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

Spotlight Story Program: Rachel Mayo’s Story

Meet Rachel Mayo

As a university freshman, Rachel was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, and it changed her way of way. But Rachel decided to take her new diagnosis and not just better her life, but motivate others with T1D to do the same. And she’s been doing that across the United States ever since. Plus…we’re thrilled Rachel will keep working with InvisiYouth as 2018 continues.

I grew up full of energy, always going from one thing to the next, without a need to hit the “slow down” button.

As a freshman in college, when it started to require more and more energy to do basic things, like walk to class, sit through class, even, I began to worry a little. Why did I need a three-hour nap after my 50-minute English class, when just months before, I was fine getting only 50 minutes of sleep every night?

“Worried” probably isn’t even the right word. I just noticed the difference. Since my mom worked for a general physician, I decided to get a general check-up. I figured my hormones were just out of whack, and as soon as I was relieved of the stress of my semester and moved back home for the summer, I would return to normal.

It’s no surprise that was not the cure for whatever was wrong with me. (That would make for an awfully boring story, don’t you think?) The day after my last final of my freshman year, I went to the doctor, and was told that if what they suspected was right, that there was no cure for whatever was wrong with me.

The next day, at 7:15 am, I went to see an endocrinologist, they drew blood, and after several anxiety-filled minutes of waiting, It was confirmed. I had Type 1 Diabetes (T1D).

There is no cure.

I would have to take insulin for the rest of my life.

I was mostly shocked.

Not necessarily angry, but I was sad. Confused. Full of questions. But for the most part, I was okay.

Three days later, I was at the mall with my mom and sister, and we had put our shopping on hold to refuel. (Eat lunch.)

At the food court, over my chicken sandwich and the Diet Coke I was still trying to learn to love, I broke down. I’m talking crocodile tears pouring down my face. I had every emotion running through my veins at that moment and I felt completely out of control.

That’s when I decided that the best way for me to deal with this disease would be to help other people deal with this disease. I had no idea what that looked like at the time, as I still had no idea how to handle my diagnosis. But I knew I could tackle it, and I knew I wanted to use it to help others.

Fast forward and I know what that looks like now. I have spent the last year traveling and speaking to different groups with T1D around the world, helping them to navigate this disease with a positive spirit.

I use social media to share pictures and videos of my life with T1D. I share my victories, my frustrations, and try my hardest to let others with T1D know they are not alone in what they go through.

I also love to educate those without T1D about the difficulties of living with this disease. Since T1D is an invisible illness, it is easy for others to overlook the constant inner battle we fight every day.

While this disease does not define me, it is a very big part of me, and has helped shape me into the person I am today. And if I may be so frank, I really like the person I am today. The person I am today is brave, even when it’s frightening, is adventurous, even when it takes work, and is gracious, even with herself.

But it took work to get there. What has helped me the most is using my story to help others. It is so therapeutic to lay down all of my battle scars for others to see and realize that they have friends who are in the trenches with them.

The community of people I have surrounded myself with has been crucial. I love getting on twitter and conversing with my #DOC (Diabetes Online Community) friends.

It’s like walking into my own special little T1D world where everyone is willing to give you advice when you need it, or just let you vent when you don’t. It’s not weird when I say “my blood sugar got so low my tongue went numb” or “I got a unicorn today!”

My T1D community has truly been life changing for me.

I don’t want it to sound like I have it all figured out and I am completely okay. I’m not. I get burned out. I get angry. I cry so hard I start to hyperventilate.

But that is okay. I have permission to do that, and once I figured that out, it got easier for me to get through those times. It’s okay to feel those things! But it’s not a healthy spot to set up camp.

What I want, more than anything, is for people with chronic illnesses, to understand that they can do anything. Absolutely anything. And YES it might be difficult, but it is so very worth it.

This past year alone I went skydiving, ran a half-marathon, visited 24 states, and five countries including UAE, Mexico, and three countries in Africa.

