Spotlight Story Program: Devri Velazquez’s Story

Meet Devri Velazquez

Our latest Spotlight Story comes from someone we’ve adored for over a year now.  She’s not only got one of the best Instagram aesthetics we’ve ever seen, but she also has found a real niche for combining artistry with health activism. It is beauty and wellness editor and writer, Devri Velazquez.  Whether she is in Texas, New York City (where our founder, Dominique got to meet her), or Chicago, Devri has maintained her constant push for awareness on the life of a becoming an adult while living with chronic illness, specifically when you’re becoming your own person with invisible illness.

At 20 years old, Devri was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune vascular disease called Takayasu’s Disease. This is “a rare type of vasculitis, a group of disorders that cause blood vessel inflammation. In Takayasu’s, the inflammation damages the aorta—the large artery that carries blood from your heart to the rest of your body—and its main branches. For Devri, it took a series of strange flu-like symptoms and within a few weeks, her diagnosis was found.

Like thousands of the InvisiYouth community, Devri was diagnosed as a young adult, and that is a time in life when you are still discovering so much of who you are, and where you’d like your life to go.

I was 20 when I was diagnosed, so I feel like I had to grow up and mature soon than a lot of people I knew,” Devri said. “I had to quit taking certain risks that young people around me weren’t anywhere close to stopping. I take my self-care seriously, as my life depends on setting healthy boundaries.”

This is an experience that so many older youth have to deal with when maintaining their friendships while taking care of their health needs.

Self-care needs to be a requirement when you’re living with chronic illness instead of just a personal motivator.

Devri’s health journey has absolutely not only shaped the way she lives her daily life, but also how she does her work as a writer and editor on beauty and wellness, which everyone can experience on her website.  “I live and breathe survival everyday, in the places I go and the people I meet,” she said. “This is my lifestyle, learning everyday how to cope with constant pain that fluctuates by the hour. I pour my heart and passion into everything I do because I try not to take a single moment for granted.

Living with chronic illness takes so much daily energy, so when you’re able to achieve your goals, there is an extra large dose of enjoyment that can be felt. Like Devri points out, it completely alters the way you adapt to each and every day based on how your body is feeling and what you are capable of doing. And while that could be a focus of negativity at the challenges life with chronic illness presents, Devri is also able to see how her diagnosis has also given her new perspectives on life.

I always knew I was strong, but this has made me feel unbreakable. Nothing on this Earth and no person’s words or actions could ever hurt me as much as my body does on a daily basis, so I have learned to be more open-minded to a lot of things and not take certain situations as seriously. Everything is temporary, nothing is permanent, so relish the good moments, and know that the bad ones will pass.

There is so much to get empowered with from Devri’s mentality on her health journey. She’s right: no external factors in life can be as damaging as chronic illness is to your health, so you are actually a lot stronger than you think. Devri makes such a fantastic point: when you are having bad health days, you need to remember everything is temporary and with inner strength and willpower, you can to push those bad health days.

This is something we definitely get to experience through Devri’s social media activism on her Instagram account. Another trait of Devri’s that we all adore at InvisiYouth Charity is her complete vulnerability and belief that by sharing her medical journey, she can not only help others but also learn and grow herself.

Vulnerability is something that has help me accept and embrace the illness that my body carries,” Devri said. “I don’t feel defined by it, but it’s a part of my story now, and I’m not ashamed. I’m actually pretty proud of how well I carry this burden. Being open to your community—family, friends, colleagues—is so important, for your own mental health as well as their understanding and compassion in your journey.

What Devri touches on a couple of critical factors every young adult with chronic illness needs to know.  First, is the understanding that we are never defined by our illnesses or disability, but rather they are part of our description. Our health is not who we are, but rather it is part of the way we view our life and world around us, and that is not anything we should be ashamed of.

Second, Devri mentions something InvisiYouth always promotes, and that is the fact that a support network is critical to our daily success in life. Our family, friends and coworkers/classmates, they are all the people that help us get through the bad days, and celebrate the good ones.

This amazing young woman is filled with knowledge, realness and motivation. Not to mention, some of the best writing and photography we ever see! So when we asked Devri what her main message in life for other with chronic illness would be, it is no surprise that Devri would give the best.

Be your biggest advocate,” Devri said. “Learn how to say ‘no’ with confidence. If something doesn’t feel right—an interaction with another person, an environment, a job—it is okay to walk away from it. Do what your gut instinct tells you to do, just trust it with everything and then respond accordingly. That’s your mind, body and soul aligning to work in the favor of your higher self.”

When You’ve Got Health Hindsight: My 10-Year Anniversary with Chronic Illness

December 30, 2018

Well hello again, long time, no blog! It has clearly been a while since my last founder’s blog, but that’s just because InvisiYouth Charity has been keeping me so damn busy. (*and if you’ve been keeping up with InvisiYouth, you’ve gotten to know the reason for that is our new video podcast series, InvisiYouth Chat Sessions, which I am the hostwhich will be continuing throughout 2019*)

So, let’s get real for a minute.

One thing I’m a firm believer in is to always celebrate your small victories, and especially while you live with chronic illness/disability. You should be proud of all you achieve, regardless of the scale. But one of our volunteers reminded me of a milestone I just reached—10 years since the injury that caused the snowball of chronic illness into my life.

I’m aware it may see odd to celebrate my chronic illnesses. And yes, they really did take my life from me while my illnesses were a daily torture, but living with health struggles has also given me a life, a new normality, that I am incredibly proud of. While that’s my optimism trying to stay in focus, I refuse to stay in a mindset of resentment for my life.

As a resident “oldie” of my illness for a decade, I wanted to share my hindsight of life with chronic illnesses and the top 10 things I’ve learned after these 10 years:

#1 Diagnosis Won’t Be a Magic Wand, But It Sure Feels Nice

This is probably one of the biggest things I’ve gained hindsight on, while also being the most controversial.  It took me years to get proper diagnosis, years with mistreatment that could have improved my now-quality of life, but there’s something anyone that reads my work will notice. I rarely write down my diagnoses, and there’s a reason. Still to this day, I have had diagnoses given to me and taken away, some putting “undiagnosed” in front new diagnoses in my medical charts while others were certain. I used to put so much pressure on getting the name, getting the diagnosis and THEN I would be able to go through recovery and my new way of living. I wanted some claim of community for what I experienced. But even when I got one, it didn’t change much for me.  I still heard from doctors “well, this isn’t an illness we can cure, so we can just help you cope with it.”  The longer I lived without diagnosis, the longer I realized that it would not ‘fix’ what I was experiencing in my daily life.  Now yes, I am very aware some illnesses have amazing treatment which you get from a proper diagnosis, and that a diagnosis can really validate the patient experience because it allows them to belong and justify their health struggles. But for so many, the diagnosis isn’t the “cure it” pill, but rather the name we get to identify with. In hindsight, I learned that a diagnosis was less of a magic wand, and more of an identity helper and validation tool. I know I relate to a few different chronic illness communities, and my doctors are doing all they can to help with my health’s symptomatic issues, so a word doesn’t hold as much weight to me anymore.

#2 Celebrate the Small Daily Wins, Not Your “Literal” Falls

So often, we focus on what our bodies limit us from doing, what our chronic illnesses have taken away from our lives.  And that Negative-Nancy mindset can do a lot of damage on your emotional wellbeing when all your mental energy is focused on what goes wrong in your day and your health. When one thing goes wrong, it can feel like a domino-effect, or in my case, my own literal falls (since that tends to happen a lot). But when you’ve lived with a chronic illness for years, you gain a retrospective mindset because you’re able to look back on the periods of bad and good health. It makes you realize that if you celebrated those wins, all those days—or even hours—of stable, good health, then you’d be able to feel achievement and pride.

You’d be able to realize the focus of your energy is better served on those good moments, instead of all the setbacks and bad days.  I remember hearing the notion “every day may not be a great day, but you can find something great in each day” and that was what I began to live by a few years into my health journey.  Even if the best thing that happened was that I got out of bed, it was at least one thing I did well that day. When I gave full over-the-top celebration on each of my little wins with my health, it made my mentality more positive. It would start to feel oddly annoying when I had health setbacks because I wasn’t focused on the bad it caused in my life for most each year. The goal was to never give my chronic illnesses more power than they already had, so daily mini-winning parties for me.

