Spotlight Story Program: Meet Kate Henry

The journey may not always be easy, but it’s your life and deserves to be lived with all the joys and passions that fuel your heart! That’s a big message from our latest Spotlight Story Program feature writer, not only in her life journey with chronic illnesses, but also in the advocacy and digital fingerprint she’s leaving on the world.  Say hello to InvisiYouth’s first New Zealander Global Brand Leader, art and design student, Kate Henry! Living with illnesses like IgA immunodeficiency, Hashimoto’s disease, POTS, and more, Kate has had many challenges for her health thrown her way since she was born. But as she’s gotten older and began finding what brings her joy, Kate began working towards being an active participant in her life, and finding happiness through adapting and excelling. With seven life mindset-boosting tips, Kate’s words will give you a deep realness on living your best life in the ways your health can allow.

*Kia Ora!

My name is Kate and I am a 19-year-old art and design student all the way from little old New Zealand, Aotearoa.

My journey with my health begins all the way back in 2002, yup that’s right… the year I was born. Although considered a perfectly healthy baby, I was apparently always unsettled. I seemed like I was in pain a lot of the time and had trouble keeping my food down, which were all just little glimpses of what my future was going to be like.

From the age of five, my health became even more disruptive to my quality of life as I began to experience chronic pain, nausea, frequent infections and viruses—many things no five-year-old should have to deal with. Over the next few years of my life I was tested on, trialed on medications and spent a lot of time with my mum sitting right beside my bed, holding my hand until I fell asleep.

At the age of seven, I was diagnosed with IgA immunodeficiency and a severe gluten intolerance. After being treated for these and removing all gluten from my diet, I found some relief, a kind of relief that every kid deserves.

But then high school happened, my body changed and unfortunately my health did too.

I was getting increasingly ill, passing out during classes, unable to eat any food without being sick, and in severe pain almost every minute of every day… all while trying to balance being a teenager. Over the next six years, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, hypothyroidism, Fibromyalgia, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia syndrome (POTS) and a slightly curved spine resulting in chronic back, pelvic and leg pain. Safe to say, my life got flipped upside down and everything became increasingly hard. School was hard, socialising was hard, getting out of bed was hard, being me in this body was hard. But chronic illness is hard, and my experience with it is no exception to that.

But when everything feels hard, everything also feels heavy. And with my body taking so much away from me already, lately I have been actively choosing to make my experience that tiny bit easier, choosing a much happier life no matter the circumstance. Unfortunately, that’s a lot easier said than done, when the odds are against you, but so worth it in the end. Small changes for me have made a world of difference.

Accepting that this is where I am at, that this is how much my body can do before it breaks, that this is my life and I’ve just got to work with the body I’ve been given are all thought processes that have allowed me to accept my situation. By no means does this mean that I’m smiling my way through the whole flare up, but instead of feeling guilty for not being able to do as much as others or resenting my body for the pain it puts me in, I am simply kinder to myself, which allows me to feel a bit more like me again.

Over the 19 years I’ve got to experience in this beautiful body of mine, I am so proud of how far I have come and eternally grateful for much I have managed to achieve. But the most exciting part is that this is just the start, and that there is so much more I have to look forward to, no matter the circumstance of my health. And you do too.

I completely understand that positivity is not a cure and that sometimes we want to grief our past life, our healthy life. And I think that is also an incredibly important part of the healing process, but if we can just be slightly kinder to ourselves and our situation, we might have more time to enjoy the better parts of this life we are getting to live.

So although I’m no expert and to be completely honest, I’m still figuring this whole chronic illness thing out. I’ve decided to write down some of the small tips that have helped me on this journey so far… I hope they can help you too!

  1. Look after that beautiful brain of yours. Many people with chronic illnesses also suffer from mental health conditions too. For many our physical symptoms will be with us for a while, if not forever. But by looking after our mental health we don’t have to lose who we are to our illness. We can just adapt instead.
  2. Recognise your strength—Yes you! Life with chronic illness can be so incredibly tough so you are so strong for doing life in a body that makes everything that bit harder.
  3. Reach out—there are so many amazing communities out there either online or in person that can support you. Plus making spoonie friends is always the best!
  4. Adapt—for so long I was so stuck in my ways, continuing to live my life like a healthy person, like everyone else around me. But that was extremely tiring and if anything made me even sicker. So changing the way you live to work with your body not against it can be super beneficial!
  5. Always be you. When living with chronic illness, we can come consumed by the idea of being sick that we forget who we are. Doing small activities that remind yourself of who you are before your illness and who you will be throughout can be helpful xx
  6. Find people who make you feel good <3. The better the support system, the better the experience.
  7. Allow yourself to feel—don’t be getting all guilty for being upset for where you are at or for your health, chronic illness sucks, it always will and it’s totally okay to be upset about that. But afterwards, find someone to give you a nice big hug, and remind yourself just how well you are doing.

I am so proud of you 🙂

Hugs and spoons,

Kate xx

*  “kia ora” is a way to say hello and express gratitude in New Zealand. It derives from the indigenous Māori language, te reo.

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Asia-Jorden Alexander-Smith

Even one simple tweet can add such a level of flavor and dimension in your life. That’s something that we learned from our latest Spotlight Story Program feature writer, British graphic designer, Asia-Jorden Alexander-Smith when we saw her viral tweet about ASOS using a model with a hearing aid on their store. Since then, Asia continues to use her voice sharing her journey living with Usher Syndrome and raising awareness for the hearing loss and visual impairment communities, while also just living her life as an awesome young adult. In her feature, Asia shares her health journey and how she conquers her world by finding what makes her confident leading with honesty. Plus, learn how surrounding yourself with a dynamic support network makes you a legend and Asia’s five pieces of life advice as a self-confessed non-expert. We are here for it!

Hi! There’s a very good chance you have no idea who I am, so let me introduce myself – My name’s Asia. I’m a 23 year old graphic designer from the lovely county of South Yorkshire, England. I have two older brothers, 11 tattoos, and a cat called Harvey. Oh, and a condition called Usher Syndrome.

Back in 1998, newborn hearing checks didn’t happen so it wasn’t until my 7-month check that doctors noticed something was awry with my hearing. I failed my follow-up auditory brainstem response test, leading to the diagnosis of a severe bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. I was given two hearing aids at 11 months old and pretty much sent on my merry way to get on with my life as the only deaf person in my family.

Until I was 19, things were relatively straight-forward with my health – routine hospital appointments, hearing tests, new ear-molds, rinse and repeat. It was by no means easy, but it was a level of stability that I’d adapted to and accepted as a part of my life, a huge factor of the very foundation of who “Asia” was.

