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

Spotlight Story Program: Sophie Ward’s Story

Meet Sophie Ward

When life brought health challenges into British 24 year old Sophie Ward’s life, ending her dreams of trying out for the 2012 London Olympics, she used her fighter athlete spirit to get to the bottom of her struggles. After a diagnosis of Lyme Disease, Sophie not only focused to improve her health, but worked around the UK with Parliament, on radio/television, and with her blog to bring awareness to Lyme Disease education and prevention. She’s a kind and passionate young women, inspiring others to find their inner empowerment. And as an InvisiYouth Global Brand Leader, Sophie uses her advocacy and philanthropic skills to bring positive change to our international older youth crowd. 

In August 2008, my family and I travelled to Beijing to watch the Olympics. Many of my friends were competing in the swimming events and my dream was to reach London 2012, so it was a perfect opportunity to soak up the atmosphere, support my friends and learn what to expect. Once the Olympics were over we decided after traveling all that way it would be silly not to sight see. So, we did! We were lucky enough to go to the Panda sanctuary and it was AMAZING.

Here is where my nightmare started. I began with a fever after seeing the pandas. I was treated at the time with 48 hours of antibiotics which seemed to do the trick.

On returning home, I was forced to give up my swimming career due to nerve damage after an umbilical hernia operation. I felt lost. The years went on and my health declined; weight loss was the result was increasing food intolerances, migraines, joint pain, muscle weakness, blurred vision, confusion, muscle pain, fatigue, insomnia, temperature sensitivities, itchy skin, rash, nausea and so on. There seemed to be a new symptom every week. I saw doctor, after doctor, after doctor. All of them passed me on to the next or called me crazy.

I was losing the will to keep fighting. Was I crazy? Was it me? My family questioned my health too. Sometimes asking me directly if I was the cause of my health issues and to ‘snap out of it.’ How could I ‘snap out’ of something I zero control over.

2017 began and after going to the hospital for food intolerance tests, the consultant suggested I  see someone who specializes in CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) as at lot of my symptoms matched. The consultant gave nothing away at the time. He just told me to do some blood samples so I did, and returned a month later for the results. We were shocked. I looked at my Mum confused, she grabbed my hand.

I knew for so long I’d been struggling but I still coped. Feeling a bit off didn’t mean I would lay in bed all day. My professor read my results out to me. That stated I had very active Lyme levels and Coxsackie virus. Along with Epstein Barr virus and Herpes 1,2 and 6. At first, we thought FABULOUS a diagnosis… how do we cure it?

Then Lyme disease and the other viruses were explained to us. This fight would be for life, a life-long struggle. The fight would become my life.

I returned to my GP (general physician) with the results and they told me I was crazy, I had an eating disorder because my weight was so low, and I would have to suffer with a ‘chronic disease’ for it to stay so low. They told me my results were false because they had been carried out above and tried to section me. The consultant however, couldn’t find any grounds on which to section me. I was perfectly sane.

I did try inpatient help on my own accord for my eating. It was an utter disaster! I lost 5.5lbs in just 6 days! They starved me on a liquid, low calorie diet and then bombarded me with everything I was intolerant too. I was so sick and hungry. I was forced to discharge myself. This proved to my GP it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my fault and I was perfectly sane. This battle will be is endless and there is no rest.

My health journey has made me PASSIONATE about helping others who are going through similar situations, trying to raise awareness about Lyme disease to prevent people from going through this hell.  A cure, even though we fight for one everyday is a long way of yet. Prevention is key to save future generations and loved ones from the disease at this point.

I am part of the Lyme Discussion UK Administration team and work closely with my local MP (Member of Parliament) to raise awareness on Lyme Disease. I hope my journey and story inspires many who suffer with a variety of chronic illnesses and that we never feel ALONE OR INVISIBLE as our illnesses can often make us.

I strongly believe knowledge is power, so I continue to learn and gain knowledge through meeting people, talking, listening and reading.

People are the best form of lessons and knowledge. Listening is SO important, people relate, people feel less alone and less alien. We pick up hints and tips, look down different paths and doors open.

My work with the Lyme Discussion Group has helped me understand the political fight we face, meet likeminded-people, gain advice, knowledge and FRIENDS. In my work, I have offered support to people who no longer want to keep fighting. My family has fought to have signs and poster placed around Residential and holiday parks across the country and I have my local MP fighting and pushing Government for better tests, treatment methods, research and awareness information.