#3 Become Your Best Researcher, Advocate and Nurse (knowledge=EMpowerED)

Knowledge is power. You need to be able to fight for your rights, for what you need to best help your life with health struggles.  So much was bounced over me, especially when I was a teenager and still a minor in the eyes of the medical community. That may have been the case, but it was still my body, my health, and my life.  I was lucky…my mom is an incredible nurse and has instilled in me the idea that no one will be a better advocate than YOU, so ask all the questions, inquire and research anything that may be done for you, and always get a second opinion on major medical decisions. I was taught how to advocate for my medical needs, how to research on the treatment options, to ask accurate questions, and have intelligent discussions with my doctors.  But this is not something everyone knows right when their health declines, it’s a trait to learn and sharpen.  With hindsight, I know that my health deserved my research and support to improve. I hear from lots of young adults that work with InvisiYouth “I’m the best researcher and nurse for my chronic illnesses, because I know my health and life better than anyone.”

#4 Reminiscing About the Past Can Hurt Sometimes

We can always learn from our past, but when you have a specific marker that defines “before I got sick” and “after I got injured” your past can feel bittersweet. I used to always focus on my past and feel like I wasn’t progressing enough with my health, that my chronic illnesses had done so much damage to my life.  And in a way, that could be true. The dream of playing tennis competitively on the pro-circuit died, my social network diminished, and my physical health deteriorated. But it didn’t mean I wasn’t still living my life or I wasn’t proud of the life I was building. So, when I constantly was looking at what my illnesses had taken from me, I was damaging my emotional wellbeing, and that began to hurt. My past with pristine health is something I love, and now I look at it with a great deal of fondness. But the way I’ve handled it is to look at it in those two separate parts: the before and after. If I stay in a mindset of “what ifs” then I lose my positivity, and that is not something I am willing to do. I have learned over the years since my injury, I have learned to have respect for all the years of my life, and to never feel bad or ashamed of my illnesses. By doing that, I don’t focus on what my past looked like, but rather how I have strengthened into the woman I am, how I’ve become more empathic and how I have been able to thrive in my life. I focus on the now, while giving importance to the past and future when it relates to my memories and my dreams, or my medical history, of course!

#5 Let Yourself WallowBut You Only Get One Hour

People have this ideal notion that you’ve got to be happy all the time. That if you feel sadness as a direct effect of your chronic illness/disability, you are not fighting hard enough for your health. I started to feel like I needed to be positive, to always find the goodness in my struggles, because people were “inspired” by my inner fight and “motivated” by my positive outlook.  And while that is true, that is because I let myself grieve my old life and feel for the literal pain and discomfort I have each day.  I can be strong and positive because I know when to let myself feel bad.  With a decade of chronic illness-life under my belt, I can see it was a great decision to let myself wallow for all my chronic illnesses have pained me. But what I learned is now the advice I give: allow yourself time to wallow, but make sure it only maxs out at one hour. I give myself this time limit for a reason.  If I let myself continue to feel bad about my health struggles, it will fester and to climb out of that depressive dark hole is a huge challenge. But you should be allowed to experience all the emotions of life with health struggles. You are a human being and that spectrum of emotions deserves to be felt. It is something that has worked so well for me because I allow myself to feel all the sadness and mourning and pain that is physically tortuous on my health, but I never let it overtake me.  Sit in your emotions, but know you are in just as much control of your life as your chronic illness/disability is of your physical health. When I realized my own strength, but also allowed myself to feel bad, it allowed that positive mindset to shine, so let that positive focus to thrive be your superior emotion.

#6 Be Fearless to Help Yourself in Public. You Won’t See those Judgy Strangers Again

To this day, my friends will say they know the minimum about my health struggles—many of them not even knowing the extent till they came to InvisiYouth fundraisers or my public speaking engagements. But that decision was because I was always a private person, and never felt the details needed to be shared.  I relied on the invisible nature of my chronic illnesses so it would never be the first thing people noticed about me. But when my symptoms and health struggles expanded into the physical, everyone would notice, feel pity, or ask prying questions. After a couple years of worrying about what others thought, I spoke with my mom and she got real with me. “Why are you worrying about people’s opinions? You never see them again, and it’s just stressing you out unnecessarily.” I flipped a switch and stopped caring about the wandering eyes and whispered comments. We’ve got lots to worry about with chronic illness, so worrying about what other people are judging us for when they pass by should NOT be on the list. They are strangers and not substance to what makes you who you are. And let’s get real…even I fall victim to worrying about what others think on occasion.

Recently, I went into NYC for a brunch with this lovely British blogger while she, her older brother and her boyfriend were celebrating her brother’s birthday. At that time, I had to use a cane and on my commute, I used it and got lots of stares that it didn’t faze me. But the moment I got to the restaurant, I put the cane away to make sure they did not know my medical status. I hid the cane in my bag, suffered the few steps to our table and back outside without these three new friends knowing anything. And the second I was out of sight, I grabbed my cane. Even I have moments of self-doubt, but I don’t let them define me. I could have used my cane in front of them (her brother has one of the same chronic illnesses I do) but for that 20% of my day, I concealed my reality. That is okay…because 80% is greater than 20% and I made it a point to use my cane for all my meetings, family gatherings and shopping trips in the days after. Because I am fearlessly confident with my chronic illnesses, and moments don’t define a life!

#7 Even in the Hard Days, Just Try to Laugh Because It Helps You Cope

With InvisiYouth and in my daily life, I firmly believe that laughter is the best medicine. For me, I have truly seen the way my humor, or blunt sarcasm, has helped me cope with my chronic illnesses. When things get bad medically and you’re told your limitations, I found humor was not just a cushion from my harsh reality, but a way I could look at life.  Humor supports your emotions. And sometimes with all life can throw at you when you’re living with chronic illness, you just want to laugh so you don’t cry. But I also view laughter not just as literal laughing at my medical problems, but experiencing humorous moments too! When I wasn’t as mobile or active in my past, I would find TV shows, YouTube channels or movies that would make me laugh.  Even if it was as basic as TV show review podcasts, if it got me to laugh while my health struggles were tragic, then all was being done well.  Sometimes we need to take our chronic illnesses/ disability seriously, focus on how our bodies can manage hour-by-hour, handle new treatments or hospital stays. The need for humor in our lives should to be prominent too. How else can you handle diagnosis, setbacks and side effects unless you laugh at your bad days? In hindsight, I can easily say my dark humor is one of the largest factors that got me through my lowest lows, and got me to the stage of my new normal ten years later!

#8 Body Positivity ≠ 24/7 Body Confidence

It used to feel like such a challenge to remain confident about my body for a couple reasons. Firstly, I have a distinct “pre-illness” life I can remember before the injury. And I had a competitive athlete’s teenager physique, so there had to be a deep acceptance my body may never look that way again. Secondly, my health struggles are physically taxing, so I go from living with an invisible illness to an illness that morphed, damaged and scarred parts of my body. It’s literally painful to use my entire left side, and even though a decade into it, I’ve learned how to live this new normality with quality, it means I “workout to be in shape” more uniquely than most. But the truest way I’ve gained confidence with my body is finding an appreciation that it does work for me. I’m grateful when I can climb a flight of stairs because I remember when that wasn’t possible. I am the only one that must live in my skin, so if I’m not going to find my body beautiful, it won’t matter if anyone else does. So, I have learned over these 10 years to find confidence in the functional body I have to work with, instead of desperately desiring more toned legs or smaller hips and a slimmer face. And now, I have such a respect for what this body of mine is capable of, the battle scars I find sexy and the imperfections that make me the woman I am. This body has fought my chronic illnesses with me, and that helps with my body positive mindset.

#9 Ask for Help When You Need it and That Will Make You Stronger

How I wish I accepted this earlier! When I was in the early stages of health struggles, I hated asking for help. It felt like a defeat or failure. Like my hours of physical therapy, focus on treatments and doctor visits hadn’t worked and I wasn’t doing enough. But what took me years to realize was a simple fact: Even my friends without chronic illness/disability needed to ask for help at times. Now granted, my requests and needs are a bit more major and frequent, but looking back, I made my daily life harder than necessary to live without asking for help. I physically struggled walking and interacting in classes because I didn’t want anyone to know it was hard for me.