One weekend, I thought I’d got some dust in my eyes as I started to notice a bit of shadowing – almost like a cobweb – in the centre of my vision in my right eye. After leaving it for a few days, I was sent to A&E by my doctor to get it checked out. I was eventually dismissed by an A&E doctor and told that I had posterior vitreous detachment (PVD), which apparently was nothing to worry about and I should only be concerned if the floaters seemed to suddenly get worse.

Which, of course, they did.

I can’t lie, the testing process was grim. I’m a person who had never had eye drops before in my life and suddenly I was having ten sets of various eye drops within the space of a week and a half. I’m claustrophobic, and I had to stick my head in a little box and stare at a bunch of flashing lights whilst having electrodes literally touching my eyeballs so the doctor could measure my brain activity (an electroretinogram and visual field test). I felt like some kind of lab rat being poked and prodded and honestly, it sucked.

After countless trips back and forth to various hospitals to see various ophthalmologists, I was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome Type 2, a genetic disorder characterised by deafness accompanied by Retinitis Pigmentosa. RP is a progressive eye condition which causes night-blindness, tunnel vision and, in advanced cases, loss of central and colour vision.

I remember being sat in the consultation room with my mum and my oldest brother and my heart just broke. I was told I’d never be able to drive because the minimum peripheral vision requirement was 120°. I had 10° of peripheral vision left, and I hadn’t even realised I was losing it.

I was 19 years old and forced to grow up so much faster than everybody else around me. For my whole life, I’d chased a career in graphic design and now I was being handed a visual impairment certificate, which felt very much like my dream career was over before it started. I thought I’d learned how to deal with my deafness but this? This was completely unfamiliar territory for me.

It left me questioning everything I thought I had figured out, my deafness included. I was starting to notice that I was now an adult, sitting in hearing clinics where I was the youngest person by decades, being seen by audiologists who didn’t seem to know how to deal with me with the same compassion I’d experienced in the children’s clinics.

However, as difficult and life-changing as the diagnosis was, it also came with a strange sense of relief and clarity; I wasn’t just clumsy, I literally couldn’t see the things I was bumping into because they were outside my field of vision. I wasn’t just a bit of a wuss for being scared of the dark; part of RP is night-blindness and let me tell you, being unable to see or hear in the dark can be pretty scary.

At some point after my diagnosis, I completely changed my mindset. I truly wish I could remember the exact moment but all I recall is a newfound appreciation for my life, the experiences I was having and the people around me.

My family and friends were so incredibly loving and supportive. I don’t think I’d be the person I am today if I didn’t have the amazing support network that I have around me. The support and help I have from those who love me mean that I still love going to gigs, and on days or nights out.

I go to the cinema. I go on holidays to places I’ve never been, because I know that not only is there someone there to support me along the way, but I’m confident enough in myself to ask for help if something isn’t accessible enough for me.

That support network only grew as I delved more into the world of social media. I’d never really been part of a deaf community growing up, so when I posted a little tweet about a deaf ASOS model that I’d noticed, I definitely didn’t expect the incredible reaction it received.

People were messaging me to thank me for bringing it to their attention and for increasing public awareness. People were coming to me with self-esteem and confidence issues around their own disabilities and asking for advice.

photo from info.trendwatching website and copyright belongs to them and original photo from ASOS

Now, I definitely wouldn’t call myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination but just knowing that I potentially helped even one or two people within their own lives as disabled individuals? It’s truly humbling.

There are so many amazing little communities on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – whatever your social platform of choice is. You might have the most supportive family and friends in the world but sometimes you need people who know how it feels to be in your position.

While we’re all different, even with an identical diagnosis, there are countless people who just… understand.

I’m now an auntie to six nieces and nephews, the youngest of whom has the same hearing loss as me. I want him to grow up feeling supported and completely unstoppable, regardless of his hearing.

So, my advice as a self-confessed non-expert?

  1. Stand your ground. A doctor can tell you technical stuff from a medical perspective but ultimately? They’ve read about it. You’re living it.
  2. Surround yourself with supportive people. You are never alone. I can’t promise that you won’t encounter people who don’t understand, or are perhaps just downright ignorant, but for every one ignorant individual, there are countless others who want to support and empower you.
  3. Be honest. Be honest with your doctors if you feel like something isn’t right, or if you don’t understand all the technical jargon that’s being hurled your way. Be honest with your friends or family if you’re just too drained to do that thing you were supposed to do. Be honest with yourself and those around you if you need a bit of help and support.
  4. If you need something, ask. Don’t feel bad about asking for something to be made more accessible for you. You’re entitled to the same experience and level of service as anybody else!
  5. Be proud. There’s only one of you in the world and that makes you more special than you’ll ever know.

Who am I today?

My name is Asia, and I’m 23 years old. I’m still a Graphic Designer. I laugh at things that I probably shouldn’t. I cry, a lot (usually at films!). I’m a resilient, occasionally funny, incredibly sarcastic young woman. I have Usher Syndrome Type 2, and you best believe I’m proud.

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Lael Newton

We’ve all got baggage, but it’s the way we carry it, personalize it, and allow others to support us with it truly defines who we are as people. This is something that not only runs deeply into InvisiYouth’s programs, but also within the mantra of our new guest writer for this month’s Spotlight Story Program feature, Lael Newton.  A 19-year-old Australian, Lael was thrown into the chronic illness journey in her early teen years as she began having seizures, now diagnosed with Functional Seizures and Functional Neurological Disorder. While trying to balance all that was part of her life prior to her chronic illness to her life now, Lael has learned ways to adapt and excel. A big portion of that is using her health journey to connect, motivate and support others through her social media platform. InvisiYouth often says that YOU are the best teachers to give ideas and encouragement to others because chronic illness isn’t ‘one size fits all’ and Lael brings that forward with such confidence. Her advice for fellow chronic illness warriors, and our non-disabled allies is incredible and will fuel your hearts, we promise!

Hello beautiful people. How are you? I hope you are well in whatever season you are going through. If we haven’t met, I’m Lael, I’m 19, and I’m chronically ill.

I’ve been living this life I didn’t choose for nearly four years and it’s been one hell of a journey.

I was diagnosed with Functional Seizures when I was 16. To put it very simply, I don’t have epilepsy, but it looks like I do. I have seizures in the same way, but my brain is fine. Put my brain scans next to a healthy one, and they’re practically identical.

Functional Seizures fall under Functional Neurological Disorders (FND), where my brain works the way it should, but does some things wrong. For me, it’s how my brain processes stress.

While a normal brain would trigger the fight/flight response, my brain triggers a seizure to protect itself. My seizures are triggered by stress, both big and small. A small disagreement with someone, a major exam, and anything in-between, was enough to put me on the floor.

