Hiding my chronic illness from my coworkers almost killed me
When Jim Curtis found out he had lesions on his spinal cord, at age 22, he wanted to die. “It was unknown how they started, but I very rapidly became ill and soon had trouble walking,” the former president and current board director for Remedy Health Media recalls. While doctors couldn’t diagnose Curtis’s exact illness, he had all the symptoms of a spinal cord injury, including pain, headaches, muscle spasticity, and paralysis, in addition to a chronic limp.
But he didn’t die. Instead, Curtis rehabilitated as best he could, pushing himself to finish college and eventually snagging a job as a trader on Wall Street. After two years on the floor of the American Stock Exchange, he switched gears and moved through several roles in digital health media, including at WebMD, before joining Remedy Health. All the while he was helping build Remedy Health’s business into a platform whose content now reaches over 200 million users a year, Curtis hid his chronic illness from everyone he worked with every single day. Until one series of conversations changed everything.
Fast Company recently caught up with Curtis to hear about those experiences. Here’s what he’s learned about coping with chronic illness while building a career. His account has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
“Most of the time I was lying”
My illness was telling me something about the perception of who I was, [which to me] was this macho guy; I was an athlete and I had a plan to work on Wall Street, so I did it. It couldn’t have been a worse choice. I had to stand up in a crowd all day. It was super high-stress, which is inflammatory and devastating for a condition like mine. It increased symptoms of fatigue and pain, and it brought on new ones like IBS [irritable bowel syndrome] and other things I couldn’t control.
Often I would never broach it because I was walking with a limp and I didn’t want to get into the ‘why.’ So for most of the time I lied. I made up a story because I wasn’t vulnerable enough to tell this story. So I said I’d been in an accident–often it was motorcycle accident–because that fit perfectly, that’s kinda cool and that’s tough enough.
After two years, when I realized that the Wall Street job just wasn’t for me, I went to work for a company called OnHealth. I can remember walking/limping into this first interview thinking, “I wonder how is this going to go over.” It was so different–a loft with orange walls in SoHo. There was a resting room with beanbag chairs. I had my own desk to sit at, and it was quiet–wow! Wall Street comes with a lot of macho ego, like “I am fighting my way through and succeeding,” so when I got to a much more gentle environment I fought it a little. I [thought], this isn’t tough or cool, but I quickly realized it was better for me.
Still, I hid my condition and it was really hard for me. Up until 10 years ago, I had IBS, and accidents happened a lot. As a salesperson on the road a lot, I would have to walk through major airports literally for a couple miles; I didn’t want to wait for a wheelchair and trip and fall and be so sweaty. I was doing that and not talking about it and pushing through. When something terrible happened–which it did–I would go into disaster mode or go home and take care of it and go back to work for another day. I was definitely depressed. You don’t realize what a toll that takes. [Since] I was in sales, I was entertaining [and consumed] a lot of bad food and alcohol and was easily 50 pounds overweight.
I was more charming than I am now [laughs]. “Charming” became a word I hated because it is so fake. I learned quickly [to be] charming to manipulate people into not asking what was wrong with me, and because I was happy–seemingly–and the best at what I was doing, no one really questioned me. I don’t think I ever let an opening happen for someone to say, “Hey, what’s wrong? Can I help you?” Even at these health companies, they treated me like everyone else, which is what I wanted. I don’t think the culture was wrong. If I [had] reached out for more support, I could have gotten it.
“See the human side of everything, including yourself”
It wasn’t until I got to Remedy Health [that things started to change]. The CEO, Mike Cunnion, was the first to start to crack me as a human dealing with issues. I had worked with him at WebMD and we were friends. He recruited me and he would always ask me, “How are you feeling? How’s your health?” He even went as far as to get into the mental aspect. He said to me, “You’re doing great and you’re an amazing person. Why do you hate yourself?” He was relentless with that.
He always supported my best attributes. He had a real kindness, and he likes to develop people. He set me up with my first big speaking engagement, which allowed me to share the truth of my struggle to 700 people in the industry, many [of whom] I worked with. That was six years ago.
Everything changed after that. We started new products that told stories about patients, a series of video documentaries about people who overcame and triumphed despite their issues. Everyone understood what I was going through, and they shared what they were going through. It could be powerful. I would help salespeople feel comfortable enough and vulnerable enough to do it, too. I told them, “We can’t sell stories about adversity if no one’s willing to talk about their own adversity. If you are not willing to connect and see the human side of everything, including yourself in that way, then we can’t be authentic in what we are doing and selling.”
I don’t think there is one thing you can do to get people to open up and be vulnerable. You have to create an environment of acceptance and openness and no pressure. It’s a real environment of support. If someone has mental health issues and they don’t want to talk about it, then don’t talk about it. We support them anyway. It’s more of a “Tell us what you need” and less of “What’s happening to you?”–not pushy like, “We will get you the best therapist.” It’s a non-judgmental kindness that is fostering basic human qualities, and not, “This is the way you deal with something.” [At Remedy Health,] we go through training for building emotional IQ.
If you share something and people don’t accept you for it, it’s not the right place for you. Judgment doesn’t bother you when you feel adequate. It’s when you are not loving yourself that you are not your own best support, and you end up sympathizing with the person who judged you.