Spotlight Story Program: Meet Meghan Smith

April is National Donate Life in America, and it’s a critical time to raise awareness on not only to become an organ donor, but also to learn the stories of those that have received this lifesaving transplants. One of those receipts is Maryland native Meghan Smith, a marketing executive that has used Instagram for our favorite thing…raising awareness, changing misconceptions, and showing how awesome and fun life can be with any health struggles. After a few years of health issues, it was discovered Meghan had liver disease and was in need of a transplant. Luckily, her uncle was a match to donate a portion of his liver! Meghan is such a transparent advocate because she shares the realness of post-transplant life, and all the medications and adjustments you make in life to adapt and excel. There’s no singular way to look or live as a young person with health struggle, and Meghan–who’s now a Donate Life Ambassador–is using her growing platform to give a fresh look on how incredible , fun and fulfilling life can be!

My name is Meghan and I am a 29 year old from Baltimore, MD. I work as a marketing executive for a global affiliate marketing company, and in my spare time enjoy traveling, reading, shopping, playing with my dog and spending time with friends and family. Growing up, I had a fairly normal and typical childhood. I lived in the suburbs outside of Baltimore with my mom, dad and younger brother, was active in dance and softball, and was generally healthy.

When I was 19 years old, I was studying at the University of Maryland when I started to develop abdominal pain and severe itchiness. I spent most of my college years going to different doctors trying to figure out the cause. Finally, at 22 I met a doctor at Johns Hopkins who determined the issue was caused by my liver. Around this time, my younger brother was 19 and started developing similar symptoms. For whatever reason, his liver disease had progressed much faster and he was in liver failure with liver cancer. He was listed for liver transplant and thanks to the generosity of one of my dad’s previous co-workers, received a living donor liver transplant at the age of 21.

I continued to be monitored by my hepatology team, and while numerous genetic tests were done to try to figure out the cause of our liver disease, there was never a match. In August of 2019 it was determined that it was time for me to be listed for liver transplant. Numerous people kindly reached out about being tested to be my donor. My uncle was the first person to undergo testing, and surprisingly he was a perfect match! It is very rare for the first person to be tested to be a match.

On December 10 2019, I received the amazing gift of a second chance at life thanks to my uncle donating a part of his liver to me.

Overall surgery and recovery went very well for the both of us. I spent two weeks in the hospital and was able to go home on December 24th, just in time for Christmas.

Unfortunately, two days later I developed an infection and had to be re-admitted to the hospital. Because my brother had gone through transplant before me, I was aware that transplant recovery is a process full of ups and downs along the way.

Once I was released from the hospital, I continued to recover and adjust to my new post-transplant life. This included taking a large number of medications multiple times a day to avoid rejection and infections, monitoring my vitals every day, and getting blood work multiple times a week.

I gradually built up to walking more often and getting out of the house more frequently. I was able to return to work at the end of February 2020 on a part-time basis, working up to full-time over the following months. I am incredibly lucky to work for a company that has been so supportive throughout my entire transplant process, and makes the health of their employees a priority.

Post-transplant I became a Donate Life Ambassador to help educate others on organ donation and encourage them to register to be an organ donor.

I’ve found that there are still many myths and misconceptions around organ donation and it is not discussed nearly enough, especially within my age group.

Almost 114,000 people in the United States are currently on the waiting list for a life-saving organ transplant, and on average 20 people die a day every day from the lack of available organs for transplant. I’m one of the lucky ones who received a transplant, and am inspired to help make the waiting list smaller and smaller until it is eventually 0.  

I’ve been using Instagram as a platform to share my transplant story and educate others on what it is like being an immunocompromised person during the COVID-19 pandemic. I think it is helpful to see that while someone may look “young and healthy” this may not always be the case, and to put a face to the people whose lives can be saved from following social-distancing measures and flattening the curve of the spread of coronavirus.

Throughout my transplant and now the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m often asked how I remain so positive given the circumstances.

My answer is pretty simple – I do what I can to protect myself and keep myself safe, but don’t worry over the things that are out of my control. I would offer the same advice to anyone who is feeling anxious during this time of unprecedented illness and uncertainty; do the things that have been recommended – wash your hands, stay inside as much as possible, practice social-distancing – but don’t let the thought of contracting the coronavirus consume you.

Take comfort in knowing you are doing everything you can to protect yourself and others, and use this time to practice self-care, pick up a new hobby, or do something you enjoy.