I strained my limitations to meet deadlines, which caused medical setbacks that left me weeks to recover.  But asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but rather, it is a sign of strength. You are so connected with your medical needs that you are willing to gain support to achieve goals. That makes you stronger than anyone because you know what your goals are and have passion to get things done, and those are signs of an independent and successful person. I started to become less afraid of saying “Can you help me?” or “Do you know how to adapt this to what I can do?” Word of advice: ask for help because you want to live your life with purpose, and while it’s totally normal to feel like you’re bothering people, realize each supporter will make you stronger.

#10 Don’t Fake Smile to Pacify Others. YOU are the Only One Living This Life

I could not have picked a better piece of reflection on my ten years of chronic illness life than this one. As I began to live my life with chronic illness longer and longer, my health became my identifier. I was no longer just Dominique, but the ‘sick’ friend. I wasn’t part of the conversation, but the full medical dictionary to the questions thrown at me. And the more I interacted with “healthy/able-bodied” people, the more I ‘put on’ a happy face. I felt guilty if other people knew how bad things were medically because it felt like they were going to start pitying me more too. I pacified others constantly being “the happy, strong girl with health struggles” who never complained and always said “it’s okay.” But the only person that it was affecting was me.  It was me who had to put extra energy into “feeling as healthy as I looked” and that wasn’t fair. I learned since I was the one person that had to live inside this body all year-round, I had to find ways to adapt to it.  And if my illness struggles bothered people, if my realness was too much, then that had to be okay, and they were not the right people to have in my life. Don’t hide how you are feeling from other people. Life isn’t perfect, it is multi-faceted and messy at times, and don’t make everyone around you comfortable when you are not. Live your life the way you want to live it. And the people that love and respect you, the people that are the most compassionate are the same people that will stick around during all your “faces of emotions” and will open their minds and hearts to empathize with your experiences.

When you were not born with a disability or chronic illness, 10 years of health struggles is a long time.  It takes up such a part of way you live and view the world and yourself.  And that lets you take a step back, and learn and appreciate all you’ve experienced. Dig deep and you will be proud of the thriving life you make for yourself with all its medical quirks and adaptations, trust me!

~Dominique

The Catch 22 of Illness and Disability Portrayals in Media: All Representation is Good Representation vs. Accuracy Only, Please

February 25, 2018

When I get a rare bit of time to relax, I sometimes just want to put my feet up and watch some TV. And when those flashy, at times 100-level volume, commercials come on, my interest is usually only peaked when a new movie trailer popped on the screen . Well…trailers or one of my staple favorites commercials like the Swiffer commercials with Lee and Morty comes on for a good laugh. I always like to see what stories are being told in film, and what may be worth a watch. Whether I’m in need of a good laugh or cry, a love story or comedy, or some intense action–never a horror film since I’m too easily spooked–trailers are my swipe left or swipe right decider.

In the last couple years, I’ve noticed what feels like a push in films that have led characters and plot lines focused on chronic illnesses and disabilities. You would imagine I would overwhelmingly love seeing this, after all, I founded InvisiYouth Charity where I’m constantly pushing and motivating for equal representation. But as I watch these trailers, the feeling is mixed between a quick boost of excitement and a similarly immediate drop of frustration.

I feel flooded with a ping-pong of thoughts:

  • Wow, finally a film bringing a lead character with a rare, not main stream-known disease.
  • Are there seriously no disabled actors that can actually be hired to actually portray the actual illness or disability?
  • Representation is great for young adult health conversations and awareness!
  • Does every chronically ill or disabled person in a movie have to be the center of a love story of overcoming some massive life crisis? Can’t they just be a character with a storyline that happens to be sick or disabled?
  • It’s brilliant getting conversations going about young adults living with illness. They are just young adults like anyone else too.
  • These actors aren’t acting like an authentic sick or disabled person. Someone with that illness definitely cannot do that, it’s not true.

For me, it’s a Catch 22 scenario with my sentiments on what truly matters most: awareness or accuracy.  And maybe I maintain an overly positive mindset and believe that both are valuable, and try to find the best in what is coming out in the media. I want to believe that, while I have a ton of issues with the inaccuracy of portrayals and lack of diverse casting, there can be some good in this wave of films addressing characters with disabilities or illnesses, especially for the young adults that are watching them.  Just in the purity of having more people watching films showcasing lives lived by people with disabilities and illnesses; that while the health stories of these individuals may be more complex and unique, but their life stories are just like anyone else.  The more eyes we can get from them general public to see this community, the more understanding and change that can arise from it.

Photos Courtesy of IMBD

If no films were coming out with characters living with chronic illnesses or disabilities, then the ease in which people can talk about the health subjects diminishes. When I suggest to young adults talking with friends about their health struggles, I tell them sometimes it can help to show their friends what that daily journey is like.

And often, young people tell me they want to reference what’s sort of similar to their life and portrayed in the media, the films and TV shows they watch, with characters living with similar conditions.  

 

You can have young people tell their friends to watch the 5th season of Freeform’s THE FOSTERS because a main character, Jesus, is living with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and the show is displaying an entire arc about the process of recovery personally, socially, academically and emotionally. Actor, Noah Centineo, and the writers, talked often about the preparation that went into bringing accuracy and justice to this plot line.

Then we go to another show, Canadian-born (and globally famous) teen TV drama, Degrassi, where so many different story arcs for decades showcase what various illnesses and disabilities could look like for teens.  From characters living with mental health struggles like depression and OCD, to illnesses like leukemia and cystic fibrosis, DEGRASSI prides itself on tackling topics that show diversity in all its forms. While hiring actors living with these health struggles lacks, Degrassi breaking stigmas to open the conversations in real life, to create more understanding, open minds and change.

However, a line needs to be drawn when it comes to this wave of media using characters with illness or disability to romanticize or dramatize the storylines.

Health struggles should not be a plot device to add more complexity to a storyline or character, because it reality, that is not how it works.  As someone living with an illness, I don’t get the luxury to “turn it on or off” when it suits the situations in my life…and there certainly isn’t any romantic background music playing when I have to tell people about my health struggles.  This is where accuracy completely disintegrates and it can tarnish an entire film, when these storylines lack realism.  So yes, while I can be happy for opening the door of conversation and normalizing the visibility of illnesses and disabilities mainstream, they are done so without accuracy. And that’s should not continue.

Last year, films came out and addressed lead characters living with disability and illness…but the characters and storylines where not only lacking in accuracy to the daily life of someone with that health struggle, but also the actors were able-bodied and healthy.

That inaccuracy may not be apparent to audiences not living with health issues, but for anyone living with any sort of illness or disability, the films and actors are like neon lights pointing out the wrongs.  With WONDER, while a beautiful storyline, it has an able-bodied character portraying the genetic disorder Treacher Collins Syndrome.

And with EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, the immune-deficiency disease SCID, Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, is also portrayed by an actress not living with illness—and when this film was coming out, all over our twitter we saw reactions from the Spoonie community talking about the major inaccuracies of the illness portrayal and character lifestyle.  “It’s so unrealistic” I would hear youth say. What made it feel even worse was that a general audience would never notice the flaws and assume this is how relationships and life can look for any of their friends with illnesses or disabilities. Stereotyping the “illness lifestyle” is what continues to enable ignorance, lack of understanding and empathy for change.

Even a film that I enjoyed, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, lacks realism and has two able-bodied actors without illness portraying osteosarcoma/subsequent amputation and Stage 4 Thyroid Cancer.  I enjoy the film and book as pieces of fictional storytelling. I love the love story of the two characters, the satire in which teenage illness is discussed among all the characters, because while not accurate at times, the tone is so similar to my outlook. I tell friends this movie has moments that are relatable to the experience, and it is a film that can get my friends to feel comfortable asking me questions about my health because of that.

In a way, films and TV shows that have what I call “the health struggle plot line” need to be used as talking points or references to help bring that destigmatizing conversation WITH A DISCLAIMER.  There needs to be a ‘fine print’ comment every time you want to use a film or character to reference…saying “well this character is living life with an illness similar to mine…yes, it’s not super accurate, but it can show you a bit of what that feels like for me.” I always use the disclaimer method, when using media and film to try and explain to friends what my relationships and lifestyle can be like, and that can feel disheartening because there’s so much in daily life I need to teach others around me as I adapt, I shouldn’t have to do this with film portrayals too.

