Mr. Malesic is a writer and a former academic, sushi chef and parking lot attendant who holds a Ph.D. in religious studies. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The End of Burnout,” from which this essay is adapted.
A dozen years ago, my friend Patricia Nordeen was an ambitious academic, teaching at the University of Chicago and speaking at conferences across the country. “Being a political theorist was my entire adult identity,” she told me recently. Her work determined where she lived and who her friends were. She loved it. Her life, from classes to research to hours spent in campus cafes, felt like one long, fascinating conversation about human nature and government.
But then she started getting very sick. She needed spinal fusion surgeries. She had daily migraines. It became impossible to continue her career. She went on disability and moved in with relatives. For three years she had frequent bouts of paralysis. She was eventually diagnosed with a subtype of Ehlers-Danlos syndromes, a group of hereditary disorders that weaken collagen, a component of many sorts of tissue.
“I’ve had to evaluate my core values,” she said, and find a new identity and community without the work she loved. Chronic pain made it hard to write, sometimes even to read. She started drawing, painting and making collages, posting the art on Instagram. She made friends there and began collaborations with them, like a 100-day series of sketchbook pages — abstract watercolors, collages, flower studies — she exchanged with another artist. A project like this allows her to exercise her curiosity. It also “gives me a sense of validation, like I’m part of society,” she said.