In this commentary, Chimére L. Smith, a Long COVID patient and advocate, reflects on her grief after leaving her teaching job because of the toll her illness has taken on her.

This commentary is part of the Voices of Disability Economic Justice Project, a partnership with TCF’s Disability Economic Justice Collaborative. Voices of Disability Economic Justice showcases disabled writers’ first-person perspectives on the economic issues that matter most to them.

5:00 a.m. Up. I just need to get up. If I get up now, I can make it to the building by 6:30 a.m. to make copies, write out goals, and say my usual greetings.

I picked up my phone to silence my alarm. Opening my eyes a bit, I was surprised that it was nearly light. Downtown Baltimore was already abuzz with school, work, and birds who chatted near my window.

I was wrong. It was, in fact, 6:30 a.m. and I was going to be late.

I hadn’t been late for work in over two years. Not because I was fond of having a slew of employee of the month plaques on my desk. And certainly not because I always aspired to be to work on time.

I hadn’t been late for work because I hadn’t actually been to work in two years.

I strained to bring my swollen, pained legs to the side of my bed to look out of my window. I had once again confused the memories of my former life as a middle school teacher with the stark reality of what I now endure. Tears raced to the sides of my nose.

No matter what, I knew crying all day was not an option. I had been raised by a Black mama who worked hard instead of grieving. From her, I gained the ability to pretend everything is fine even when it isn’t. I had to get moving so I wouldn’t be late for a new job I’d be starting—one I didn’t need any training or background checks to begin.

Yet, I longed for the complexity of my old job. The one that COVID-19 and its evil sister, Long COVID, viciously stole from me. This longing meant surrendering to the pain of losing a successful career to a virus with a name that sounds like the beer I used to drink (Corona) during happy hours with my teacher friends just months before I choked through my first cough and experienced the first burning sensation around my skull that signaled my COVID-19 infection. The one that left me unable to walk, stand, talk, or even eat for long periods of time.

But I wasn’t allowed to long for anything. Not out loud, at least.

Just over two years ago, my alarm clock was the signal of a calling I felt excited to answer. Its song beckoned me to a building filled with the sights and sounds of middle and high school students. I took pride in teaching at a school that welcomed beautiful Black students. I was a rare gem in a sea of White educators. Betraying my students for a lavish career in government or tech didn’t excite me. Teaching them how to write the perfect essay did.

Right before I fell dizzy with nausea, confusion, and fear, my alarm used to tell me when I had another group of twenty-five brilliant eighth grade students coming to our second-period English class.

After I got sick, the annoying bleep of the alarm alerted me to fill bags with trash I purposely created to drive to the local dump about ten minutes from my new apartment. I pored over dishes, old food, and memories to find anything worth trashing. I did this like clockwork at 9:00 a.m. every single day just to feel something—anything—close to maintaining a schedule with goals I knew I could reach.

No one else knew that the raging shrill noise on my phone was my shame talking. Hovering over the black plastic bags, I carried the guilt that my body—once strong and capable—was no longer agile enough to climb three flights of stairs with energetic students trying to keep up with me. The alarm was my semblance of a school bell that rang loudly enough to force me to do what on most days seemed impossible—to just keep going.

At the dump, I made small talk with the sanitation workers as if they were fellow teachers. I needed human contact. I often moved slowly to discard my trash—because my body had become riddled with arthritis—but to also try to control time so I could report to someone that I still contributed to society somehow.

After doing this for months, I unpacked the activity with my life coach. She explained it as how I grieved the loss of my life before COVID-19. She encouraged me to sit in my grief, to feel it, and then plan other goals I could track by my phone’s timer. It took a while but finally instead of heading to the dump, I meditated, learned easy yoga stretches, read books, and joined panel discussions on the effects of Long COVID in Black communities. And I eventually found a new job.

I know I’m still grieving not being a teacher anymore, but how I navigate that grief has changed. I may never fully get over never stepping into a classroom again. But I know that sharing my truth means I’m making a difference to someone—somewhere—anyhow.