 

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Abbie Stapleton

In honor of Endometriosis Awareness Month, we are honored to have one of our GBL Ambassadors from England, Abbie Stapleton, sharing her health journey and some major life tips that will be fueling you to bring kindness into your life. Founder of the blog and Instagram platform, Cheerfully Live, Abbie has fused her personal experience going through the long diagnosis process with her joyful content that’s uniquely styled to provide relatable advice with empowering young adults in this chronic illness community. You will not only learn a lot about Abbie’s diagnosis journey with Endometriosis as a teen dealing with medical professionals not taking her symptoms seriously, but you will also learn how Abbie has preserved and uses her experiences to motivate in this empowered community of wonderful women around the world!  Now living with other diagnoses like Fibromyalgia and Costochondritis and Interstitial Cystitis, Abbie’s wide range of life experience lets her connect with many, and her platform truly is unique and joyful all her own.

Hi I’m Abbie, the founder of the Cheerfully Live blog and Instagram.

When I was 14, I experienced my first episode of excruciating pain, little did I know that I would have debilitating pain for the rest of my life. Every month, my periods would come and I would be bed-bound, unable to walk, fainting, with nothing working to ease my pain. I was back and forth seeing healthcare professionals month after month.

Every time I was told nothing was wrong.

My tests would come back clear and I was always dismissed as being the “unlucky one”, told I had a “low pain threshold” and that it was “part of being a woman”. I was even once asked by a doctor “are you sure you are not over-exaggerating?”. It wasn’t until my pain became chronic in December 2018, that Endometriosis started being investigated. I was sent from urology at first as they thought I was having urine and kidney infections that just wouldn’t clear, but then they realised my pain was more likely related to Endometriosis.

But when I saw a gynecologist, I was told that I could “never have severe Endometriosis because I was too young”. I pushed for an MRI to rule that out and to her surprise, my scans showed severe, deep-infiltrating Endometriosis. The relief I received after I got my results was huge! After years of gaslighting from healthcare professionals and feeling like the pain was all in my head, I realised my pain was real!

I was immediately referred to an Endometriosis specialist who tried me on the mini pill for 6 months, but unfortunately my pain only got worse. I finally had Endometriosis excision surgery with an Endometriosis specialist in December 2020, a year after being put on the waiting list. They found Endometriosis all over my uterus, left ovary, my bowel, bladder and both my kidney ureters.

During all of this I was also diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and Costochondritis and during my Endometriosis surgery I had a cystoscopy which revealed my bladder was chronically inflamed and that I had Interstitial Cystitis (also known as Bladder Pain Syndrome). Thankfully I’m now on the road to recovery and feeling some relief from my excision surgery, however I’m also now undergoing investigations for possible Fowler’s Syndrome and PoTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome).

When I was being investigated for Endometriosis, I needed a place where I could speak to others who were also going through the same thing, it was an incredibly challenging time, not only on my physical health but also my mental health. So that’s when I set up my blog and Instagram Cheerfully Live. I used my platform to document my journey, chat to others who were going through the same as me and share any advice which had helped me whilst going through the diagnosis process.

I’m so thankful for this community and my little platform – I’ve not only been able to support so many women in getting an Endometriosis diagnosis, I’ve encouraged them throughout their journey and shared helpful advice. I’ve also found comfort through everyone’s kind words and knowledge.

I’ve learnt so much about many different chronic illnesses and how best to support others, which has been invaluable!

There’s been so many amazing opportunities since starting Cheerfully Live such as becoming a GBL for InvisiYouth, speaking on the radio to share my story and collaborating with many amazing brands, charities and companies on raising further awareness for chronic illness!

And lastly, living with Endometriosis or any chronic illness is hard and so I wanted to share with you a few top tips that I’ve learnt along the way that have helped me cope living with my illnesses, both when advocating for yourself in medical settings and just in general life:

  1. The biggest piece of advice I could give is to get yourself invested into the chronic illness community! There is such a wonderful presence online of people sharing the realities of living with chronic illnesses on Instagram, but Facebook is also amazing for joining different groups that share lots of helpful advice. Also, Endometriosis UK offers face-to-face support groups, as well as lots of accurate information, so I’d definitely recommend their website, it’s a great resource.
  2. Research and really understand your condition, so that you are best able to advocate for yourself.
  3. Be honest and open with those you trust around you. Allow people to really see what it’s like living with your chronic illness, let people in, allow them to help and support you!
  4. If you are struggling to get healthcare professionals to listen or feel like you aren’t able to get answers – keep going and trust your instincts! If you know what you are experiencing is not normal, please keep fighting and advocating for yourself.

