How a Life-Changing Diagnosis Taught Me to Open up at Work

In this HR for Humans story, Olivia Small, an office coordinator at Namely, shares her struggle dealing with a life-changing diagnosis and how she learned to depend on her team. For more stories at the intersection of work and life, follow @namely_hr on Instagram. You can also submit your stories here.



In July 2017, my body started feeling weird. I had terrible headaches that would last all day and keep me awake at night. I couldn’t eat and I started having panic attacks. Whatever the cause, it was affecting my personal and professional life, so I decided to consult a doctor. The doctor told me I just had severe anxiety, but I was skeptical. I knew I should have looked into my condition more, but a part of me was too scared and too busy to pursue a more serious diagnosis. I told myself that I didn’t have time to be sick.


Over the next few months, my symptoms worsened. I didn’t have the energy to leave the house, spend time with friends and family, or perform my best at work. I wasn’t myself at all. I focused all my effort on maintaining the façade that everything was fine. I had so much to do and wasn’t going to let anything hold me back. I kept up the charade until my condition got even worse.


In February, I had a migraine so bad that I nearly passed out at work. A coworker saw I wasn’t well and insisted that I lie down. Another teammate ran over to watch the front desk so I could rest and catch my breath. Though I tried to brush off their concerns and not make a big deal out of the situation, I couldn’t keep up the lie. I booked an appointment at a different hospital to get a second opinion.


In late February, I received a new diagnosis: an arachnoid cyst, a non-cancerous fluid-filled sac, in my brain. I told my team and a few close family members, but again, I tried to move on with my life as if nothing had changed. I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I went back to pretending everything was okay. I took days off here and there when my symptoms were too severe, so people in the office wouldn’t worry or ask questions that I wasn’t ready to answer.


I tried to spend my whole year just living my best life—I went on vacations, spent more time with friends and family, and even went back to school. But amid all of that fun, I had a lot of low moments. For the first six months after receiving news of the cyst, I could barely sleep at night. I couldn’t push the idea out of my head that the cyst could rupture at any time and I wouldn’t live to see tomorrow. Panic attacks became part of a daily routine. I had trouble concentrating at work. My school work started slipping. I became depressed.


What helped me persevere through it all was my amazing doctor, close friends, family, and coworkers. They supported me and checked on me, even when I didn’t feel like having anyone around. They were patient with me and talked me down when my anxiety started to kick in. They helped me accept that this is something I’m going to have to live with, but that I will always have their support along the way. I still have a long way to go to come to terms with my condition. But for now, I’m taking better care of myself and my symptoms have already improved.


It’s been a hell of a year. Thankfully, I was strong enough to get through it thanks to the help of my friends, family, and coworkers. I hope my story helps anyone else dealing with a personal issue and trying to be their best at work. Just know that it’s okay to ask for help and lean on others. At the end of the day, you need to prioritize your health because without it, you can’t focus on the things you love.

Topics: HR, HR for Humans

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