I am also a Global Brand Leader also work with InvisiYouth Charity!

I hope to make friends, gain further knowledge and help people like myself who often feel LOST, worthless and crazy. I hope to inspire people to find a purpose when there doesn’t seem to be one and celebrate all the victories and pleasures in life to boost our moods and keep us fighting.

And my blog, Sophantastic, has been my own personal journal. A journal to store my research, new knowledge, treatment stories, personal struggles and medical issues with the world in hope that others can relate, and we can find comfort in not feeling alone in our struggles.

I won’t let the world change me, I must change the world. And I must change the world to become more accepting.

So many of us have battled years with feeling like we are ‘alien’ and don’t belong. Just because we are poorly it doesn’t mean we can’t reach our dreams, we can’t make a difference and we are crazy. Our dreams and goals may have to be altered but the constant ignorance and dismissal in the health industry for people with chronic illnesses and chronic disease is not acceptable or healthy.

Society needs to learn to not see our weaknesses in a negative light but as stepping stones to learn and gain strength from. To add power to our strengths. This simple change would help improve lives because everyone knows a strong mind is the best weapon.

My life with Lyme Disease has inspired me to become the stronger person I am today. I have felt pain beyond my limits and become grateful for every moment.

It has taught me that nothing can hold us back, only WE hold us back. We have the power to change the world, empower and inspire people all around the world.

Spotlight Story Program: Shona Cobb’s Story

Meet Shona Cobb

Breaking the stigma-ceiling for chronic illness and disability comes to second nature to British 20 year old, Shona Cobb. She’s used her experience of life with Marfan Syndrome to empower others living with disabilities and illnesses, and change the way businesses, media and society treat disability. Shona uses her successful blog and speaking on TV and radio around England to bring change to disability rights, and as an InvisiYouth Global Brand Leader, Shona’s advocacy can reach an international stage. 

‘Is there a cure?’ is a response I get time and time again when explaining my rare condition to everyone from friends to strangers in the street. Perhaps if I were diagnosed as a teenager, or even an adult, the realization that there is no cure for my condition would have been a difficult one but knowing all my life that I have a genetic condition has given me a long time to come to terms with my prognosis.

Marfan Syndrome is the name of my primary condition, the starting point for all my secondary conditions. It’s a genetic connective tissue disorder, with my Mum having passed it on to me, and it can be visible quite far back in our family tree, with 2 family members dying from associated complications during my lifetime. A daunting aspect of this multi-systemic condition.

Long limbs are one sign of the condition and my unusually long arms and legs were visible on ultrasound scans while my Mum was still pregnant with me. Officially I was diagnosed as a toddler, when I started to meet more of the criteria, but my Mum knew that I had inherited Marfan a while before that.

For most of my childhood I was a happy, energetic child. I had hypermobile joints that I would show off to my classmates and I got ‘growing pains’ a lot more than my peers. Unpleasant but not unmanageable. It was as a teenager that more serious problems started appearing. I found myself missing more and more classes to attend hospital appointments, and the reality of my condition started to sink in. It wasn’t just something I happened to have anymore, it was affecting my daily life.

I was diagnosed with Scoliosis, a curve in my spine, at 13 years old and by 15 I was unable to climb the stairs at school, finding myself doing worksheets in the library instead of joining my classmates on the top floor of the main building.

It was isolating and really affected me because I loved education and learning, I thrived at school and worked hard. So, when I was booked in to have surgery to correct the curve with titanium rods and screws I was over the moon at the prospect of some relief from the back pain. I blogged about my experience, with my Mum keeping a diary of my first week in hospital, which proved to be a good idea as I barely remember that week. I even documented my experience with a complication post-surgery and finding out that I would need a second surgery. That was the beginning of me using my experiences to educate and support others, and it was also the start of my body beginning to crumble.

By 18 I’d had one hip replaced and the other being on its way to needing the same, a difficult thing to get your head round when joint replacements are so often associated with elderly people. I really thought that after my spinal surgery, I would return to life as normal. Then after my hip replacement, I was sure that was it, I’d surely endured enough. It was downhill from there though and now, at 20 years old, I’m a powerchair user with a large cyst at the bottom of my spine being my current issue.