There is no cure, only management.

My life was flipped upside down in an instant. One second I’m playing rugby in my sports class, the next I’m on the ground. I haven’t been the same since.

I was having seizures once or twice every day for months. I dropped a quarter of my weight. I lost a lot of my hair. I lost most of me. I was falling asleep in class, and falling behind in everything. I couldn’t keep up with the pace of life I was used to. Everything was falling apart.

Everything that I loved was going away and I couldn’t stop it. It was terrifying.

I like to be control, but in an instant, the monster in my head was starting to take the wheel, and I’ve never felt more scared in my life.

This obviously didn’t help, because fear is stress, and stress ain’t great for me, creating a vicious cycle of unconsciousness.

My days are a weird mix of busy and quiet. Fitting in as much as I can into the short period of time where I can function, before I crash and need to lie down in silence so I can recover from the smallest of tasks.

I struggle with my memory, and will experience memory lapses often. I lose focus easily, and find it hard to concentrate. I will have days where I’ll be sitting in a room full of thick cloud making my thoughts hazy and difficult to understand.

I find that I can’t be in a room full of people without feeling uncomfortable, due to the crazy amount of overstimulation, which has always been one of my main triggers.

I struggle to go to big events with lots of people, lights and sound, simply because my brain can’t handle it. I’m constantly tired in every possible way. I will often need to take days off, just to regain some strength to keep going through the week.

Now, I’m so very blessed to say that I’ve been seizure free for almost a year. I’ve seen so many doctors who have helped me along the way, but it has not been an easy ride.

I still struggle with the same symptoms, probably now more than ever, but I’d rather deal with them than have a seizure every day.

I often get asked whether I would go back and change the way things went. Whether I would rather live a life without my condition. Without the tests and the needles and the hospital trips. And to be completely honest with you, I don’t think I would.

Do I wish I didn’t have to put up with all of this?

Yes.

Would I completely erase the journey?

No.

I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I wasn’t given this baggage to just stumble through life. I was given this to help those around me carrying the same thing. Offer a new way to hold it, a new way to drag it along, a new way to move around with it.

No one wants to go through this. No one thinks this chronic illness journey is a glamorous one. But if it helps one person, I’d do it all over again. No one deserves it. No one should walk this road alone. I would do it over and over again to help even one person feel less alone.

So, my chronically ill friends, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry that you have to walk this journey. I’m sorry that you have to deal with all the things that comes with this. I’m sorry that have to stumble through the day while putting on a happy face. I’m sorry that the words “but you don’t look sick” are thrown at you.

Please know, that you are strong. Really.

The strongest people are the ones that are at war with their body. I urge you to keep fighting. It gets better, it gets easier, you learn, and you grow.

You aren’t selfish for saying no to things. You aren’t a horrible friend for not responding to their messages or ignoring their calls. You aren’t lazy for struggling to leave the house. You aren’t a burden for the things you go through.

You are doing your best to survive, and that’s ok.

To my able-bodied friends, please remember that we are trying to fight a battle you don’t see. Please know that when we don’t text back, it doesn’t come from a bad place, it comes out of a place of self-preservation, where we’ve hit our limit and life is just too hard.

I hope that these few moments we’ve had together have left you with something. You’ve made my journey worth it.

I’m always around for a chat. If you have questions, ask. If you need a friend, let’s talk. I know this journey can feel incredibly lonely, so don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who can understand. Send me a message on Instagram @laelgracexx (I might take a while to respond, please forgive me, just trying to survive), I can’t wait to hear your story and share what I’ve learnt. You’re doing amazing!

~Lael x

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Lauren Perry

Finding your community, building your network, and boosting yourself up. These are all things that our latest Spotlight Story Program feature writer has not only incorporated into her daily life, but has projected into her activism as she empowers other young people in the disability community. And that focus on connecting with others and becoming your own best advocate stems deeply into all that Brighton, England’s very own Lauren Perry represents in her life. Living with Tourette’s Syndrome and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, 21-year-old Lauren has needed to create power, joy and success for herself while also dealing with the journey that chronic illness can complicate.  She’s been super proactive, using social media to create her own platforms that allow for meetups with others living with chronic illness in the Brighton area, and her virtual platform with her blog and Instagram page @aticcersguidetolife, that allows her to raise awareness, connect with others, learn how to advocate even better and share about her health journey. And she also shows off her cool wheelchair with pink wheels, a must-see! Lauren’s packed so much life advice in her feature about her young adult life with health struggles and being part of InvisiYouth’s Global Brand Leaders Program that anyone can gain tips.

Hey! I’m Lauren, I’m a 21 year old disabled student living in Brighton, England. I set up my disability blog and Instagram page @aticcersguidetolife with a hope to raise awareness on life with hidden disabilities, advocate for those who are unable to do so themselves and educate people on the wider issues disabled and chronically ill people face.

Updating friends and family on my health was becoming pretty exhausting in the early stages of my illness, but I wanted to make sure they all felt included in the process as I knew they genuinely wanted to know, so starting my blog was a great way to document my journey.

My health struggles started after a coccyx injury following a fall at work when I was waitressing, coinciding with laryngitis that wouldn’t go away and at the age of 17, I became incredibly unwell.

I was sleeping for days at a time and my body was not healing properly. I struggled to get through my A Level exams and got mediocre grades. I went from a high achiever who played in bands (saxophones, clarinet, piano), ran, went to the gym 4 times a week, swam, played hockey, and partied—to the girl who had to stopped working, slept all day, and was in incredible amounts of pain in a matter of weeks. And I’ve never been the same since.

The doctors blamed my mental health initially. I struggled with panic disorder and depressive disorder, however I knew this was different. The debilitating fatigue was different. At its worst, I was sleeping 28 hours at a time. I woke up for one hour to have a drink and slept for a further 15 hours. This sleeping pattern continued till the moment I had carers at 20. I’ve had countless misdiagnosis’, painful scans, frustrating results and random symptoms- chronic illness is a journey .

Having a disability in my late teens, I noticed quickly how isolating that can be, particularly as a university student. It seemed that although there must be thousands of disabled students, I didn’t know any and I felt there must’ve been other people that felt similar to me.

I decided to set up ‘A little poorly- Brighton’ in 2019 after a year of being at university. We now have over 400 members in Brighton, England where I have founded an online community and we formed friendships and a support network for chronically ill people living in Brighton and Hove, along with their carers. Now, I regularly arrange meet ups where I have professionals run workshops such as cooking with a disability, accessing work with a disability, improving hospital experiences for chronically ill patients, self-defense classes, art therapy, just to name a few.