Being diagnosed with many different chronic illnesses has definitely made me the person I am today and in a way I’m grateful for the experiences and resilience that having a chronic illness has given me! I’m a much stronger person than I used to be 3 years ago, I am more empathetic and understanding of people’s situations. I fully understand now how debilitating fatigue and living with pain every day can be, but also now realise that you can’t always see on the surface that people are struggling.

So the main message of this piece is to remind you to be kind (especially to yourself) – you never know what someone might be struggling with under the surface. Your kindness and empathy might just change someone’s day, maybe even their life! So don’t wait to be kind, be kind today!

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Caitlyn Fulton

Meet Caitlyn Fulton

Growing up in Scotland with cerebral palsy, Caitlyn Fulton has challenged herself to not only become her biggest cheerleader for her daily life, but to take her hobbies and bring them into the forefront of the work and activism she does. Having studied music in university and being a model, Caitlyn is constantly free in using media and art to break stigmas while also empowering other young people that they can find their inner strength in the things they love to do. While Caitlyn’s CP doesn’t define her, it gives her a lens to tackle life and achieve her goals, and we’re proud that she’s a GBL-All Star in Caitlyn’s second year working with InvisiYouth in our leadership program! Caitlyn gives so much good advice your young adults to finds ways to enjoy life even in those medical settings, and how to have your chronic illness/disability be not your sole identifier but one of the traits that make you unique!

Hi! My name is Caitlyn, I’m 20 from Scotland. I was born premature and as a result was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. CP is a neurological condition which is caused by damage to the brain. For me, CP effects my balance and coordination.

I’ve used my health journey in my work by exploring the things I love, like my passion for music. I studied it at Diploma level [in university], and alongside music as a whole, I’m a vocalist at heart and love to sing. I can just be me and not think of my condition; it’s a freeing feeling of enjoyment too.

Secondly, I’ve used my health journey to inspire others by becoming a model—signed with Zebedee Talent—breaking down the barriers and stigmas about disability that the fashion and media industry hold.

It allows me to challenge stigmas on disability and raising awareness of disabled people in wheelchairs specifically by being seen in a positive light and that’s what I’m aiming for! There’s still a long way to go for the industry to be completely inclusive but in the last couple of years there’s been a real positive change within – step/wheel in the right direction.

I also play Boccia (a Paralympic sport) with a recognised team in Glasgow as part of Scottish Disability Sport. By doing so, not only am I raising awareness of disability but also women in sport too as it’s a rather male-dominated field.

Writing/blogging is recent addition but I like writing about topics that are important to me, such as disability rights and my hobbies which hopefully resonates with other young people as it’s great for them to know others out there like myself feel the same way as them. Through my health journey, I’ve grown in knowing I shouldn’t feel bad for having Cerebral Palsy. It makes me who I am, though it doesn’t define me. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I was non-disabled and I don’t know if I would want to be a totally different person – I’m happy being in the skin I’m in because I’m unique.

I’ve found ways to support others by sharing similar experiences and being a source of encouragement that while yes, life throws a lot of challenges, I always tackle them head on and think there’s always a reason why. I’m a true believer in the phrase, “things happen for a reason’.”

It’s been great having support groups too, connecting with others who have the same conditions and interests as myself. Social media is certainly a great tool to connect and interact. Especially with the likes of InvisiYouth, it’s been brilliant being part of such a great organisation and connecting with other young people worldwide.

When I look at my experiences in medical settings, there’s things I’ve learned that I’d love to share with others to improve their experiences. Even if it’s your first appointment in a new hospital where you’ve been referred for treatment, changing consultants or moving up from child to adult services -I know how daunting all of this can be as I’ve experienced it first hand – become familiar with your surroundings, get to know the nurses/staff who’ll be caring for you if its procedure-related.

Also bring home comforts, items that make you feel calm.

Whenever I went in for operations knowing it would be a good few weeks before going home, it helped knowing who the team members were that would have me in their care and over time there’s a bond that’s created. It’s bittersweet going home, I always felt sad saying goodbye when it was time to go yet it was a great feeling to know I was on the right track and made great progress.