In my opinion, it’s disheartening that in 2018, we still have to put a disclaimer to these storylines, that they cannot be made accurately.  And yes, let’s giving the benefit of the doubt because everyone’s experience with an illness or disability is different. Two people with the same diagnosis do not respond, treat, or adapt to life the same ways…so one portrayal in a film may match up exactly to my life, but not someone else’s with my diagnosis. That’s the way uniqueness in society works, so it’s all about finding common ground and working from there.

Look at a movie coming out next month, MIDNIGHT SUN, where the female lead is living with a rare genetic disorder, Xeroderma Pigmentosum.  Is it wonderful that rare diseases are FINALLY getting some screen time and going into mainstream films so more people can talk about it? Absolutely! But how much does it suck that the portrayal is by an actress without the illness, and the illness is romanticized, instead of realistically portrayed? A lot!

To see films using illness as a plot point for romance and drama, that is what needs to stop because it’s not realistic.  How about films just happen to have their lead characters living with an illness or disability, and something else causes the drama or romance to build? That would be interesting AND original…two things films are always looking to create.

But to me, what matters most, what it truly gets down to, is the lack of opportunity for actors with disabilities or illnesses to portray what is this life and journey accurately. So often, characters are developed for a film or TV show where they are designed to have an illness or disability and the actor that gets the part has zero connection to it.

They are not chronically ill or disabled and have to “portray” the role without any personal experience.  It seems so contradictory to not hire an actor with a disability to portray a character with a disability.  There are so many talented young people around the world living with chronic illnesses and disabilities that are actors and they should be the first choice for hire!  These individuals should be the ones on the casting list, and it’s for not just accuracy in the storyline, but also it continues to build inclusivity in the industry.

And even more disheartening is how true this is when it takes me FOREVER to come up with just a couple examples in my head of TV shows or films with accurate casting. It shouldn’t take much effort to list off accurately casted films or shows. When the industry says, “oh there aren’t that many actors to fill the need” or “it would be hard to assist or adapt to these actors” I have to call their bluff and say that’s such a ridiculous copout. Heck, our latest Celebrity Ambassador, Melissa Johns, is a British disability activist and actress, and she’s such a talented actress!

Look at the positives when a film or show are accurately casted. The Freeform show SWITCHED AT BIRTH, was centered around many characters that were deaf or hearing impaired (the actress Katie Leclerc who portrays one of the protagonists, Daphne, lives with hearing loss due to Meniere’s disease, an illness also given to her character). The variety of communication like American Sign Language, is a great example of how to integrate differences between those living with deafness or illness and those who do not. And bonus… actors like Katie Leclerc, Sean Berdy, Ryan Lane, and Marlee Matlin, have actual hearing impairments so it was accurate and inclusively casted!  The show feels even more authentic, passionate, and inspired because the characters are portrayed by individuals with the exact illness and disability.

Wouldn’t the film industry want to bring that much truth and emotion out of their audiences, bring that much notoriety and conversation and impact society enough to make lasting change?

I think it should, and that is the main point of contention in this international debate.

That is why I really want to believe in the positives of both seeing all this representation of illness/disability in films and TV, while also seeing the benefits of accuracy in storylines when illness or disability are being brought into the fold.

While you can either find representation or accuracy more important in films, what truly matters is that there needs to be more opportunity for actors with illnesses and disabilities.  There needs to be more roles written to portray this community, with requirements of accurate casting. There needs to be more opportunities for these fantastic actors to be hired to show their talent playing any roles, whether their illness or disability is the focal point or not.

My truest goal is that we can see films or TV shows that have actors with illnesses and disabilities on a regular basis, a true progression that needs to be made to show all the facets of societal diversity.

~Dominique

A Season of Giving, A Time of Gratitude for All the Often Unsung Heroes in Our Spoonie Lives

December 20, 2017

 As the holiday season rolls upon us, we are all bombarded with some holiday spirit in some shape or form. Sometimes it may not feel that jolly or cheerful, when that serious case of F.O.M.O. kicks in because your health or limitations may prevent you from being the #1 social member of your friends. That’s gotten to me loads of times in the past when I had to give the “spoonie no” because my body prevented me from taking part. But as years have done on, and I’ve settled into my adapted-normal way of life, I have come to note that my sentiment of missing out should not be my focus. Not just during the holidays, but for all 365 days of the year.

I have always been a lover of the wonder and joy that the holiday season brings…seriously the Hallmark Channel Christmas movie Marathon is a background staple in my house. All that fresh pine and cold, crisp air, that rich warmth of Christmas light illuminated around while being surrounded by family, that make makes you feel a bit more wonder-filled than any other time. It is from my love of blissful optimism of this time of year that my focus remains on all the good times, fun moments and what I’m capable of and grateful for as the year comes to an end. When you deliberately choose to focus on what you have and are grateful for, the more your attitude will be optimistic and you’ll be able to feel that holiday spirit.

As I let that Christmas energy spread, I get time to reflect on what to be grateful for, some major gratitude. Usually, I’m told to be grateful for those moments of health, of my body functioning well. And that is something I am thankful for as this medically-crazy year ends. But I want to show love to that second layer of my health journey, my caregiver inner circle. All too often, I’m complimented on how I adapt my health struggles, and the platform my organization has given for the young adult “medically unique” community to live fun, fulfilled and badass lives. And while I appreciate the kindness, I always want to say, “there’s so much love and support in my life, that’s why I’m capable of doing all I do.

The support systems we develop as young adults with chronic illnesses, injuries and disabilities are the unsung heroes in our daily existence. They are the individuals that see us in our vulnerable and courageous moments in life, they ones who advise us on our life choices and stay by our sides to get us through all the hurdles and cheer us on when we reach a milestone.  They come in all forms: parents, siblings, loved ones, friends, caregivers, doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, talk therapists, and more.  These supporters are like secret ingredients that make for the perfect medical recipe for recovery and lifestyle success when living with illness or disability.

As I looked back on 2017, I noticed that it was one of a lot of medical complexities for me personally.  Going into my ninth year as someone with health struggles post-injury, I was able to really look at all the people who’ve been there for me, who’ve stepped up during my resurfacing injuries, and new health battles.  The people who’ve been part of my story since day one, and those who’ve joined along the way. I couldn’t reflect on 2017 without talking about the people who’ve helped pull me through a tough medical year, and have assisted me being able to go into 2018 with more clarity and adapted normalcy again.

I’ve been thankful for my friends, both new and old for always being there for me.  When many of friends were confused by my health struggles when I was younger, I had lots of people pull away, using their lack of understanding and insecurity about my health as a means to an end. But the friends I have now, my loyal group of funny and trusting friends, have always been open-minded, asked questions, just gave me a shoulder to lean on, and a stupid joke to laugh at.  Some were friends before my injury, others during the mist of my medial chaos, while more are from the chronic illness community that’ve joined my life since I launched InvisiYouth.

I’ve been thankful for my doctors and clinicians who’ve been part of this crazy journey since I was fifteen with a swollen blue foot and hand, especially my physical therapists.  When your doctor count goes as high as mine does, you tend to have a special place in your heart for those that truly dedicate themselves to making your health improve, to beating the symptoms and setbacks alongside you.  I’ve had the same physical therapists since day one, basically seven years, and it is their constant fixture in my treatment, especially this year as I walked back into the PT world yet again, that really made me grateful for them as they pushed me and made me laugh through it all.

I’ve been thankful for my sister, who’s always been a supporter and warm heart throughout all the changes that life can bring.  She’s been a best friend that’s always made me continue being young and energized while my health was not.  I got to grow up and experience a semblance of normal teen years because my sister made sure I got to be part of it.

I’ve been thankful for my parents who’ve pulled me through the ups and downs my health brought.  For my dad’s ability to come into my PT sessions, tell me jokes and make me laugh when my body wanted to give up. For my mom’s great heart, dedication and undying love as she brought me to every doctor, talked out medical decisions, showed me the positive in each situation, so I always believed in myself.  My parents are the greatest people I know, the best duo I’m grateful raised me to give back and love with a whole heart.

It is these people, their support of me that often goes unnoticed by the outside world, but it never goes unnoticed by me.

These unsung heroes offer their support, expertise, humor, shoulders to cry on and guidance without ever being asked.  They are the individuals I am most grateful for as the year closes, and as I’m moving into a new invigorated chapter of life, especially in a new exciting time for InvisiYouth Charity, I have these people, and so many others that aren’t even mentioned, to thank.