In addition to ‘a little poorly – Brighton,’ I also take great pride in my Instagram page and newly updated website. Accessibility is a topic incredibly close to my heart. Through my platforms, I strive to help people access the inaccessible world. InvisiYouth has inspired me to build confidence to make friendships online with people all over the world. The Pandemic has taught me that accommodations can be made for disabilities. Online learning has been incredibly accessible to me as a disabled student, I spent many months battling for more support

I started my health journey not truly identifying as a disabled woman and rather just a 17 year old girl. I saw myself with misdiagnoses and I didn’t feel confident or educated in disability. Doctors often say “I think you have this” and then leave you with so many unanswered questions surrounding this new potential diagnosis.

I’ve learned to laugh in the most unfunny moments, make the most out of bad situations and I have shown my mental strength and resilience is important above all. I think I’ve become incredibly calm. In situations where perhaps someone else may panic or be overwhelmed—for myself—relatively these things often feel ‘small’ and I’m therefore pretty good at staying calm.

I’ve sadly had to grow up a lot quicker than my peers, but I also think that I’ve become much more understanding of other people’s emotions and gained a level of emotional maturity as my priorities have had to shift being unwell.

My diagnosis list is ever growing. Tourette’s Syndrome hit me out of the blue at 19 in my first year of university. I lost my speech out the blue for two weeks when I was 20 following a hemiplegic migraine which replicated a stroke.

Nothing surprises me anymore.

Honestly, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry and that’s the best way we’ve found to approach my illnesses. It went from “why me- it’s always me” to “only me, typical” making a positive out of a negative or light and laughter out of an awful situation is very important. As chronically ill people, we often joke that we are unqualified doctors.

I truly believe the sheer knowledge that having a chronic illness has taught me is fascinating and perhaps something I would not have delved into had I not become unwell. I like to consider myself a receptionist or admin assistant to my own body—I appreciate my disabilities for supporting my love of stationery and organization—I bet you’ve never seen paperwork as organised and colourful as mine!

As kids we always get told not to talk to strangers and to some extent, I agree. However, had I not found such an amazing online community through Instagram I wouldn’t have found InvisiYouth, its Global Brand Leaders Program, or other content creators with disabilities. I’ve spent hours messaging other people on the internet .

Speaking to people online is such a powerful tool in management of disability. I’ve found many of my consultants through Facebook groups. My Rheumatologist who diagnosed my EDS was recommended through a Facebook group. My sleep consultant was recommended by a few people on Instagram. My cardiologist similarly.

It makes me feel like there’s loads of people like me. People who just ‘get it’ but can also support me in my journey and answer any questions from the perspective of poorly people not just as medical professionals.

The feeling of bumping into people who follow me on Instagram brings me so much happiness. The few times I’ve been approached in the streets after my pink wheels have been spotted from a distance on days where I’ve been struggling or having issues with accessibility- it makes all the appointments and the hours of pain worth it.

In that moment you feel less alone and feel like what you’re doing is really important. It’s comforting to know when you have a weird symptom that your doctor has never seen before, that there’s someone on the other side of the world who has it too and has a little bit of wisdom that might help.

  • I suggest having a list of all our conditions, medication, allergies and care needs summarised to take to appointments is incredibly useful, it really helps save time in appointments too. I used to get really frustrated when I felt like most of my appointment was spent covering medical history and less on my current issue.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell doctors or medical professionals what you need! You are an expert of your own body!
  • Find your people- there are people out there for you, who will understand you, support you, and think like you. Put yourself out there! People will put effort in and people will make time if they want. No one is ever too busy for the people they want to see!
  • If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
  • You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think, more loved than you’d ever know and twice as beautiful than you ever imagined

My main message to share: You can do anything you want to do. The world might not be built for disabled people, but if you find the right people and understand your own needs, you’ll be able to access the inaccessible!

Don’t worry about other people’s judgement for any step of your journey. You should be able to live life to the fullest and enjoy it like anyone else your age.

Not all wheelchair users can’t walk just like not all disabilities are visible. Society strangely seems to have taught us the opposite.

Accepting I needed to use a wheelchair in order to have fun/ live life as my peers do has honestly been the best decision I have ever made.

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Jasmine Chen

Perseverance, energy, adaptability, joy and wisdom. These are all traits we try to supply to all our young adults in the InvisiYouth community, and all perfect descriptors of our newest Spotlight Story Program feature writer, Jasmine Chen. From New Jersey, Jasmine is not your average 28 year old because she’s also a double lung transplant warrior after dealing with RSV. Her chronic illnesses have given her the life experiences to look at the world with such an empathetic and passionate lens. With her eagerness to improve her daily life, Jasmine has advocated not only for her physical health, but also her mental health, empowering others in the benefits of therapy too. We are so excited for you to read Jasmine’s story, and learn her five life lessons that you can easily apply in your daily life too.

My name is Jasmine, I am 28 years old from New Jersey and in July, I will be two years post- double lung transplant. Despite all the challenges of the past two years (and a pandemic to top it off), it was the best decision I ever made, and managing this condition constantly reminds me of what really matters in life:  family, friends, and finding purpose.

Every year, my birthday would come around, and every year, I would blow on my candles and wish for the same thing: to have healthy lungs.  My chronic health journey began when I was three: a doctor’s visit turned into a hospitalization of six weeks; while under the hospital’s care and observation for pneumonia, I caught RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus). As a young child, I was much more vulnerable to the virus, and the RSV ravaged through my lungs in a short period of time.  Even though I won the battle, the aftermath of permanently scarred lungs turned into an ongoing war.  I was a confusing and rare case, and the doctors tentatively diagnosed me with Bronchiolitis Obliterans.

When I entered my double-digit years, I graduated from oxygen dependency around the clock, and began physically attending school part-time.  Managing a depleted lung function on top of asthma and a defenseless immune system, my head was always calculating ways to save energy, maximize efficiency, and survive: I would gauge whether the energy spent trekking to my locker outweighed the expense of carrying around a heavy textbook.  My normal speed was a slower pace than the average student and I didn’t tend to have the breath to converse, and so I found myself walking alone a lot.

College made it more apparent that invisible illness was both a blessing and a curse.  Being able to blend in with the crowd around campus helped because it did not garner any unwanted attention.  On the other hand, I found myself often struggling to convince professors, friends, and people in general that I had a disability. A lack of visible proof resulted in many occasions where ignorance fed into a gaslighting culture and my imposter syndrome constantly minimized my suffering.

Dealing with society’s ignorance and treatment of my disability is on par, if not arguably worse, then managing the health struggles itself. 

For example, there were times I had to choose between my health and grades when a college professor refused to allow me to miss the final exam when I was ill.  There was the time HR called me in because an anonymous coworker reported me for “abusing” my handicap spot. Did I feel anger, resentment, and frustration when these situations happened?  Absolutely. Accepting that these things will happen and learning not to get stuck in it is a lifelong challenge.