It’s incredible how humans adapt, after every surgery I believed it was over, I believed I could not cope with anymore but again and again I proved myself wrong. Resilient, that ‘s what people would call me. I believe though that we all deal with the hand life gives us in whatever way we can, everyone has struggles and mine happen to be health related. Others deal with grief, violence, homelessness, the list goes on. I was determined to take the hand I’d been dealt and make the best of it.

It would take me all day to list everything I’ve been involved with in the past 2 years. I’ve used my blog and social media to raise awareness of Marfan Syndrome and educate people on disability issues. I’ve talked about how environmental movements can affect and exclude disabled people on the news. I’ve been involved with a national newspaper’s project to document the daily access problems I come across as a powerchair user. For someone who was painfully shy as a child, I’ve certainly come out of my shell, and that is all down to me having a chronic illness and being disabled. I feel I’ve found my calling in life. I’m not currently able to work but I can use my free time and my voice to help raise awareness and make real change.

I’ve helped local shops install ramps to improve access for disabled people and I’ve worked with organisations to improve their inclusivity. Charity work is something I’ve passionate about though, being the Marfan ambassador for The Hypermobility Syndromes Association (HMSA) and being the youngest person in a British Heart Foundation (BHF) patient advisory group. I’ve taken what life has given and done my best with it.

People often speak about disability and chronic illness as though it’s the worst thing, but I feel empowered by disability. I am proud to be a young disabled woman, I am proud of the change I’ve made and am trying to make in this world. Being disabled and chronically ill is a huge part of my identity, why shouldn’t I be proud of that?

I hope to inspire other disabled and chronically ill people to be empowered by their conditions too, as many other disabled activists and campaigners have done for me. I scroll through my Instagram feed and I feel empowered to see so many disabled people not being ashamed of their disability and embracing their bodies.

I’ve still many rocky roads ahead of me, including major open-heart surgery and potentially more risky spinal surgery, but I still look forward, looking back at the past, at a life that could have been, has never done me any favours. I’m looking forward now, looking forward to the change I can make in the world, looking forward to being more confident and looking forward to a time where disabled and chronically ill people can feel empowered by their disability without others telling us we shouldn’t.

I’m excited to fulfill these goals and support others, especially in my new role as a Global Brand Leader for InvisiYouth!

 

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

All of Those Exhilarating Peaks and Mega Excitements of My England Travels for InvisiYouth Charity

August 31st 2017

I recently took a trip to England all in the name of expanding InvisiYouth’s new programs and meeting with some of the amazing InvisiYouth supporters we’ve come to love and support over the years and charities we’ve admired for a while.  We have heard from some many of you that you wanted to hear all about my trip, and how I was able to handle all of that travel.  Now…I cannot give too many specifics about our new programs because we’re in development (and really, what would the surprise be if we told you everything before our prelaunch)!  But I can certainly share all the behind the scenes of my England trip and travel.

There are two big reasons why I wanted to make sure InvisiYouth made its way across the pond to England as our first major international InvisiYouth trip. One was the fact that England has been the first and most overwhelmingly supportive community since the day we launched.  The first teens and older youth with chronic illness and disability to follow InvisiYouth were all British.  And the first charities to reach across and want to lend support to InvisiYouth’s mission were from the United Kingdom.

That support network has continued to grow during our two years. We’ve even had an InvisiEvent in London last autumn, proving that InvisiYouth reaching beyond geographic, we are designed for older youth and can reach them anywhere!

The second reason to go to England was due to our Charity Friend role in the first Superhero Series Triathlon.  This was England’s very first adaptive disability triathlon, where people of all ages, disabilities and illnesses could compete in swimming, running and cycling with as much support and adaptive equipment as needed.

With the backdrop of the 2012 Olympics venue of Dorney Lake, the event was going to be unlike anything experienced before.  And with InvisiYouth having a group of teams all competing on behalf of InvisiYouth to fundraise for us, we had to make sure that we were there supporting them on their amazing job well done.

I have to say, what made the experience of bringing InvisiYouth even further into the UK even more special was that I was able to bring my entire family over with me, and getting some awesome memories of family time included in the work trip.  When life gets so chaotic and crazy, which can easily happen owning a charity and almost 25 years old, it is special to make memories with your family.