Gratitude for your support of my health, my organization, my dreams and just of me.  And spoonies: take that time to show some gratitude to your support systems, to your unsung heroes this holiday season.  It’ll surely get you in the spirit of getting 2017 ending on a high note and 2018 starting off in a positive footing.

~Dominique

The Invisible Illness Chronicles: It Can Be Exhausting to Feel Like You Need To Act Healthy When You Don’t Feel Healthy

October 17th 2017

I constantly get questions about the hacks to living with chronic illness (I mean, that’s what InvisiYouth Charity’s mission in life is all about). Those questions double when it comes to life with an invisible illness. It only seemed appropriate that with part of my monthly blog I would wrote some blogs on topics surrounding invisible illness.

At InvisiYouth, we constantly promote the vitally-needed change of inclusivity on all chronic illnesses. To treat physical health and mental health exactly the same. To show equal support and aid regardless of visibility. To note that invisible illnesses are note just of the mind, but also of the body too.  So…to honor if you will, the fact that I live with one foot in both the visible and invisible physical health struggles, I’ll be occasionally posting articles on the unseen struggles. These are appropriately titled “The Invisible Illness Chronicles.”

The biggest struggles living with invisible illness (besides the actual illness itself, of course) is how you can look so healthy and feel so horrible. It can be like you’re living in a sound proof booth without the mic on, everyone can see you, but no one can hear what’s going on. For myself, it’s this weird concept of dealing with all these medical symptoms affecting my nervous system, muscles and vascular system but no one can truly see the damage it takes on my body at all times.

So when my life has to involve the outside world, specially those not in my close inner circle, I feel like I have to put up the mask, to adapt and get through my schedule for the day. I go into business meetings, and conference calls with potential advertisers and Skype calls with older youth health advocates and subconsciously, I put up a front as the “healthy nonprofit owner” because that’s what I know what I look like.  Sometimes I’m driving to meetings with slippers and sunglasses, isotoner braces on my ankle, hand and knee, but the second I park my car, I have to take all that off, strap on heels, and put on the boss lady smile to power through meetings.

Now I say “I have to” like it’s an obligation, but this is a decision I make out of societal structure if I’m honest.  I look completely healthy on some days, but anatomically, my RSD and connective tissue does not reflect that at all.  I am living with a chronic illness that I have to adapt my entire way of life around it, but the people who do not know me would not know that because I’ve had nine years to master a “new normal” way at life.

Truly, it is exhausting to act like I am healthy, to walk, sit, talk, and be the healthy person my physical body makes everyone think I am.  But also, it is equally exhausting to have to explain to every single new person that I meet what my medical situation truly is, to tell them about my chronic illness.  So I have make a decision: should I be exhausted by having to try to explain my health to people who I’m just meeting, or be exhausted by acting as healthy as I look?

I choose the later.

When you are living with an invisible illness, it can be really hard to be given any true empathy because no one can gage your medical situation by looking at you.  No one that is not a family member, sibling, caregiver, boyfriend/girlfriend, or friend knows about the health struggles you live with on a minute by minute basis, so they honesty think everything is completely fine with you.  It becomes and ‘all on you’ situation because the world will not automatically feel for your chronic illness because it cannot see it.

You need to dig deep in yourself, find strength and sympathy in yourself for your own journey with your illness.  Find comfort in those around the world that are also living with your invisible illness that can relate to your truth.

It’s a two-fold community you need:  get your supporters who can build you up like family and friends that are by your side because they love you, and get others in your life living the same journey of invisible illness that relate to you.

That is why I make the conscious decision to put on the mask when I need to be the healthy nonprofit owner that my physical body says I am on some days, to walk into meetings with sponsors or fellow charity owners and I will meet with them for hours of work, getting back into the office completely exhausted and dealing with symptoms and side effects for hours of recovery.

I repeat, it is so beyond exhausting to act as healthy as I look from both a medical standpoint and mental standpoint because my entire body physically will hurt from the trauma I put onto it to “act healthy” while I also put myself under stress from people just not relating to the situations I am going through.

But there is a bright side to all of this.  When I get back to my office, I’m on a mental rush of all the good things that will come from the work that I’m doing, from the philanthropic work I do each day for the young people I get to help.

Also, I sometimes feel like I have to act as healthy as I look when I give speeches to teens, or meet up with old friends.  And the funniest thing is that for those hours, none of them will ever know about my health…that is until I reveal that I am living with an invisible illness!  It is absolutely amazing when I pull up my photos of the physical symptoms of living with a neurovascular condition and the physical symptoms that sometimes to plague my body that sway the pendulum over to the visible illness category.

It is amazing to see the way people treat me completely changes once they can actually see my illness. And that’s so wrong if I’m honest! There is just an entire new level of recognition on these high schoolers’ faces when these young people can finally see that I am someone that lives with a chronic illness but also lives a completely fulfilled life…I just live it on my own terms the way my body allows, regardless of what society says is “normal.”

There are so many days I wish I could yell out to the world, take some sort of magic wand and immediately change how society looks at those it deems ‘different’ in one swoop.  That invisible illnesses are not something to fear or be confused by, but something to learn from and give empathy to like everything else in life.  No one should feel obligated to hide their health, it should just be an automatically understood element to someone’s lifestyle.

Everyone is unique, and if we celebrated uniqueness, then we shouldn’t have a problem embracing that when we meet people, because we would constantly be learning.

I always say that living with an invisible illness is like a game of “Where’s Waldo?” The problem is that none of these people were told to were the signature red-and-white striped shirts and black glasses so no one can find them among the crowds throughout the world.  It is our job as a society to become vocal and talk so we’re found, and to change the stigmas surrounding invisible illnesses of all kinds.

~Dominique

Spotlight Story Program: Louise’s Story

Meet Louise Cooper

We’ve gotten to know Louise first as one of the cool British health and lifestyle bloggers that followed InvisiYouth, but we are getting to know her even better as a member of the InvisiYouth team for this winter’s Superhero Series Winter Games this December!  She’s an Ehlers Danlos Syndrome warrior that’s found ways to balance her love of sport and travel with her illnesses, and her open honestly makes her one to watch in our book.

My name is Louise, I’m originally from Essex, England. I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, PoTS, Chiari and a whole host of other conditions in 2015 and am still under investigation for a variety of things!

I have always been a “sporty” person, I didn’t find out about my EDS (a connective tissue disorder that can affect the skin, joints, muscles and vascular system with hyper-mobility and hyperelasticity) until three years ago when I was 25, but have been in and out of hospital my whole life and had a back brace for scoliosis at the age of 12 for a few years. The only time I didn’t have to wear my back brace was when I was exercising, so, if there was a sport – I did it! I was also a competitive swimmer throughout my teens, I even made it to nationals (albeit in a relay team by HEY, it still counts!). Unfortunately, after various immune issues and bouts of glandular fever and CMV my exercise started to tail off in my late teens and early 20s.

I held down a full-time job for 5 years, bought my own apartment and car, I had everything I needed! Things came to a head around 18 months ago and my body just said ENOUGH, I was working ridiculous hours at a job in London with the commute, and not looking after myself much. The average person would burn out, let alone someone with a chronic illness, but I guess that’s just the fight in me.

So I started back with physio, some days I’m fine, some days I’m not! I like someone who gives me physio exercises based around the gym – I just respond better that way, I like to be challenged and push myself further however it is SO important to do this correctly and under supervision. Physio will always be a part of my life as I will always have ups and downs in my health but I dont see this as a negative, I learn each time what I can do to strengthen or protect my body in order to prevent or minimize thedisruptionto my body for the next time.

I have found it’s important to use supports, straps and anything else for your physio exercises and gym routines. This will always give you the confidence to know you are safe while exercising! I currently wear, finger, x 2 wrist, knee and back supports when working out. While there’s not an awful lot I can do about my ligaments and tendons, I can strengthen and tone the muscles around my body to get them performing as best as possible! Being back in the gym the last two years hasn’t always been easy. I’ve a fair share of blips along the way with disc tears, bulges and tarlov cysts now appearing, but this has only made me more determined to keep going! Keeping mobile and active reduces my pain, but there is a very careful balance, I have to make sure I dont overdo it and listen to my body!

I also have to make sure that I listen to my health not just through exercise, but through my diet and medications as well.

By health, I mean nutrition, taking my tablets and everything in between. I’ve always had food intolerances, but recently these have become a lot worse. I don’t believe in cutting out EVERYTHING from your diet, it’s everything in moderation and finding out what works for you.