Here are some of the things I would tell my younger self if I could:

#1: Learn to self-advocate. Over time, I learned to make my thoughts and concerns louder, whether that was dealing with coworkers, nurses and doctors, or insurance.  I used to believe the right way to be humble was by obediently following directions, and trusting those in charge, but eventually I realized it was important to be assertive and vocal while also doing your own research and thinking for yourself: it is possible to both retain humility and make your voice heard.

#2: Be gentle with yourself. You are more resilient than you think. People with chronic illnesses tend to experience the best and worst of life. Sometimes life throws curveballs at you, and many things are simply out of your control.  You will meet some unfriendly people, face complicated health issues, and have bad days. But you will also meet some amazing human beings, overcome those challenges, and have great days.

#3: Do not be afraid to seek help. Therapy is a lot like dating: when you meet the right one, it can be cathartic and life-changing. I built up the courage to overcome the stigma of therapy and sorted through several therapists before I found the right one. I began therapy during a dark period in college where I felt isolated, lost, and seriously wondered what the point of carrying on was. These sessions not only helped me navigate through the mental roller coaster of pre- and post- lung transplant, but also forced me to confront my own self-doubts and fears, ultimately empowering me to find and create the life I envision for myself (this will always be a work-in-progress).

#4: They are not a reflection of your self-worth. The level of your academics, the number of friends you have, and the experiences you may be deprived of are not your fault. You will meet various unique hurdles in life, whether they be people or circumstances. The amount of classes I missed, especially during the winter, was reflected in my grades.  There were friendships that died instantly or faded over time, whether they be because of betrayal, rejection, ignorance, or isolation.

Over time, this perpetuated a greater reluctance to disclose my health condition, for fear people would keep their distance once they knew.  But none of these difficult relationships or experiences define who you are or what your value is as a human being.

#5: You are the author, director, and CEO of your own identity. “She doesn’t like to mix negative and positive energy…”  This is a quote from one of my favorite movies, 50/50 (one of the few realistic movies that does not feed into an “inspiration porn” portrayal of illness).  Adam explains to his friend Kyle that his girlfriend has trouble dealing with the fact that he has cancer and refuses to mix her normal, able-bodied lifestyle (“positive energy”) with the “negative energy” of the hospital, which was a culmination of Adam’s illness and pain. For the longest time, I avoided using my handicap sign because I denied that I needed it.

I wanted one insignificant part of my life roaming the parking lots to be separate from my chronic illness life: instead, I gave myself the unnecessary burden of trying to live two identities.  But the truth is, I don’t have to choose between me who is ill and the parts of me that aren’t.  I am both.  I am just me: You are the only one who gets to define who you are. 

After some post-transplant complications, today I am at roughly 75% lung function as opposed to 16%.  I take a plethora of pills on a daily schedule, I get my blood drawn regularly, I converse frequently with my doctors and undergo whatever procedures are required, I have “moon-face” from steroids- occasionally, I argue with insurance.

But I am reborn in some sense, experiencing everything with new lungs and lung capacity I never had before.  I’ve learned to meditate and savor moments like when I’m safely at home, appreciating the silence and the privacy of my room- things I do not have when hospitalized.

Everything I’ve gone through has grown greater my empathy: I see the hidden pain in others’ eyes because I recognize it so clearly in my own.”- Melinda Means.

My first time hiking up three miles, first time walking up and down the stairs more than twice a day, and more recently, the first time dancing for a couple hours at one of my best friend’s weddings. Looking forward to many more first times.

 

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Isabella McCray

Letting go of the illusion, and fully embracing the life you’re living now. That’s a prime mindset InvisiYouth advocates through its programs, and it’s a focal point of our latest Spotlight Story Program feature writer’s daily life. Say hello to the American stellar teen, Isabella McCray, who has not only celebrated a high school AND Associates degree graduation this month, but uses her platform to raise awareness of the chronic illness she lives with, Lupus. This autoimmune disease is life-altering, and since her pre-teens into her later teen years Isabella has needed to balance her health changes with her life changes. Isabella’s journey with Lupus shares her vulnerable strength and how her reclaimed her bravery through her flare-ups, even embracing the pains to live life at its fullest. Now with eyes set on being a pediatric nurse, Isabella is allowing her voice to encourage community connectivity and support, while sharing what it’s like living and managing Lupus. And with May being Lupus Awareness Month, we knew having Isabella share her story would educate and empower many other teens in the Lupus and autoimmune disease community! 

Hi, my name is Isabella McCray and I am a chronic illness and Lupus advocate, inspiring and encouraging young adults like me! I use my platform to talk about all things chronic illness and spread the word about what it’s like living and managing Lupus.

When I was little, I went to preschool and my teacher used to always rub and massage my legs because my legs were always sore. Eventually, it became difficult to run and play, to climb stairs, and if I had exposure to sunlight/heat, I would break out in hives.

I went to my pediatrician and she diagnosed me with growing pains.

Fast forward 2014, I saw visibly swollen glands and I visited my pediatrician again and she referred me to an ENT doctor. He discovered in my blood some abnormalities and referred me to my present pediatric rheumatologist. He ordered various blood tests and on my next visit with him, I was diagnosed with Lupus SLE.

I recall searching what it was and reading about the symptoms. I experienced each of them. Joint pain, headaches, fatigue, butterfly rash, hair loss, etc. I was just 11 when I was diagnosed with Lupus. I was a young child and I didn’t know how to feel or how to accept my diagnosis. I also didn’t know that my life would change forever.

In the years following, I learned to managed my chronic illness; that had no cure. My classmates didn’t know because I didn’t want them to view me differently. However, it was the year 2017  when my journey crossed and I discovered new bravery for every aspect of my life. I had my first flare-up; I was home-bound from school for 5 months, and the most time I was admitted in the hospital being 2 weeks. I had to tell my peers about my condition because of my absences. It was at that point that I was at my lowest.

I didn’t have the bravery I held when I was little. I was in unbearable pain and I was hopeless of things getting better. I started losing my hair, which was 14 inches long and my appearance changed. I consulted with a chronic illness hairstylist, who specialized in haircuts for Lupus patients. I had dreadlocks since I was 4 years old and getting them cut, I felt like I lost one of the most important parts of what made me.

In light of my insecurities and challenges, I decided to cut my hair.  I immediately made adjustments to my schedule and my classifications with my peers.

This did not sit well with some and I was subjected to bullying. I experienced emotional, physical, and mental pain but I never gave up. It wasn’t that giving up was an option because it was.

