Spotlight Story Program: Meet Megan Elizabeth

The power of the blog is strong, especially when it can be part of your own self-discovery and bringing community to others. That’s someone our latest Spotlight Story Program feature writer has learned through her writing and chronic illness journey, and we’re excited to share the story of Megan Elizabeth.  This British young adult dealt with a chronic illness journey many can relate to: the evolving diagnosis list. As she got older, Megan was diagnosed first with NF1, then hydrocephalus, and a couple years ago with ileocaecal Crohn’s Disease, and during that time, Megan learned not only how to adapt and find her passions, but how to build the person she would become with the constant support of her family. Megan knows the chronic illness journey isn’t always easy, but it has allowed her to learn about her resilience, strength, compassion and fun in her life, all traits that she’s adamant to advocate every young person with chronic illness discovers in themselves. With her five comforting mental reminders, Megan will give you the boost you need to recharge your life.

Hi InvisiYouth family! I’m Megan, a 23 year old digital communications officer and founder of the Hearth by Megan blog from Leicestershire, England. In my spare time, I love going on local travels with my family in our motorcaravan. I will also admit to getting emotionally invested in TV shows. Any Great British Bake Off fans out there? And like you, my life has been affected by chronic illness.

When I was 6-ish years old (it was a long time ago), I received a clinical diagnosis of Neurofibromatosis Type 1 (NF1) – a genetic condition, although my case is spontaneous as no one else in my family has it. I have freckling and café au lait marks on my body and I also have lisch nodules on the back of my eyes. I have partial NF1, meaning only half of my cells are affected and so far, I am one of the milder cases of NF. This meant I led a pretty normal childhood, albeit an annual genetics check-up.

A larger health shock happened when I was 13. I had an MRI scan after experiencing some neck pain, just to make sure that I didn’t have any internal fibromas, another symptom of NF.

There wasn’t much concern at the time, the scan was just going to be a baseline to go in my records. A few days later, we had a call saying the scan showed fluid on my brain and in a whirlwind week I was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and went within 24 hours of having brain surgery. I’m not too sure of the correct medical explanation, but my understanding is that I have a piece of skin blocking a channel in my brain which has resulted in enlarged ventricles. Despite two diagnoses, I was still well and discharged without surgery on the understanding that we would monitor things and have annual neurology reviews.

Since then, I struggled more with my mental health in my teens, particularly with health anxiety surrounding my conditions. With support, I got myself back on track and again was able to continue life pretty normally, bar the annual neurology and genetics appointments. I completed my GCSEs and A Levels at school and went off to study Linguistics at the University of Leeds.

Then another diagnosis came. One which really changed my life and introduced me to the world of chronic illness. In March 2019, I developed abdominal pain and vomiting which led to a hospital admission and concerns of appendicitis. Within about 48 hours of me being admitted to hospital, I needed a scan to show what was going on. After an emergency CT scan, it turned out my appendix was fine, but part of my bowel was inflamed. A colonoscopy and biopsies later confirmed I had ileocaecal Crohn’s Disease. Since then, I have been adjusting to chronic illness life with Crohn’s, which has been a rollercoaster of flare-ups and remission, immunosuppressant medication, and hospital trips and tests along the way.

I’ve had my own blog for many years, and this really helped after my diagnosis. I discovered an incredible group of people with chronic illnesses wanting to support one another and raise awareness. Social media can be a tricky thing to navigate when you are ill and seeing other people out and about enjoying life, but the chronic illness community truly lift each other up. Whether you are in hospital, struggling with something or celebrating someone’s successes, we are all here for each other through the highs and lows.

Since talking more about my experience, I’ve had messages from people saying that how much it has helped them. If it helps even just one other person, then it is worth doing.

I am grateful to have the most supportive family. I can talk to them about anything, and they would never treat me differently for having a chronic illness.

Sometimes though, you don’t want to have to go through the process of explaining why you feel a certain way. Talking to others with chronic illnesses, even if different from your own, can be one of the most comforting things. To know that we are in this together and there are people out there who simply ‘get it’.

We need to talk more. There is still a great deal that needs to be done to ensure equality, understanding and respect for people with disabilities and chronic illness, to ensure access to the right care, treatment, and diagnosis, to educate non-disabled people and so much more. The more awareness made; the more action taken.

Although living with Crohn’s Disease is immensely difficult, there is so much I’ve learnt along the way. In a weird way, I think I prefer who I am as a person now (minus my gut getting attacked by my own body).

I’m no medical expert, counsellor, or anything like that, but here are some things which help me get through the tough times and maybe something that could take comfort from too:

  1. The incredible chronic illness community is ready to welcome you with open arms.
  2. Going through traumatic experiences helps to put things into perspective. I’ve learnt to appreciate all the good moments, no matter how small. I never really knew what people meant before when they talked about ‘creating joy’. I now see this as actively choosing to do something that makes me feel good and having a range of options for higher and lower energy days. I’ll sometimes just put an episode of Friends on for 20 minutes, purely because I know it will make me smile and bring some light to darker days.
  3. I used to be a major planner. I had my life mapped out and used to set lots of goals. Living with Crohn’s has taught me to live in the moment more. Learning to be present has been a positive lifestyle change. It’s important to focus on the certainty of this moment, rather than the uncertainty of tomorrow.
  4. I have more empathy with others and want to help people. I am more understanding and determined to make the most of life. I want to raise awareness for all of us going through the hardships that come with chronic illness. To give everyone a voice and to create a better society where people feel safe, respected, and able to talk openly about health.
  5. Stand your ground and be honest – Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself if you feel like someone is not listening to you properly or respecting your concerns, even if it is a medical professional. Trust your instincts if something doesn’t feel right.

It takes someone truly brave and strong to live with chronic illness. Remember how resilient, wonderfully unique, and beautiful you are both inside and out. We’ve got this!

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Kate Henry

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

*Kia Ora!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am so proud of you 🙂

Hugs and spoons,

Kate xx

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

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Asia-Jorden Alexander-Smith

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

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

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

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

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

Which, of course, they did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who am I today?

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

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Lael Newton

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no cure, only management.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

Would I completely erase the journey?

No.

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

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

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

Please know, that you are strong. Really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Lael x