In your daily life, know that your condition doesn’t defy you. Yes, it’s part of you but your worth so much more with the interests you have, outlays that shaped you, make you who you are. Dealing with my health has shaped me in knowing that I’ll experience many hurdles in life but I’ll always get through them no matter what. As I’ve gotten older I don’t feel embarrassed about having a disability and now I embrace it—it’s my superpower and I have a story to tell.

My main message: There will be good and bad days but know that your condition makes you who you are. Strive to be the best version of yourself, make the most of it.

I always say to myself ‘I was given this life because I was strong enough to live it’: strong enough to the face the battles that come my way and cherish the moments in live that are to be remembered. Look your bad days in the eye and know you’ll overcome them, maybe not tomorrow or the next day but you will achieve. Whenever you feel good in yourself, you can get through it all and survived another day, that’s what I tell myself and you should too – be proud!

Season Three of InvisiYouth Chat Sessions: A Video Podcast Series Premieres

January 27, 2020

InvisiYouth Chat Sessions Season Three announcement! InvisiYouth Charity’s popular virtual program, the video podcast series InvisiYouth Chat Sessions, is back for Season Three not only with some major changes, but upping their game with new segments and guests.

The format for our video podcast series has shifted a bit now having monthly podcast episode releases instead of biweekly.

Do not worry, InvisiYouth Chat Sessions will still bring all your favorite games, episode special guests, stellar conversations and lots of education that will still be fun yet informative!

And InvisiYouth Chat Sessions is even having some new segments coming into the podcast show, like Top Search, which is our medically adult-ish™ way of playing WIRED Autocomplete game.

Our first episode of Season Three is with the incredible disability travel blogger and programming coordinator for the UK’s leading accessibility guide, AccessAbleCarrie-Ann Lightley. Make sure to go to all video podcast platforms to watch the episode on YouTube, or our audio podcast.

Subscribe to “InvisiYouth Chat Sessions” on our YouTube channel, AND subscribe to our podcast channels on Apple PodcastSpotifyStitcherGoogle PlayiHeart Radio and anywhere you can find podcasts. Every subscriber, good review, five-star rating, thumbs up and like helps us continue to provide more programming to the incredible young adults in the chronic illness and disability community!Let’s get through the workweek slump and re-watch or re-listen to all our previous podcast episodes. You will get your fix of humor, life tips, empowerment and advice that will transform your life, guarantee!

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Rachel Hoy

Meet Rachel Hoy

Starting off 2021 with an upgrade to our Spotlight Story Program because it will now be MONTHLY human stories told BY young people FOR young people in the chronic illness/disability/mental health community! 

There is no better person to start the Spotlight Story Program for the new year than lyme disease activist and owner of the popular brand Tee Spoonies, Rachel Hoy. Being part of our Global Brand Leaders Program for two years, now as a #GBLAllStar, Australian Rachel has been such a firm believer for empowering young people with chronic illnesses to advocate for themselves. This coming from her experience living with Lyme disease and co-infections, along with POTS, MCAS, interstitial cystitis and autoimmune conditions. She understands that balancing life, work and chronic illness takes time–especially living with Lyme disease in Australia as comprehension and treatment access is harder to come by–and learning how you empower yourself to enjoy and succeed in life with any health struggles was something Rachel was super passionate for, and it resulted in her creating her own brand Tee Spoonies. Selling ethically made products like pocket tees, scrunchies, cards and more, Rachel has built a community behind Tee Spoonies that mirrors her style of activism perfectly!

My name is Rach – I’m a 28 year old Australian living with Lyme disease & co infections as well as POTS, MCAS, interstitial cystitis and autoimmune conditions.

I was infected with Lyme & co infections on a trip to the USA after finishing my Master’s degree six years ago.

The first two years after getting sick I spent most of my time searching for a diagnosis, only to find out when it did come, that the hardest part was ahead of me.

At 22 years, I had travelled the world, completed two degrees and worked as youth state manager and campaign designer for World Vision Australia, so having to step back to focus on my health was a steep learning curve.

Living with chronic Lyme disease in Australia is especially hard – it is recognised and understood even less here than overseas, which means limited access to doctors and treatments.

After six years of living with Lyme & co my illness has really progressed.

My main symptoms are severe joint pain, fatigue leaving me mainly housebound, headaches/migraines, gut, bladder and mast cell problems, and neurological issues including up to twenty seizures per day.

I learnt rather quickly how tough it could be living with chronic illness as a young person, including doctors who denied the severity of my illness and friends who left my side in the hard times.