However, I didn’t let the pain and suffering I endured break me. Instead, I started embracing the pain and turning it into strength and inspiration.

Experiencing a life-changing illness that changes your outlook on everything is stressful and overwhelming. That is why I use my voice to bring awareness to chronic illnesses and inspire others in this community to hold on and if you feel like giving up, you have a whole community to back you up.

Despite our limitations, we can develop patience and discover hope in the worst of situations. Because battling a life-altering illness is a tough journey and changing directions in life is not a bad decision. It just allows you to change your story and experience the high and lows with an amazing support system on social media.

Being part of a community so empowering and influential, and it encouraged me to share my voice and interact with others. I have grown and matured to know my worth and who I am, personally. I am compassionate, caring, sweet, understanding, and forgiving! I experienced so many things in my childhood that I should’ve experienced now being a young adult. I was such a private person growing up, but making my diagnoses public was one of the best decisions I made.

I had to face unknown experiences, having hope and strength and the mindset of coming out of these experiences even stronger. I became an advocate and not only for chronic illnesses, but also for my education as well.

I am currently a senior in high school, graduating with my high school diploma and Associates of Arts degree. Being afforded the opportunity of encountering many doctors and nurses on my various visits to the hospital inspired me to pursue and further my education in nursing to hopefully become a pediatric nurse.

During a visit with my specialist, my mom saw a pamphlet about Make-A-Wish Foundation. She reached out and contacted them about my journey and how far I’ve come and they wanted to have a meeting with my mom and I. Personally, whatever my wish was, I wanted to bring awareness to Lupus.  My Wish was to meet the cast of Good Morning America. Robin Roberts is an inspiring role model who I still admire today. My wish was granted, after several months, and it was an experience I will never forget!

Throughout my journey, I learned to let go of the illusion that it could have been different and understand my purpose now. It’s not every day you’re going to feel your best, and I can’t even count how many pep talks I have with my body every day to function and “get it together”!

The funny part is I’m still the same as before, I’m just diagnosed with a life-changing illness that presents challenges. I’m just stronger, wiser, more compassionate, and my sense of humor is a bit dark.

People manage their chronic illness differently, it’s whatever works for you. At the end of the day, you made it, and that itself is a victory. Know your limitations, enjoy life, take your medications, be yourself, and most of all, rest and breathe because you are here, now.

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Meghan Smith

April is National Donate Life in America, and it’s a critical time to raise awareness on not only to become an organ donor, but also to learn the stories of those that have received this lifesaving transplants. One of those receipts is Maryland native Meghan Smith, a marketing executive that has used Instagram for our favorite thing…raising awareness, changing misconceptions, and showing how awesome and fun life can be with any health struggles. After a few years of health issues, it was discovered Meghan had liver disease and was in need of a transplant. Luckily, her uncle was a match to donate a portion of his liver! Meghan is such a transparent advocate because she shares the realness of post-transplant life, and all the medications and adjustments you make in life to adapt and excel. There’s no singular way to look or live as a young person with health struggle, and Meghan–who’s now a Donate Life Ambassador–is using her growing platform to give a fresh look on how incredible , fun and fulfilling life can be!

My name is Meghan and I am a 29 year old from Baltimore, MD. I work as a marketing executive for a global affiliate marketing company, and in my spare time enjoy traveling, reading, shopping, playing with my dog and spending time with friends and family. Growing up, I had a fairly normal and typical childhood. I lived in the suburbs outside of Baltimore with my mom, dad and younger brother, was active in dance and softball, and was generally healthy.

When I was 19 years old, I was studying at the University of Maryland when I started to develop abdominal pain and severe itchiness. I spent most of my college years going to different doctors trying to figure out the cause. Finally, at 22 I met a doctor at Johns Hopkins who determined the issue was caused by my liver. Around this time, my younger brother was 19 and started developing similar symptoms. For whatever reason, his liver disease had progressed much faster and he was in liver failure with liver cancer. He was listed for liver transplant and thanks to the generosity of one of my dad’s previous co-workers, received a living donor liver transplant at the age of 21.

I continued to be monitored by my hepatology team, and while numerous genetic tests were done to try to figure out the cause of our liver disease, there was never a match. In August of 2019 it was determined that it was time for me to be listed for liver transplant. Numerous people kindly reached out about being tested to be my donor. My uncle was the first person to undergo testing, and surprisingly he was a perfect match! It is very rare for the first person to be tested to be a match.

On December 10 2019, I received the amazing gift of a second chance at life thanks to my uncle donating a part of his liver to me.

Overall surgery and recovery went very well for the both of us. I spent two weeks in the hospital and was able to go home on December 24th, just in time for Christmas.

Unfortunately, two days later I developed an infection and had to be re-admitted to the hospital. Because my brother had gone through transplant before me, I was aware that transplant recovery is a process full of ups and downs along the way.

Once I was released from the hospital, I continued to recover and adjust to my new post-transplant life. This included taking a large number of medications multiple times a day to avoid rejection and infections, monitoring my vitals every day, and getting blood work multiple times a week.

I gradually built up to walking more often and getting out of the house more frequently. I was able to return to work at the end of February 2020 on a part-time basis, working up to full-time over the following months. I am incredibly lucky to work for a company that has been so supportive throughout my entire transplant process, and makes the health of their employees a priority.

Post-transplant I became a Donate Life Ambassador to help educate others on organ donation and encourage them to register to be an organ donor.

I’ve found that there are still many myths and misconceptions around organ donation and it is not discussed nearly enough, especially within my age group.

Almost 114,000 people in the United States are currently on the waiting list for a life-saving organ transplant, and on average 20 people die a day every day from the lack of available organs for transplant. I’m one of the lucky ones who received a transplant, and am inspired to help make the waiting list smaller and smaller until it is eventually 0.  

I’ve been using Instagram as a platform to share my transplant story and educate others on what it is like being an immunocompromised person during the COVID-19 pandemic. I think it is helpful to see that while someone may look “young and healthy” this may not always be the case, and to put a face to the people whose lives can be saved from following social-distancing measures and flattening the curve of the spread of coronavirus.

Throughout my transplant and now the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m often asked how I remain so positive given the circumstances.

My answer is pretty simple – I do what I can to protect myself and keep myself safe, but don’t worry over the things that are out of my control. I would offer the same advice to anyone who is feeling anxious during this time of unprecedented illness and uncertainty; do the things that have been recommended – wash your hands, stay inside as much as possible, practice social-distancing – but don’t let the thought of contracting the coronavirus consume you.

Take comfort in knowing you are doing everything you can to protect yourself and others, and use this time to practice self-care, pick up a new hobby, or do something you enjoy.