My motto is – listen to yourself. I find my body tells me what I need but generally, I’ll eat meat, fresh veg and a small portion of carbs. Its about trial and error and finding what works for you, and you really, really do have to persevere, it won’t change in a week, it has to be a lifestyle change in order for it to work.

Possibly most importantly – Take your medication!! They are prescribed for a reason – and I know this can be hard, I am forgetful, this is something I’ve really had to work on! It sounds SO easy and its not that I don’t want to take them it just becomes – I’ll do it in a minute! How do I manage it now? I leave my tablets in my room and kitchen, if there staring at me, I can’t avoid them!

When living with chronic illness, it not only can take a toll on your physical health but also your mental health. My mental health impacts on my ability to participate in my exercise plans and my dietary programs. If I am feeling pessimistic (which we are all entitled to at times) or having a bad day, I am less likely to want to go to the gym or look after myself as well or cook my dinner.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nobody in the world is 100% positive all day everyday, but for the most part, I think it is important to have a Positive Mental Attitude (PMA). Even on my bad days, I always try and find a positive. For this reason, I usually have flowers around the house – if I can’t think of anything else nice about my day or if I’m feeling low, I can always look at flowers to give me a “pick me up.”  Negative thoughts cannot change what has happened or the current situation you may be in or what your future may hold. But, what can change it? Trying.

Trying everything, and anything thrown your way.

I moved/travelled to New Zealand, started promotional modeling, made a great group of friends, went on adventures, hiked 4 hours in a bush, appeared on TV (albeit an extra!), my health was the best it had ever been! I’ve recently started a forum along with some Chronic Illness friends and we will be uploading beginners home workouts and basic physio (all are qualified, I will just be performing the routines).

But one day I woke up unable to move and spent the next 2-3 weeks in and out of hospital and have since, pack up my room and sold my furniture in New Zealand and returned to Essex to give my best chance of recover and further testing on what we believe may be neurological.

One thing that I’ve always found incredibly hard – and still do – is I look totally “normal”. I don’t have a cast on my leg or have visible scars so I often hear the phrase “but you don’t look sick”. I’m quite open about my health and try and raise as much awareness as possible, by posting “normal” pictures and trying to change the way illnesses are perceived – just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there!

Am I nervous, anxious and scared? Of course! But I’ll keep trying and determined to keep going, if I’ve learnt anything its that were a lot stronger than we realize and give ourselves credit for.

That is why I’m so appreciative of being asked by InvisiYouth to be a part of their Charity Team for this past Superhero Series Triathlon for disability adaptive sports.  And while I couldn’t compete that day, I am thrilled to be part of the new InvisiYouth Charity Team for the upcoming Superhero Series Event this December, Superhero Winter Games. The work they do is very close to my heart and something I’m so passionate about – I wish I would have had this connection to the community in my teens – before the days of social media!! I cannot wait to support InvisiYouth in the Superhero Winter Games run and hopefully raise a bit of awareness too!

Spotlight Story Program: Shira’s Story

Meet Shira Strongin

There is no joke around the statement that 18 year old Shira Strongin is an OG Sick Chick…in fact, she took her personal experiences growing up with chronic illnesses and built an entire international community surrounding the exact name, The Sick Chicks, all about empowering young women living with illness and disability.  When she’s not motivating others, Shira is motivating those law makers on Capital Hill in Washington DC, fighting hard to make changes that will positively impact the lives of so many youth with chronic illness in the USA.  And now she’ll be going to university in the country’s capital, so female illness empowerment is about to get a lot louder!  

“There’s no treatment. I’m sorry.”

Words no one wants to hear, but especially no child or teenager. But it’s the reality of living with many complex, life-threatening diseases. Growing up I knew I was sick, there was something off that doctors continued to miss, but it wasn’t until a spine injury that was a trigger event, that we realized how sick I was. It turns out I have a vascular subtype of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and other rare comorbidities.

Instead of being in school or doing “typical teenage things” I’ve spent my adolescence in and out of the hospital fighting for my life. I soon realized how absolutely uncontrollable my health was, and decided to turn to advocacy as a way to take back control. I might not be able to change my immediate situation, but I sure as hell would make sure I impacted others’ situations and impacted future health care.

(*InvisiYouth Editing Note: This post was written in August while the fight for Cures Now was happening, a piece of legislation that has now been passed. And yet even currently so much is currently being discussed about healthcare in the United States, so keep on reading why Shira knows healthcare advocacy needs a youth voice!*)

Currently there is important legislation that is a revolution in healthcare that could completely change how complex, rare, and life threatening diseases are treated.

Instead of having to hear the phrase, “There’s no treatment. I’m sorry.” We could have access to previously off-label medication.

There will be research being done.

There is hope for us all, and because this is our future, we must take a stand.

“Congress is working together on a nonpartisan issue that will have a profound effect on the lives of all Americans. H.R. 6, the 21st Century Cures Act, will bring our health care innovation infrastructure into the 21st Century, delivering hope for patients and loved ones and providing necessary resources to researchers to continue their efforts to uncover the next generation of cures and treatments.” – Mission Statement, House Committee of Energy Commerce, 21st Century Cures

Is it just me or do you get chills reading that paragraph?

Finding advocacy allowed me take control of an uncontrollable situation (my health.) Now, one of the pieces of legislation I’m most passionate about and have fought the hardest for is facing it’s day in the Senate.

~ What do we want? Cures! When do we want them? Right. Freaking. Now. ~

We are in crunch time. 21st Century Cures has passed the House, and is now finally going to the Senate after being delayed quite a few times. August is our final time to push for this important piece of legislation. You might be asking things like, “Well, I’m not sick, so why does this affect me?” or, “I don’t have a rare disease, so why do I care?” I’m here to answer those questions.

Health legislation affects everyone. Yes, you might not be sick. Today. But health can change in the matter of seconds, and (God forbid) it ever happens to you, you’ll be hoping that 21st Century Cures in action to produce treatments and cures. Cures are for everyone NOT just rare disease patients. This affects cancer patients, this even affects the hot topic zika virus. But, OPEN Act (something I’m incredibly passionate about that gives bio pharmaceutical companies incentive to make off label medication on label for rare diseases that otherwise wouldn’t have treatments) is only for rare disease patients.

So then comes the question again, “Why should I care?” Because, 1 in 10 people have a rare disease. By that statistic everyone knows someone with a rare disease. So, get involved and care for your bother, your mom, your niece – whoever it may be because without these vital pieces of legislation they might me in the same situation as me…stuck living on borrowed time and who knows how long that lasts for?

For more information about Sick Chicks, the international community all about empowering young women with all types of chronic illnesses, visit their website, or go to their social media pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

 

Why Mental Health is Important to Our Brand: Health=Health

with Guest Contributor Brittany Foster

June 27, 2017

Every so often, I get told, “It must be so hard to have InvisiYouth focus on physical and mental health. They are completely different.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth!

My response…health is health, regardless of it focusing on the mind, or the body. In fact, I have always been a firm believer that you should encourage youth to always take care of their health and talk openly about any struggles or illnesses they face. And that does not mean these should be different conversations. If s someone goes into a hospital for IV treatments, everyone around them would show empathy, understanding and feel somewhat of an ease asking questions. But oftentimes that same courtesy does not apply to an individual going to talk therapy for their mental health struggles.

What is not seen goes without support or conversation and THAT NEEDS to change! What I like to say is that this: the way we respond to illness, particularly the distinction between physical and mental health, is taught at a young age. When we are sick, our parents as us, “Where does it hurt? Show me where it hurts.” And we immediately point to the parts of our body with pain and symptoms. The notion of SEEING illness is engrained into us, and that resonates as an incorrect ‘common sense’ for life. People immediately associate illness with the physical, with being able to see it, to notice symptoms, but when it’s invisible, whether psychologically or physically invisible, it’s a concept we have a hard time grasping.

At InvisiYouth, I explain that we should have our teens and young adults explain their illness in a way that makes them comfortable, never feel forced to show their illness. If we explain symptoms and not show them, people will begin to give empathy because someone will explain their illness, and relate to the description. Don’t show your illness, talk about it!