These are the people that have been my support system throughout my entire life, and even more than most families because they have become my rock throughout my health struggles.  Going through a chronic illness, growing up and finding myself as an adult with health struggles, is more complicated and challenging than any amount of words can describe.  But it has been my family that has help pull me through all the complexly stressful hardships that having RSD and EDS can really bring into your life.  I am thankful for them beyond belief, for their love and devotion, and their support of InvisiYouth Charity and our mission!

The England experience was an amazing opportunity to meet with individuals and charities who are going to be part of this new, evolving chapter of InvisiYouth Charity as it expands its advocacy education with our new tools and programs.  These illness lifestyle management tools are going to be the backbone of InvisiYouth where our events and speaking engagements will feed off as we continue to grow in the years to come.

I have always said that InvisiYouth’s focus is the age demographic in the illness/disability community, not the specific illness or disability, and we focus on the nonmedical side of the medical experience.  There are so many facets of life outside of illness when you live with one, so InvisiYouth cannot be more excited to provide support to help these young people live life and navigate life with illness so it can be fun, empowered and fulfilled in all its unique, adapted ways.

It is important for InvisiYouth to have more than just supporters in the UK, we need to have partners and lead volunteers in these other regions in order to engrain and expand the InvisiYouth tools and mission.  So it is completely obvious that these British older youth and charities will become part of our expansion and part of the InvisiYouth family. I am literally ripping at the seams wanting to share with you how fantastic each of these meetings were, how amazing these people are, and how completely overwhelmed with joy the InvisiYouth team is to know these organizations are going to be part of something we’re creating.

It is a massive THANK YOU to the always dedicated nonprofits like Once Upon a Smile, English Federation of Disability Sports, The Mix UK and CP Teens UK.

It is a gigantic THANK YOU to the empowering and fearless leaders like Sarah Alexander, Chloe Tears, Catrin Pugh and Emma Franklin.

There were even so many other British older youth and charities that we didn’t get to meet in person but we are going to be connecting with through the powers of technology and Skype now that we are back in the states.

Now, coming off such a successful meaningful and fun trip, we gotta break down the peaks and pitfalls of travel with a chronic illness like RSD.  I always joke that the pain and symptom peaks feel worth it when the experience is so worthwhile, and going over to England and creating these connections to expand InvisiYouth’s work even deeper into this nation was worthwhile.

Sitting on planes for almost nine hours straight doesn’t work well with RSD, so you must accommodate to your medical needs.  Getting medical documentation from doctors about being about to move around plane, to have people required to sit near you to help if side effects arise, all important to have.  And if you’re like me, and you are partially bionic like I am with rods and screws in my spine, then it’s always a good idea to have a medical letter notifying your metal (titanium or not) because it’s best to be safe when you’re going through airport security.

Make sure you have your own checklist for your medical needs (like medications, adaptive equipment, and what I call ‘checkup tools’).  I always like to make sure that my staple backups of support like Tylenol, KT Tape, bandage wraps, mini heat packs, resistance bands, and much more.  And you gotta make sure your wardrobe can match too.  Bringing additional layers when I deal with my limbs going too cold, shoes that can adapt to swelling easily, and dresses with slits so I could easily bring respite to my knee.  All these fashion tips made my travel easier.

But a major savior for me was timing.  I had to make sure my schedule was planned with work, with touristy stuff, as well as my medical rest time.  I had to make sure that when I was travelling, whether on a train, a cab, an Uber ride, or even a plane, that I was using my off-time wisely to recuperate from my symptoms to make it through each day.  And when I had resting time at the end of the day, it was all about heating, massages and elevation.  When you put time into your travels to focus on your health, it actually becomes a true travelling vacation and fun experience.

Yeah, when I got back to the states I had to put in some additional PT sessions, resting time and acupuncture, but with some focus on how to combat travel with a chronic illness, you can get through anything and ease what can be a setback on the return home.

Truth be told, I think England is now going to be a staple trip for Team InvisiYouth each and every year!  And while we’ll be having a team of supporters in the country year-round hosting and supporting all things InvisiYouth, I’ll be making sure that the UK is a top priority visit for us as we grow.  Not only did I love the people, culture, architecture, and cities, but I loved how warmly InvisiYouth’s mission and belief system was received and that deserves lots and lots of more England trips to come!

So…where will I be heading next for some InvisiYouth fun and work?  You’ll have to check out the InvisiYouth website for next month because we’re crossing country borders yet again!

~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