I also realised the apparent need for us to be continually advocating for ourselves as chronically ill youth.

One day I had a light bulb moment and realised I could combine a number of my passions together: advocacy, ethical consumerism and design, in order to raise awareness about living with invisible illness.

My first design idea with Tee Spoonies was the invisible illness pocket tee, which has grown to be the most popular!

Having the tee resonate with so many invisible illness warriors has meant a lot.

I sew all of the pockets myself which adds a personal touch.

The chronic illness community is important to so many, and being a part of it in this way, and being able to create products that empower fellow spoonies has been a blessing.

Working with InvisiYouth the past two years has been a great experience. I’m proud to donate 100% of profits from our fundraiser upcycled scrunchie packs & 50% of profits from our recycled paper gift card packs to InvisiYouth.

Our brand is all about making unique, sustainable, ethically made products that are a labour of love.

We also donate 10% of all profits to the Lyme Disease Association of Australia. You can check out more on our website here: teespoonies.com

If I could give some pieces of advice to young people struggling with the throws of chronic & invisible illnesses it would be to remember your inherent value in this world over anything you could possibly accomplish.

Goals are great but values are key.

Often living with chronic illness can mean pushing back or rearranging timelines or goals, which can be disheartening, but who you are in life is a lot more important than where you are in life.

And if you’re reading this now I already know who you are is amazing, because the perseverance, resilience and strength living with serious illness requires does not come easily.

Secondly, you are not alone.

No matter how lonely, devastated or isolated you feel – there is a community out there who understand what you’re going through, and want to support, empower and help you in any way they can.

And lastly, YOU know YOU better than anyone!

Trust in yourself and advocate for your needs… with a little help from your friends 🙂

*to learn more about Rachel’s involvement in our GBL Program, click here. And to learn more about Rachel’s products with Tee Spoonies, click here.*

 

Spotlight Story Program: Meet Bridget Gum

Meet Bridget Gum

Our latest Spotlight Story comes from the East Coast of the United States, and this is not just any addition into our Spotlight Story Program, but from a special young woman who has worked her way up through InvisiYouth’s programming. 18-year-old Bridget Gum because as a volunteer with InvisiYouth during her senior year of high school, and transitioned into our international leadership program, Global Brand Leaders as a GBL-Ambassador. Bridget has fused her experience living with a rare autoimmune disorder called Transverse Myelitis and her love of advocacy, into a great future for her work as she’s now a student at Rider University with aims of helping others. 

My name is Bridget Gum and on November 11, 2002 I was found in my crib completely limp. Since I was a seven month old baby, it made it very challenging to diagnose me because I couldn’t communicate loss of sensation or ability to move, or even if I lost control of my bowel and bladder capabilities.

After six months of living in and out of hospitals and nearly dying a couple of times, I was finally diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder called Transverse Myelitis. This disorder attacked my immune system as well as my spinal cord, at the C5-C8 level of my spine, right around what the doctors call “Hangman’s Noose”, which is called that because most people lose the ability to breath and die.

Thankfully, for reasons no one can explain, my spinal cord injury is incomplete, which means my sensory and motor level doesn’t just stop at one level.

As a very young child, I was in therapy for an extremely long time so as to hopefully regain as much function as possible, however, I was only able to have movement and sensation from my shoulders up. Finally, when it was time, I was allowed to go to preschool. I was so excited. A couple of years ago, I found a comic that summarized my experience perfectly: a girl who uses a wheelchair at a specially designed desk for a wheelchair completely oblivious to the fact she was different.

My family treated me normally so when I went to school, I was made aware of how different I was. I grew up in an almost entirely able-bodied community, until I was in fourth grade. I finally went to a family summer camp made entirely for others with my disability, which was life-changing.

It was the first time I was with others like me, and not just being sick in a hospital together, actually doing fun activities. This was when I decided to educate myself on disabled culture and to become an advocate, for both myself and others. I began to work with my therapists to become more independent and began to work with my school to get better services and more appropriate accommodations. In eighth grade, I was diagnosed with epilepsy, completely unrelated to my previous disability.

The memory reset and medications from the seizures completely changed me and how I saw the world. I then became more open and helpful to others because I saw how helpful other people were to me and I really wanted to return that favor to the world.

Throughout my many years of hospitalizations and living with this disability, I learned a lot of responsibility and maturity, which is almost a requirement for living with a disability if you want independence. 