For InvisiYouth it’s simple…health is health, and illness is illness. It does not matter whether it is a type of cancer or cystic fibrosis, PTSD or bipolar disorder, these are all different health struggles that young people need to adapt, improve and live with in their lives. And since we are a nonprofit that supports teens and young adults with ALL chronic illnesses to navigate life with illness, to gain the tools, knowledge and support to live fun, fulfilled youthful lives, InvisiYouth is always going to extend itself to teens and young adults with health struggles of all kinds (physical and mental, visible and invisible).

And I must say, it truly makes me beyond thrilled that mental health is being discussed more in a positive and accepting light. It’s slowly losing the taboo status, even in the two years since I launched InvisiYouth Charity.

It warms my heart to see so many teens and young adults in the community confidently talking about mental health and invisible illnesses, addressing the struggles they face, their different types of treatment plans, and advocating for awareness and improvements.

But as the conversation grows, as it begins to dissolve the stigmas, we are faced with another issue: the misconception that mental and physical health cannot be discussed or treated as one in the same. I know from InvisiYouth’s community that especially with the teen and young adult population, physical and mental health struggles coincide quite often.

With InvisiYouth Charity, we want to raise more awareness and understanding surrounding the idea that physical and mental health struggles can go hand-in-hand. That a lot of young people living with physical chronic illness also have to work through different mental health health illnesses and hardships. It should not be a shock that when young people are dealing with chronic illnesses that it takes a toll on them emotionally.

One of the young adults we’ve worked with from the very beginning knows this firsthand. Brittany Foster, one of our OG Spotlight Story Program writers, lives with conditions such as congenital heart defects like right aortic arch and large VSD, and pulmonary hypertension that has affected her physical in a variety of ways. But she also discusses openly that the emotional toll it took resulting in her also dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“The thing with trauma is, it doesn’t just leave,” Brittany says.  “You can’t just get over it and you can’t just move on that easily. There will be periods of your life when the trauma and emotion and and strong, and there will be periods of your life when it’s the farthest from your though.”

This is such a true factor that many people, both professionally and in our spoonie personal lives, do not comprehend.  That when you go through such traumatic events with your illness, and the procedures and diagnoses that you receive, it begins to build up and can affect your mental health if you do not get proper help or treatment.  Brittany talks about this duality stating:

“For me, PTSD also looks like a girl who is a pro at doctor appointments. The girl who has everything together and can explain her medical needs and diagnosis without hesitation. It looks like walking out of the doctor’s office completely fine and then going home, only to spend hours crying about what appears to be nothing but is actually every single emotion that you wanted to feel in that office flooding out all at once.”

When people can notice your physical illness, they can discredit your mental health struggles, making them seem to be of lesser value or importance to treat because it is not seen.  But in reality, without a strong mental health, your physical health can also take a toll.  Even worse and more confusing at times in when your physical illness is not even visible, like I had to live with for many years during my teens.  Often my friends could not see my illness, all I could was describe my RSD, but it wasn’t visible and that built up struggles I worked through.

Many teens and young adults with chronic illnesses, like Brittany, have to live in this duality of illness, that they need to be supported as a whole person with struggles affecting their physical and mental health.  Whether it’s talk therapy, writing, the arts, sport programs, or even integrative programs like meditation…finding a right fit is critical for success.  At InvisiYouth, I often will tell young people and their support networks that we will find the types of activities that will help improve one’s mental health while also accommodating the barriers that certain illnesses bring.  

“Finding ways to deal with my traumatic moments has been difficult,” she says. “I do a lot of work through writing, talking openly about it with people I trust, realizing that I am accepted for all those parts of me, and talking through it with people who understand what it is like to live with a chronic condition that can be life threatening.”

Brittany also found sharpened her voice through her experience with PTSD, finding a way to become a strong medical advocate not just for herself, but for so many that follow her journey. She is a prime example of motivating young people to be open about their illnesses and struggles, to learn from their experiences and shine this needed light on the way mental and physical health are perceived. Brittany and I must think alike because she said something that resonated with me, especially as I sat to write this month’s blog post about InvisiYouth’s dedication to mental health awareness and support for the young adult and teen community:

“What keeps you moving forward through all the trauma and the emotions, should be the fact that you are HAVING these emotions. These feelings mean you are actually LIVING.”

I could not agree more with this idea, that even with all the pain (both emotionally and physically) a young person may feel during their medical journey, it is important to know that having those feelings means you are moving forward, you are fighting for ownership and improvement in your life! I often say that you cannot treat the whole individual without looking at their physical and mental health, so it is vital to treat all of a person.

A person needs both their body and mind to succeed in life, to have fun and be fulfilled, so it’s time that charities, companies and society as a whole take notice of this and support health as a wide spectrum of illnesses, both physical and mental, invisible and visible.  What you cannot see is just as important as what you can see!

 

~Dominique

“That Looks So Cool, How Did You Come Up With That?” The Fashion Hacks and Tips For Those With Illness

May 30, 2017

Way before I got injured and before I ran my first fundraiser, my dream job was one of two options: a professional tennis player, or a fashion magazine editor. I loved the ability to describe myself in clothes, to layer and accentuate how I wanted to look and feel in a moment. And as I’ve grown and life and RSD illness has happened, I’ve expanded my interest in philanthropy out of a pastime and into a career but that love of fashion hasn’t changed. As a teen, in my early years of RSD, I saw the way my physical health altered the way part of my body looked differently.

Sometimes that was physically different and other times it was my medically-assistive equipment. I was determined to control the way I looked to use my love of clothes to accentuate, alter and hide my RSD symptoms at my control. And after years of being asked, “how did you do that?” or “I didn’t even notice you were sick,” I decided to give up some of my big spoonie fashion hacks.

(*These are all fashion tips that have worked for me based on my chronic illness affecting my physical limbs, where my medical equipment was usually on my body, and not separate material*) So now, let’s share what’s been my strategies to being fashionable and medical:

#1 Maxi is Your Friend

Since I’ve lived with RSD, it’s spread to the entire left side of my body, and with that has come a lot of different braces and bandages that I’ve had to wear.  When it went into the left side of my leg and foot, I had to wear all different types of ankle braces, compression leggings and bandages/tapes. Some of them…not the most attractive medical-assistive equipment if I’m honest.  There were lots of times when I couldn’t fit my foot or leg into pants, thus, making my love for dresses and skirts to skyrocket! When the color didn’t match, or I was attempting to disguise my braces from other people.

One big way to do this is by wearing maxi dresses or skirts, long enough that the fabric covers what’s underneath. An easy way to cover this up, and give you easy access to change bandages or adjust braces, is to wear dresses with slits or scalloping.  This way, you can always move your dress to cover, or show it off, it’s all under your control.  The longer the dress, the better the control of coverage or exposure.

#2 The Looser the Fit, The Better the Disguise

Naturally, my personal style always goes for the loose-fitting, all-American taste.  This works in my favor since my injury and subsequent illness because it gives me the luxury of dressing the way I like without compromise.  I do not have to wear different clothes because they cannot fit with my braces or bandages or fabric pieces; everything fits underneath.  Also, a big issue with RSD is hypersensitivity and pain with touch, so having blousy fabric works well because I don’t have to worry about pain from fabric gripping onto my skin, and I can control pushing the fabric so it doesn’t sway around.  Another advantage is that if you’re having a self-conscious day, and I often did when my illness symptoms was visible, the oversized look could disguise more.   Big Tip: I always will add things like belts, or tie up a sleeve, or toss a jacket on my shoulders so that I can give shape to my outfit, and adapt it to my medical needs.

 

#3 Color Pops Can Make a Look

There are so many different medical accessories out there (and for me, and the entire InvisiYouth team, there is not enough promotion or charity-company partnerships out there yet (and we want to change that IMMEDIATELY!) that can make fashionable medical equipment common knowledge and accessible)?  It is a vital tip to learn now…research, research, research when it comes to medical accessory styles and colors.

But back to fashion hacks…when you have the knowledge that different medical accessories and the colors they come in, you give yourself fashionable options.  I would also search and research what colors different braces or isotoner gloves came in so I could get different options.  One best example is KTTape and all of the color options.  I would always buy black tape in bulk, but also get red and blue because I loved mixing the colors and matching outfits.  KTTape is a prime example because the patterns you have to make for physical assistance are also creative and look cool with different colors.