 

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Abbie Stapleton

In honor of Endometriosis Awareness Month, we are honored to have one of our GBL Ambassadors from England, Abbie Stapleton, sharing her health journey and some major life tips that will be fueling you to bring kindness into your life. Founder of the blog and Instagram platform, Cheerfully Live, Abbie has fused her personal experience going through the long diagnosis process with her joyful content that’s uniquely styled to provide relatable advice with empowering young adults in this chronic illness community. You will not only learn a lot about Abbie’s diagnosis journey with Endometriosis as a teen dealing with medical professionals not taking her symptoms seriously, but you will also learn how Abbie has preserved and uses her experiences to motivate in this empowered community of wonderful women around the world!  Now living with other diagnoses like Fibromyalgia and Costochondritis and Interstitial Cystitis, Abbie’s wide range of life experience lets her connect with many, and her platform truly is unique and joyful all her own.

Hi I’m Abbie, the founder of the Cheerfully Live blog and Instagram.

When I was 14, I experienced my first episode of excruciating pain, little did I know that I would have debilitating pain for the rest of my life. Every month, my periods would come and I would be bed-bound, unable to walk, fainting, with nothing working to ease my pain. I was back and forth seeing healthcare professionals month after month.

Every time I was told nothing was wrong.

My tests would come back clear and I was always dismissed as being the “unlucky one”, told I had a “low pain threshold” and that it was “part of being a woman”. I was even once asked by a doctor “are you sure you are not over-exaggerating?”. It wasn’t until my pain became chronic in December 2018, that Endometriosis started being investigated. I was sent from urology at first as they thought I was having urine and kidney infections that just wouldn’t clear, but then they realised my pain was more likely related to Endometriosis.

But when I saw a gynecologist, I was told that I could “never have severe Endometriosis because I was too young”. I pushed for an MRI to rule that out and to her surprise, my scans showed severe, deep-infiltrating Endometriosis. The relief I received after I got my results was huge! After years of gaslighting from healthcare professionals and feeling like the pain was all in my head, I realised my pain was real!

I was immediately referred to an Endometriosis specialist who tried me on the mini pill for 6 months, but unfortunately my pain only got worse. I finally had Endometriosis excision surgery with an Endometriosis specialist in December 2020, a year after being put on the waiting list. They found Endometriosis all over my uterus, left ovary, my bowel, bladder and both my kidney ureters.

During all of this I was also diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and Costochondritis and during my Endometriosis surgery I had a cystoscopy which revealed my bladder was chronically inflamed and that I had Interstitial Cystitis (also known as Bladder Pain Syndrome). Thankfully I’m now on the road to recovery and feeling some relief from my excision surgery, however I’m also now undergoing investigations for possible Fowler’s Syndrome and PoTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome).

When I was being investigated for Endometriosis, I needed a place where I could speak to others who were also going through the same thing, it was an incredibly challenging time, not only on my physical health but also my mental health. So that’s when I set up my blog and Instagram Cheerfully Live. I used my platform to document my journey, chat to others who were going through the same as me and share any advice which had helped me whilst going through the diagnosis process.

I’m so thankful for this community and my little platform – I’ve not only been able to support so many women in getting an Endometriosis diagnosis, I’ve encouraged them throughout their journey and shared helpful advice. I’ve also found comfort through everyone’s kind words and knowledge.

I’ve learnt so much about many different chronic illnesses and how best to support others, which has been invaluable!

There’s been so many amazing opportunities since starting Cheerfully Live such as becoming a GBL for InvisiYouth, speaking on the radio to share my story and collaborating with many amazing brands, charities and companies on raising further awareness for chronic illness!

And lastly, living with Endometriosis or any chronic illness is hard and so I wanted to share with you a few top tips that I’ve learnt along the way that have helped me cope living with my illnesses, both when advocating for yourself in medical settings and just in general life:

  1. The biggest piece of advice I could give is to get yourself invested into the chronic illness community! There is such a wonderful presence online of people sharing the realities of living with chronic illnesses on Instagram, but Facebook is also amazing for joining different groups that share lots of helpful advice. Also, Endometriosis UK offers face-to-face support groups, as well as lots of accurate information, so I’d definitely recommend their website, it’s a great resource.
  2. Research and really understand your condition, so that you are best able to advocate for yourself.
  3. Be honest and open with those you trust around you. Allow people to really see what it’s like living with your chronic illness, let people in, allow them to help and support you!
  4. If you are struggling to get healthcare professionals to listen or feel like you aren’t able to get answers – keep going and trust your instincts! If you know what you are experiencing is not normal, please keep fighting and advocating for yourself.

Being diagnosed with many different chronic illnesses has definitely made me the person I am today and in a way I’m grateful for the experiences and resilience that having a chronic illness has given me! I’m a much stronger person than I used to be 3 years ago, I am more empathetic and understanding of people’s situations. I fully understand now how debilitating fatigue and living with pain every day can be, but also now realise that you can’t always see on the surface that people are struggling.

So the main message of this piece is to remind you to be kind (especially to yourself) – you never know what someone might be struggling with under the surface. Your kindness and empathy might just change someone’s day, maybe even their life! So don’t wait to be kind, be kind today!

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Caitlyn Fulton

Meet Caitlyn Fulton

Growing up in Scotland with cerebral palsy, Caitlyn Fulton has challenged herself to not only become her biggest cheerleader for her daily life, but to take her hobbies and bring them into the forefront of the work and activism she does. Having studied music in university and being a model, Caitlyn is constantly free in using media and art to break stigmas while also empowering other young people that they can find their inner strength in the things they love to do. While Caitlyn’s CP doesn’t define her, it gives her a lens to tackle life and achieve her goals, and we’re proud that she’s a GBL-All Star in Caitlyn’s second year working with InvisiYouth in our leadership program! Caitlyn gives so much good advice your young adults to finds ways to enjoy life even in those medical settings, and how to have your chronic illness/disability be not your sole identifier but one of the traits that make you unique!

Hi! My name is Caitlyn, I’m 20 from Scotland. I was born premature and as a result was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. CP is a neurological condition which is caused by damage to the brain. For me, CP effects my balance and coordination.

I’ve used my health journey in my work by exploring the things I love, like my passion for music. I studied it at Diploma level [in university], and alongside music as a whole, I’m a vocalist at heart and love to sing. I can just be me and not think of my condition; it’s a freeing feeling of enjoyment too.

Secondly, I’ve used my health journey to inspire others by becoming a model—signed with Zebedee Talent—breaking down the barriers and stigmas about disability that the fashion and media industry hold.

It allows me to challenge stigmas on disability and raising awareness of disabled people in wheelchairs specifically by being seen in a positive light and that’s what I’m aiming for! There’s still a long way to go for the industry to be completely inclusive but in the last couple of years there’s been a real positive change within – step/wheel in the right direction.

