Just over one year ago, I arrived at work after my last medical treatment. I was a grappling with surprising feelings. Only a couple of people knew about my diagnosis. When, earlier that year, I had disclosed to my boss that I would require surgery, then follow up treatments for a month after that, I had fiercely told him that no one was to know. My plan was to keep as normal as possible. And I did.
I was lucky, after all. My condition was diagnosed at stage zero. I had relative youth and health on my side. I was reminded of how lucky I was every time I visited the hospital and saw the other patients in the waiting room. They were frail, elderly. Many used wheelchairs, and were accompanied by adult children, spouses, or nurses. While my partner drove me to my treatments, I was able to walk in on my own, and I had a job to get to after every treatment.
I got to work a little late each day, but I scheduled my treatments early in the morning, wore my work clothes to the hospital, and every day I walked out of the hospital at a fast clip, looking professional, healthy, normal, in a pair of great heels. I did work in the waiting room before treatments. I held it together with ferocity. Grad school, work, life. I would do it all, and no medical hiccup would dare to interrupt me. But at the midpoint of my treatments, I started to falter. In the first half of my treatments, I’d been able to focus on the medical miracle of it all, the wonder of technological advancements that made it possible to diagnose and treat my condition so early. I focused on the humor of laying half naked on a slab each morning while strangers drew on me with markers and put stickers on my body. I joked that I was a human craft project. At the midpoint of the treatments, in spite of the kindness of the medical staff, it wasn’t so funny anymore. It was vulnerable and humiliating. But I also became attached to the medical routine, in a strange way. And after that last treatment, I felt unmoored. I don’t know what did it, but for some reason, I started to shake and cry in front of a colleague. Debra, who was expected at a meeting in just a few minutes, asked no questions, brought me into her office, closed the door, and gave me space to come undone while she gently talked me through it, and listened. I will always love her for that.
It's not my first instinct to ask for help or accept support from others—in fact, for most of my life it’s been a last resort. I learned as a very small child that it was my job to hold things together and be responsible for the sake of the adults in my family who didn’t have the skill to hold things together for me. And as an HR professional, it's my job to keep a level head and remain strong in the face of chaos. When I first started this program, I believed that I’d be on my own. With a remote program, what opportunities would there be to connect with my classmates? I imagined a sort of independent study. And that sounded okay when I applied for the program in the summer of 2001. I was resourceful.
After our first class with Professor Friedman, though, my classmate Karen Castillo sent out a message to the cohort. This was going to be intense, she said. It seemed like we could all benefit from working together. Did anyone want to join a study group? Dori, Claire, Jennel, Leann, Whitney, and I responded. I’m so glad we did.
At first, we met to review Professor Friedman’s class discussion questions and prepare for his terrifying Socratic method. (Never suffer the wrath of giving him a SHRM-y answer!) We reviewed our homework together. But then the group became so much more than that. During a particularly intense Socratic questioning session, we’d jump into the Teams chat to cheer each other on and breathe a collective sigh of relief at the end of class. Our Teams chat has become a space to encourage one-another, share wedding photos, and make each other laugh during live class sessions. It’s a space where we can be vulnerable together, share successes and disappointments, and share that we’re struggling with an assignment, we’ve gotten behind, or we’re feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes all we need is a joke or funny gif. Sometimes we can provide real advice. Sometimes in a separate chat, we’ll have deeper, one-on-one conversations. We ask for advice on how to handle challenging workplace situations. We vent. We grumble. We laugh a lot.
With this group, I know I’m safe asking for help, and I know that I have their support.
Although Karen had to reduce her schedule to one class this semester, I’m grateful she brought this group of friends together. I can’t wait to walk with her at graduation next May. One thing I've learned about myself in parallel with this program is that it's not worth it to try going it alone, and there are people you can trust with your weaknesses. Sharing my own struggles might validate a classmate's feelings, and maybe we can problem-solve together. Karen had the courage in the earliest days of the program to ask for community, and a group of us came together to create it. We move forward together.
Asking for Help © 2023 by Valerie Nance is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0