“I could never do that,” is what I heard from many of my T1D friends after every new adventure. It breaks my heart every time I hear that.

YES YOU CAN! There’s a strategy for everything, and there is nothing this disease can prevent you from doing.

Find a community that lifts you up. Get rid of the negative people, words, and elements in your life. Take baby steps. Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself how brave you are. Tell yourself you can do anything. And if you still doubt yourself, find me, and I will tell you.

You can do anything. I believe in you.

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!

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

Illness Isn’t A Crutch: Why It’s So Hard For Health People To Learn Illness Isn’t An Excuse

April 28, 2017

“Why are you bailing again last minute?”

“Are you sure you’re gonna come, or are you gonna flake last minute?”

“What’s up? You’ve been MIA for days?”

If you ask any teen or young adult with chronic illness, they can probably share hundreds or more quotes like this. Hundreds of times when they have had to put their health first and change or cancel plans with friends or family. Countless times when they’re suddenly dropped out of a group text, or given the generic “I’m busy” response without warning or a true explanation.

But what I’ve learned from my own health struggles, and I’ve learned from our youth supporters, is the guilt, stress, and anxiety that comes from the feeling your peers equate your illness as making excuses. We can wait anxiously to see if our friends understand why we may “disappear” or believe it’s just another excuse.

What we need to address here is the basic fact for our healthy circle of friends: illness is not a crutch (metaphorically speaking, because sometimes it’s needed literally) and it is not used as an excuse.   

Does that friend of yours with an illness want to cancel on plans? Not really!

Does that youth desire to be so misunderstood when it’s simply their health? Absolutely not!

So the true goal here is to lay out the truth. To give the basics of really understanding that illness is not a “hall pass” to get out of events or be distant, illness is simply that…illness. It is confusing, and unpredictable, and can take over life in the blink of an eye.  And we need to empower the youth with chronic illness to be confident in the fact that they might not always do the “popular” thing, but they are always doing what’s right. Yet again, sometimes what makes the most sense, is often forgotten in our daily practices, so we need a bit of a reminder.

Reminder #1: Most chronic illnesses don’t have a schedule

While PT sessions, doctor’s appointments, and medication treatments all fall into a schedule, the nitty gritty of having an illness each day definitely does not. You cannot plan when you’ll have a flare-up, side effect or an episode…it just happens.  It’s the main explanation for why many of your friends living with chronic illness have to bail out last minute.  I remember times when I was getting ready to hang out with friends and suddenly my RSD symptoms would spike, and I had no energy to move without excruciating pain, so I would cancel last minute.  It was a sudden change in my plans because of the sudden change in my health.

These moments when illness and injury take over are never planned, they are spontaneous, and in reality, it is not what any young person wants to happen in that moment, or ever!  Youth still want to be teenagers, and young adults, hanging out with friends, going out, and living life to that ‘normal social standard.’ But when you add illness into the mix, you have to become comfortable with the notion that your schedule is often dictated by your illness, not your desire.  And that’s not only a reality that our spoonies need to understand, but there friends and family as well.  Our inner circle, need to be aware of this fact. This allows them to gain an insight into our world and to better understand that when you don’t show up, your illness is a valid reason, and never an excuse. There is no way to say “your using your illness as an excuse” because newsflash, if you have to bail out on friends because you’re not feeling well, that’s as valid of a reason as you can have.

Quick Tip: Come up with your own weekly calendar and map out your PT, your medications, your doctor visits. This way, you can see when your body might be too exhausted, or your certain treatments might take too long/have side effects, and that allows you to plan ahead with friends.  Now, this isn’t fool proof, we cannot see the future, but it give you that ‘educated guess’ on whether or not you’ll genuinely be able to get out with your friends.