I also play Boccia (a Paralympic sport) with a recognised team in Glasgow as part of Scottish Disability Sport. By doing so, not only am I raising awareness of disability but also women in sport too as it’s a rather male-dominated field.

Writing/blogging is recent addition but I like writing about topics that are important to me, such as disability rights and my hobbies which hopefully resonates with other young people as it’s great for them to know others out there like myself feel the same way as them. Through my health journey, I’ve grown in knowing I shouldn’t feel bad for having Cerebral Palsy. It makes me who I am, though it doesn’t define me. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I was non-disabled and I don’t know if I would want to be a totally different person – I’m happy being in the skin I’m in because I’m unique.

I’ve found ways to support others by sharing similar experiences and being a source of encouragement that while yes, life throws a lot of challenges, I always tackle them head on and think there’s always a reason why. I’m a true believer in the phrase, “things happen for a reason’.”

It’s been great having support groups too, connecting with others who have the same conditions and interests as myself. Social media is certainly a great tool to connect and interact. Especially with the likes of InvisiYouth, it’s been brilliant being part of such a great organisation and connecting with other young people worldwide.

When I look at my experiences in medical settings, there’s things I’ve learned that I’d love to share with others to improve their experiences. Even if it’s your first appointment in a new hospital where you’ve been referred for treatment, changing consultants or moving up from child to adult services -I know how daunting all of this can be as I’ve experienced it first hand – become familiar with your surroundings, get to know the nurses/staff who’ll be caring for you if its procedure-related.

Also bring home comforts, items that make you feel calm.

Whenever I went in for operations knowing it would be a good few weeks before going home, it helped knowing who the team members were that would have me in their care and over time there’s a bond that’s created. It’s bittersweet going home, I always felt sad saying goodbye when it was time to go yet it was a great feeling to know I was on the right track and made great progress.

In your daily life, know that your condition doesn’t defy you. Yes, it’s part of you but your worth so much more with the interests you have, outlays that shaped you, make you who you are. Dealing with my health has shaped me in knowing that I’ll experience many hurdles in life but I’ll always get through them no matter what. As I’ve gotten older I don’t feel embarrassed about having a disability and now I embrace it—it’s my superpower and I have a story to tell.

My main message: There will be good and bad days but know that your condition makes you who you are. Strive to be the best version of yourself, make the most of it.

I always say to myself ‘I was given this life because I was strong enough to live it’: strong enough to the face the battles that come my way and cherish the moments in live that are to be remembered. Look your bad days in the eye and know you’ll overcome them, maybe not tomorrow or the next day but you will achieve. Whenever you feel good in yourself, you can get through it all and survived another day, that’s what I tell myself and you should too – be proud!

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Rachel Hoy

Meet Rachel Hoy

Starting off 2021 with an upgrade to our Spotlight Story Program because it will now be MONTHLY human stories told BY young people FOR young people in the chronic illness/disability/mental health community! 

There is no better person to start the Spotlight Story Program for the new year than lyme disease activist and owner of the popular brand Tee Spoonies, Rachel Hoy. Being part of our Global Brand Leaders Program for two years, now as a #GBLAllStar, Australian Rachel has been such a firm believer for empowering young people with chronic illnesses to advocate for themselves. This coming from her experience living with Lyme disease and co-infections, along with POTS, MCAS, interstitial cystitis and autoimmune conditions. She understands that balancing life, work and chronic illness takes time–especially living with Lyme disease in Australia as comprehension and treatment access is harder to come by–and learning how you empower yourself to enjoy and succeed in life with any health struggles was something Rachel was super passionate for, and it resulted in her creating her own brand Tee Spoonies. Selling ethically made products like pocket tees, scrunchies, cards and more, Rachel has built a community behind Tee Spoonies that mirrors her style of activism perfectly!

My name is Rach – I’m a 28 year old Australian living with Lyme disease & co infections as well as POTS, MCAS, interstitial cystitis and autoimmune conditions.

I was infected with Lyme & co infections on a trip to the USA after finishing my Master’s degree six years ago.

The first two years after getting sick I spent most of my time searching for a diagnosis, only to find out when it did come, that the hardest part was ahead of me.

At 22 years, I had travelled the world, completed two degrees and worked as youth state manager and campaign designer for World Vision Australia, so having to step back to focus on my health was a steep learning curve.

Living with chronic Lyme disease in Australia is especially hard – it is recognised and understood even less here than overseas, which means limited access to doctors and treatments.

After six years of living with Lyme & co my illness has really progressed.

My main symptoms are severe joint pain, fatigue leaving me mainly housebound, headaches/migraines, gut, bladder and mast cell problems, and neurological issues including up to twenty seizures per day.

I learnt rather quickly how tough it could be living with chronic illness as a young person, including doctors who denied the severity of my illness and friends who left my side in the hard times.

I also realised the apparent need for us to be continually advocating for ourselves as chronically ill youth.

One day I had a light bulb moment and realised I could combine a number of my passions together: advocacy, ethical consumerism and design, in order to raise awareness about living with invisible illness.

My first design idea with Tee Spoonies was the invisible illness pocket tee, which has grown to be the most popular!

Having the tee resonate with so many invisible illness warriors has meant a lot.

I sew all of the pockets myself which adds a personal touch.

The chronic illness community is important to so many, and being a part of it in this way, and being able to create products that empower fellow spoonies has been a blessing.

Working with InvisiYouth the past two years has been a great experience. I’m proud to donate 100% of profits from our fundraiser upcycled scrunchie packs & 50% of profits from our recycled paper gift card packs to InvisiYouth.

Our brand is all about making unique, sustainable, ethically made products that are a labour of love.

We also donate 10% of all profits to the Lyme Disease Association of Australia. You can check out more on our website here: teespoonies.com

If I could give some pieces of advice to young people struggling with the throws of chronic & invisible illnesses it would be to remember your inherent value in this world over anything you could possibly accomplish.

Goals are great but values are key.

Often living with chronic illness can mean pushing back or rearranging timelines or goals, which can be disheartening, but who you are in life is a lot more important than where you are in life.

And if you’re reading this now I already know who you are is amazing, because the perseverance, resilience and strength living with serious illness requires does not come easily.

Secondly, you are not alone.

No matter how lonely, devastated or isolated you feel – there is a community out there who understand what you’re going through, and want to support, empower and help you in any way they can.

And lastly, YOU know YOU better than anyone!

Trust in yourself and advocate for your needs… with a little help from your friends 🙂

*to learn more about Rachel’s involvement in our GBL Program, click here. And to learn more about Rachel’s products with Tee Spoonies, click here.*