day is that I look back and realize how my abilities began to degrade. By the time I left the workforce, I was far from the skilled person who once loved and excelled in his career. Over the course of a few years, my cognitive issues stripped me of any talent I’d once had. Pain and fatigue made every day difficult. I began to not only hate my job, but myself as well. I was still effective at it for a while, but I knew I wasn’t what I had been, and that messed with me. That effectiveness eventually disappeared, and I know I had coworkers who helped me along (and would later admit that at one point, my work just changed. My work didn’t even look like it was mine). I’d been in denial for a long time: I kept thinking that if I could get through this rough patch, maybe I’d bounce back. Except I never did. The end of my career was more like Brett Favre’s than Andrew Luck’s, and that bugs me to this day. I feel like I let a lot of people down.

Agonizing decision

Knowing when to leave the workforce is a difficult decision. I often get asked how I knew, but because of the way it ended for me, I really don’t know. I do my best to make the most out of my post-career life, but it’s still a source of depression for me. I tell my story because I want people to be prepared, to consider that they may one day be unable to work. I’m happy to say that advances in medication are minimizing that risk for many people. That said, there are still a ton of folks who never had access to those medications and they may be struggling with life and work right now. For most, there simply isn’t the luxury of being able to retire. Knowing when you need to go on disability is important though.

Making the decision on your terms

I’m not entirely sure how you make that decision, but I can tell you from my experience, that it’s a decision you want to make and not have your body make for you. If you feel like your body is beginning to betray you, begin to plan for it. Talk to your doctor and family about it. It’s important for your future to not ignore the possibilities. A situation where you can no longer work doesn’t have to be the end of the world, as long as you own it, prepare for it, and be ready to make the best of it. In short, make sure that decision is on your terms and not your body’s.

Thanks so much for reading and always feel free to share!


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