Reminder #2: It’s just as annoying to spoonies to have to pull the “health card” as it is to hear it

What people need to understand is frustration is felt on both sides of what I call “pulling the health card.” Yes, I can understand where friends come from when they get annoyed that you might keep bailing out, or you completely ghost temporarily.  It is frustrating that you make plans and suddenly a friend keeps pulling out, saying something happened or you’re not feeling well.  You begin to assume that your friend just doesn’t want to hang out with you and wonder if every time they say it’s a health problem, if that’s true for each case. And the only reason I know this is because when I was a teen living with RSD in its prime, I didn’t have any friends that dealt with illness. A party of one in the spoonie community! I was forced to be around all healthy youth and find my way to get this community to not just adapt to my new normal, but to better understand why I felt their ignorance to my illness.

But what many healthy friends do not understand is that the frustration is equally felt on your spoonie friends, even more so to be completely honest.  It is annoying to be stuck in a body or mind that does not function at 100% all the time and hinders you from doing everything you want. It is agonizing to know that when your illness completely builds into a ‘bad day’ you need to change your plans in order get through the hours you have left. Most teens and young adults with chronic illnesses do not want cancel plans, they don’t want this to change, but they need to do what is best for your health. This is not a one-sided annoyance, because really think about it: would you want to be getting ready to go out, and suddenly your illness symptoms spike, or you’re exhausted with fatigue, or you have bad reaction to medications/treatments…and then you have to send that text that you’re not able to hang any longer?  The main answer is absolutely not! If you put the shoe on the other foot, your friends will realize that you need the blatant understanding, because it’s frustrating to all involved.

Quick Tip: Try to be the host of your friend hangouts.  It’s a simple fix, really because this lets you be in complete control.  You get to choose the activities and your extremely comfy clothes. You would be able to have every one of your medical needs at the ready for you, whether it’s IV treatments, medications, heating pads, ice packs, bandages and wraps and more.  With friends that would want to learn more about your illness, or want to be as open or understanding as possible, they would be able to adapt your hangouts to your needs.

Reminder #3: Sometimes generic replies are easier than explaining the reality, so accept them

Let’s be real, many teen spoonies don’t really want to share all the little details of their illness with their friends. And especially if they feel self-conscious about their illness and the way their friends perceive it, they will not want to give up the true details.  If you feel your friends are going to judge the truth of your illness, or think you’re making up an excuse, you begin to hide their realities of your illness.  Why share and be judged, when you can just deal with the backlash of bailing or going MIA? I’ve had youth tell us that they would even send photos of themselves to their friends just as proof that their illness has changed their plans…and that should not be the case! No youth should feel they need to justify their illness and prove their reasoning for canceling plans!

That is why so many times, youth with chronic illness decide to just send these generic, nonspecific replies when they need to cancel plans.  It can be so much easier to just say “something came up” one time, than say “family plans last minute” another time, and then finally explaining the real medical reasons on other occasions.  The nonspecific texts are not meant to be rude or not descriptive, but rather a way to protect a very personal health struggle. And it does help to truly avoid that inner feeling that youth with illness can feel about some of their friends believing their illness is being used as an excuse.

So…at the end of all of this, what’s the takeaway?  What’s the moral of this story? Friends and family: remember that we cannot control when our health takes a front seat in our day. When we sometimes back out, or disappear with our generic explanations, it’s because we really don’t want to pull out the health card or have to explain every detail.  And spoonies: remember to be honest with what you need, and know that sometimes, while it’s not always what we want, you have to do what’s best for your health.  You need to find that inner confidence in understanding that there will be moments when friends will feel like outsiders in your life, just like you may feel external to your social life.  And this is okay!  It’s all about being confident in the ride of your social life, in the peaks and falls of participation as I like to call it.

The moral of this story: ILLNESS IS NOT EQUIVALENT TO AN EXCUSE, IT’S A REASON FOR ACTIONS, AND THIS STEREOTYPE NEEDS TO CHANGE.

It’s alright to be the completely involved friend, and sometimes drop the ball…the point is that your friends and family support your health journey unconditionally and allow you to pick up that ball whenever you’re ready.

~Dominique