#4 When in Doubt, Add an Accessory

After a while, I was tired of constantly trying to hide my RSD symptoms and other braces were to bulky to disguise.  So instead, I began to try and embrace what was my current medical status to be able to do so I could fashionably experiment again.  Once I accepted the fact that I had to wear medically-assistive equipment on my body, and accepted that there were going to be days I had to wear them, I tried to find ways to adapt with it.  I would wear high ankle boots with socks that would accentuate the coloring of braces, wear patterned fabric tights so I could also wear my compression stockings or sleeves, anything to highlight and morph with my braces.

One major way I would accessorize is with all the gloves, braces, tape and bandages I had to wear on my hand during my RSD prime days.  I would wear oversized chunky bracelets so my braces and tape were colored.  I would where overly-long sleeves and tied on to the braces so that they were able to be hidden and shown depending on my mood.  And I would even take scarves and fabric pieces and tie them around my braces on my hand in different designs, tying knots or bows.  Since I had issues with pain and swelling, or muscle spasms, I found it beneficial to add different fabric textures, so I would do what my physical therapists called “interim PT desensitization” during classes.

 

At the end of the day, there was a point I made by embracing my illness and fashion.  It was and still is never about the disguise or hiding the illness.

It is about empowering yourself to choose how you want the world to see your illness.  Truth is, when you need to use adaptive equipment, young people do not get a choice because it is medically necessary to use them, whether it be items like canes or wheelchairs, PICC lines or braces. When you don’t get a choice in using medical equipment, the power lies in how you use it or wear it, and that is what I began to embrace with my fashion love.

Give the power of choice back to yourself and defy what the media claims are beauty norms.  When you embrace what you need to wear and use, and have fun with fashion, no one else’s opinion matter because your empowering yourself and your day!

~Dominique

What’s In My Bag: The “Boss Lady” Spoonie Edition

March 31, 2017

It’s often so hard to travel on a daily basis as a spoonie, let alone make sure that you have everything you need in order to adapt and function to your health struggles each and every day…Even harder, not to feel the need to carry a massive duffle bag everywhere you go!

For a long time, I’m always asked what are my essentials, my go-to tools and gadgets that I always carry with me, the “spoonie boss lady necessities” as one of our InvisiYouth supporters wrote to me.

So, it seemed about time that I finally reveal what I carry in my bag me, my own personal “What’s in my Bag” segment of this founder’s blog, but it’ll be the boss lady edition with a RSD-inflicted flare.

 

What’s typically in my bag is a range of products:

  1. Precut KT Tape
  2. Hand warmers
  3. Mini Tylenol bottle
  4. Bandage dispenser
  5. Notepad
  6. Pens with multiple sizes
  7. Calendar with to-do list
  8. Portable charger
  9. Business cards
  10. Tea
  11. Sunglasses
  12. Mini lavender lotion
  13. Phone
  14. Motivational quote

Besides the typical license and money additions that are always in any bag I take, I can break down the items I carry with me into three categories: my mini-medical toolkit, my boss girl life and my random necessities.

When it comes to my mini-medical toolkit, I bring the most compact versions of everything that I need with me. Since I have residual RSD, my needs are more for pain management and reduction of muscular swelling and spasms. I have to sort of premeditate what are the possible injuries and flare-ups that can happen during and typically for me, these are the main helpers to get me through the day to keep pushing forward.

I ALWAYS carry hand warmers on me!  They are a literal piece of heaven that can lower my pain super quickly. When it is cold out, or my limbs are freezing up, or my muscles lock up and I cannot move my hand or foot, I rip open the bag and let the warmth take over.  It has always given me a bit of solace to have the warmth.  Next, I bring precut strips of KT Tape.  This is amazing for the swelling and nerve pain that I have on a constant basis, especially when it spikes from overuse or injury.  I wear different patterns to reduce swelling and allow me to move my hand or foot more easily.  With it being precut, all I have to do is stick and apply!

The natural medical necessity is to make sure to carry a pain reliever like a mini Tylenol bottle, and while RSD nerve pain doesn’t improve with any ibuprofen, it helps with the natural side effects that come along with RSD for the rest of my body.  Muscle stiffness, soreness from overusing my right side to compensate, migraines that only affect my left side of my head…this mini Tylenol bottle is a must-have to get through the day.  Last, but definitely not least is the bandage dispenser (which is InvisiYouth merchandise with our logo!!).  While odd for RSD spoonies, you have to look at the side effects that happen with nerve damage.  When my hand spasms and I drop things, or my foot goes numb temporarily and I trip, minor injuries can happen and a Band-Aid is a definite necessity.

My next group of items that are always in my purse will help out my daily life as a boss…that is a charity founder boss. The most obvious thing I carry with me is my cell phone.  Whether it’s checking in on our social media accounts, responding to emails, or marking out reminders through our calendar…my phone has become more of an electronic personal assistant instead of the device I use to call or text.  But I cannot always rely on my phone to remember everything, and that is why I carry a mini calendar with a to-do list in my bag.  It is so important for me as a charity owner to remember all of my appointments, conference calls, Skype meetings and project deadlines so a calendar is vital to InvisiYouth consistent momentum forward.  And for each week, I keep a to-do list so I can cross off the different tasks at hand for the week; it keeps me on task, while also helping me remember what I need to do!

Next up is a notepad that is small and compact, with lots of blank pages. With the natural brain fog that unfortunately plagues my day as an RSD side-effect, I have a hard time remembering all the different ideas and moments of inspiration that come my way throughout the day.  Want to remember a new charity or company to contact for collaboration or fiscal sponsorship? Hear a teen that wants to work with us on advocacy?  Think of a new founder’s blog topic?  I keep a notepad to help me remember all the ideas that pop into my brain and prevent them from being forgotten.  But to write down in my calendar or notepad means I need to carry pens (hope you like our InvisiYouth merchandise specialized, and recycled material, pens!!) in my bag.  To help with my nerve damage, I always carry pens and pencils that are different sizes, some super thin, other jumbo-kindergartener sized.  This helps because oftentimes my grip changes each day with swelling and muscular pain/stiffness so it helps to always walk into meetings with multiple pens so no matter how I’m feeling, I can find one that will fit my grip in that moment.  And last, but definitely not least…you CANNOT be a boss lady without carrying a bunch of your own business cards!  It’s required, and needed, and honestly, there is a silent power that comes along with handing over that card for work!

The last bunch of items I keep in my purse all seem super random to most people, but somehow no matter how many times I clean out my bad, they end up in every bag. First off…obviously since I mentioned my overuse of my cell phone, it is only obvious that I would bring a portable charger with me as well.  I have to make sure that this phone is constantly charged and ready to use, and this portable charger is small and sleek to fit with in a clutch or massive duffle bag. Next, I always bring a mini lotion with me in my bag, but not just any lotion.  I always bring either a lavender lotion (my favorite is L’occitane Lavender hand cream) or I bring a eucalyptus-blended lotion (something like aromatherapy eucalyptus spearmint from Bath and Body Works). For me, the scent of lavender is a quick stress relief so if I’m every feeling stressed or anxious, I rub on some lavender lotion and the aromatic scent brings a quick level of ease.

Along that line of helping with stress, I usually carry a tea bag with me in all my bag.  In a lot of meetings that I go to, they usually ask if I want some coffee, tea or water to drink, and while I ADORE coffee, you want to stay nice and calm, not shaking from too much caffeine, especially if you have meetings all day long. There are dozens of flavors you can have (just like my chamomile flavor from Stash) and you can typically get hot water in most delicatessens or coffee houses so it’s a go-to in any scenario. Next, I will almost always carry a pair of sunglasses with me because with having residual RSD in the left side of my next and head, I can get spontaneous migraines that afflict only the left side of my head, and that can make me sensitive to the light. To prevent me having any problems going to work, or hanging out with friends, I have sunglasses to dim the brightness.  And if that means I need to be ‘that girl’ who wears her shades indoors…well I will be that person on occasion for the sake of my health.  Last, but certainly not least, I like to carry a motivational quote with me wherever I go.  Usually I have an inspiring quote engraved on a rock, like my favorite quote “This Too Shall Pass” that slips into any purse pocket.  It’s small, but just this little thing can give me that mental push to keep going when the work load piles up or my health starts to stumble.

What I carry is not just assisting me or improving my quality of life, but it’s simply empowering. By having all of this in my bag, I empower my life and the woman, the charity owner, the spoonie that I am because I take control of each choice in this very small part of my life.

It is my actions and my decisions on what to bring that motivate me because I hold all the power in what I bring which will help me during the day to make sure I can strong and achieve my daily goals.

 

~Dominique