Spotlight Story Program: Meet Lauren Perry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing surprises me anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spotlight Story Program: Scarlett Aylen’s Story

Meet Scarlett Aylen

Our latest Spotlight Story comes from across the Atlantic Ocean with a fresh take on empowerment and facing the obstacles that life can throw at us. We were so excited to hear from 20-year-old university student from the United Kingdom, Scarlett Aylen, when she submitted her story. Scarlett is an example that chronic illness and health struggles affect the entire person, both physically and mentally, and she advocates each young person should be supported as an entire being.  Her inner strength feeds into her organization RCASS, helping young people and their families after a scoliosis diagnosis. You learn so much through Scarlett’s story about resilience, advocacy, and finding ways to enjoy life.

It all started when I walked into a consulting room and saw my spine, looking horrifically and severely curved on a huge screen right in front of me. I was 12 and was diagnosed with severe scoliosis. I cried and cried to the point where the consultant and nurse had to let me leave the appointment without having one. I didn’t feel like a young girl, but now I see 12-year old’s and realized why my parents were so scared for me. I spent 9 months in and out of the worst time of my life, I was depressed and didn’t speak to my family. I changed.

I hid in a thick jumper and coat at school so nobody could see my deformed back, despite it being 30°C and summer. In the months leading up to the operation, my mental health continued to deteriorate, but the waiting list was preventing me from the operation I was desperate for. After the major surgery to fix the curve in my spine, the recovery was long. It took months. I was so scared to have water on my back. I remember so vividly having a panic attack when it was time to shower for the first time since the operation. It took me months to get into a swimming pool and I would insist on covering myself up. I couldn’t do sports anymore. I used to ride, swim and do triathlons competitively but I gave everything I spent my childhood doing, up. Every time I tried to exercise there was always an excuse. But I was on the road to recovery, so it was ok.

Unfortunately, this was just the start of the problems. I thought I would just get better. Then I started to realize I couldn’t breathe. At one point, it felt like I could barely breathe at all. I also started experiencing severe anxiety on return to school and fought with panic disorder for about a year. I went to the doctors on multiple occasions and each time they told me I was just experiencing breathlessness due to anxiety. I argued and finally got a referral to a pediatrician, who allergy tested me. She said my lungs were the age of a 70-year-old but again, it was just anxiety! Through my GCSE years, I had therapy and I thought the anxiety was gone. It was just hiding. I still could not breathe. Eventually I saw a respiratory specialist who diagnosed me with restrictive lung disease and asthma.  The scan showed that one of my lungs is half the size of the other and my heart is not in the same place as everyone else’s because of this, and that ¼ of my big lung wasn’t even working due to infection.

However, having someone take me seriously was a huge relief. I had special respiratory physiotherapy and now take medication for my lungs. Being me, I was unlucky again.

The respiratory specialist had found a screw in a CT scan of my lungs that was dangerously close to my heart and sent me back to the spinal surgeon. He told me the operation wasn’t urgent, but that he had cancelled someone’s surgery (who waited a year to have it) and that he wanted to do it tomorrow. I woke up screaming in pain. My shoulders and neck have never been the same since. The surgeon couldn’t find anything wrong in a scan afterwards, so he sent me to a pain specialist. He basically said that I had no reason to be in chronic pain so off I go. I went to a specialist and got 3 medications to help with the pain. I have 16 Botox injections every 6 months when I can afford them, and it is the only thing that relaxes my neck and shoulders. The way I would describe the pain is severe, chronic and incredibly tense. They were constantly in spasm, which was excruciating and incredibly tiring.

By the end of my further education, I had missed out on 8 months of school and college due to pain, anxiety and fatigue. I was in so much pain and anxiety during my final exams, that I landed myself in the ER the day before my last ones from a tachycardia attack where my heart sat at 190 BPM for 3 hours.  Luckily, I take medication for my heart and I am symptom free most of the time, but it again took years to diagnose since the GP dismissed palpitations and a fast heart rate as being ‘anxiety’.

Nowadays, I focus on what my body needs. Recently, I discovered that the fatigue I’d been having for years, that kept getting worse was probably a neurological condition called narcolepsy, after the GP just told me it was probably anxiety, but then tried to pass it off as ME (chronic fatigue syndrome) after one appointment. I am now getting treatment for this which is exciting!

One of the perks of dealing with conditions like mine over a long period of time (over 7 years now) is that it has allowed me to learn about myself and what works for me. I understand it now.  Before, I wouldn’t let myself rest if I was about to collapse from exhaustion, but now I give my body time to recover before I start doing things again. I have friends with ME and the tips they have given me for my conditions help me as well, even though I don’t have it.

If I have, what I call a ‘pain crisis’, where my pain is worse than the average daily pain I get anyway, I have learnt to stop absolutely everything. It is hard to do that when you have a lot of goals, but it is an important step towards managing your body. After I turned 17, I started realizing I couldn’t hide from doing the things my friends could do for the rest of my life. I plucked up some courage and started doing things like get back on a horse and going to the gym.

I took a gap year and decided that it wasn’t fair on young people who had to wait for scoliosis surgery to have no support before and after the operation, so I have decided to set up my own organization to help this and called it RCASS.

I want to help young people and their parents after a diagnosis of scoliosis. The end goal is to provide more support in the future and to register as a charity to help provide young people with opportunities to recover confidence after scoliosis surgery. It is still in the starting stage, but I can’t wait to work on it properly!

I took a gap year before I went to university and decided its purpose was to ‘challenge myself to lengths I had not done before’. I went travelling alone, I went up mountains, on hikes, skiing, jumping off cliffs, surfing, volunteering and many more activities. I am incredibly proud of myself, but I must admit, the pain was still there. My biggest achievement to date is building the confidence to wear a bikini on a beach or by a pool. I never used to wear a small amount of clothes, but gradually I have worked up and now I don’t browse the shops thinking about what can hide my back, I’d rather show it!

As for my mental health, I needed the gap year and it did me the world of good. I still have some wobbly moments sometimes, and the anxiety meant I flew home 3 times on my travelling. But overall, I feel that my experiences have made me 10 times as more empathetic, understanding and positive compared to what I would have been like if nothing had ever happened to me! Another life changing moment was when I was told ‘a problem shared is a problem solved’.

It isn’t always easy when it comes to other young people but when I got to about 16 everyone started understanding and now I am so lucky to have incredibly supportive friends after I explain my problems to them, they help me with lots of things that I wouldn’t have help with if I didn’t share my story.

I tend to joke about my past now, and although it has been a harrowing journey, I know I am the person I am today from the experience.  Time has taught me how to look after myself. Although I still have problems, I know how to deal with them both in a better mental mindset and physical one too.