These qualities often seep into my personal life to the point where my friends call me the “Mom” of the group because I’m always helping people, listen to their problems, and I’m prepared for every situation, often in case of emergency.

While the lives of people with disabilities are very different, I wish we could live in a world where it doesn’t have to be.

Of course there will always be an element of medical needs that is different than an able-bodied person, I hope that others with disabilities won’t have to fight for accommodations or be surprised and overly grateful when someone makes you feel like an equal, and not someone who needs to be helped or as a burden.

Now, I have graduated high school and will be attending Rider University as a member of their honors program. And I have joined InvisiYouth Charity’s leadership program, Global Brand Leaders. I’m so excited about being a GBL-Ambassador for InvisiYouth because I want to help people and make the world a better place for everyone who lives in it, especially those with disabilities, and this gives me a platform to do that.

 

Founder Dominique’s Blog Presents … Podcast Master Class Miniseries

September 8th, 2020

It’s not an understatement to say 2020 has been anything but calming or as-planned. Rather it gave room for quite the opposite emotions.  A global health pandemic resulted in many being in quarantine, especially those that are immunosuppressed like myself in the chronic illness and disability communities. As we all have transitioned to being home—many working or studying from home—and we enter the last quarter of the year, lots of people have been searching for new content to bring a boost of energy into their days. Streaming TV series, finding those books we ‘haven’t had time to read’ and adding more fun activities have become part of our new daily regime. And what’s one thing that has been considerably boosted during quarantine and new hybrid work-from-home/schooling-from-home models?

Finding new podcast series to binge or jump into listening!

When the quarantine hit the InvisiYouth HQ of the NYC area, it definitely rocked our nonprofit’s team and we had to not only reevaluate a lot of our programs and plans for the years ahead, but also had to switch to all things virtual and work-from-home. When our video podcast series, InvisiYouth Chat Sessions, had to be put on hiatus (and we just started our third season, so we cannot wait to get back into film-recording!) we switched to creating an Instagram Live miniseries that ran for almost four months!

If you haven’t checked out the InvisiYouth Quarantine Coffee Break miniseries, you must do so ASAP as some of our episodes are on our IGTV.

But something we were thankful for was a project we actually started last year that is all about our love of podcasts and the incredible hosts that lead them! Seeing the wonderful impact podcast shows can have on the young adult community has made us want to highlight some of our most supportive and loved hosts, but also let them share their advice for this generation!

So many of you have asked us what it takes to start a podcast, the advice that we have gotten from our different empowered special guests on InvisiYouth Chat Sessions, and what are some of the dreams that many podcast hosts have for their future shows and community. We wanted to give you advice and tips to podcasting, some life lessons these hosts have gain from their guests, and give you an opportunity to learn more!

I am so excited to share these five incredible podcast series and their wonderful hosts!

Plus, at the end, I’m also going to give you some of the most memorable moments from the InvisiYouth team as we look back on all our episodes of InvisiYouth Chat Sessions.

Please give a listen to all these podcasts, and make sure to subscribe to them too because their shows are so much fun!

Uninvisible Podcast, hosted by Lauren Freeman

Website        Spotify       Apple Podcasts       Instagram        Twitter       Facebook

• What’s your podcast’s description/all about? 

A: Uninvisible Pod is a show about chronic and invisible illness – from the perspective of patients, caregivers, and practitioners across the spectrum of healing modalities.

• What inspired you to make this podcast? 

A: Like so many others in the Spoonie community and beyond, I got inspired…when I got sick. In 2017, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease and sleep apnea; I’ve also lived with depression and anxiety since I was a teen. I’d been working in the women’s health activism space, and it shocked me how many people in my network started coming out of the woodwork with thyroid disorders and various invisible conditions – that we’d NEVER talked about – when I went public with my news. My background is in acting and voice work – so it felt incredibly natural to give these enlightening conversations a platform, or a soapbox, if you will – by way of recording them. And I haven’t looked back!

• What is a favorite or memorable episode so far?

A: Too many – these episodes have become so personally meaningful and fostered amazing new relationships that have enriched my life in so many ways. I definitely fangirled HARD over Ilana Jacqueline (ep 43), laughed out loud with Karyn Buxman (ep 37), and learned amazing things from Sascha Alexander (eps 25, and 19) and Ariel of @carpe_that__diem (eps 40 and 41… but perhaps most meaningful to me have been the episodes when longtime friends allowed me to help them share their stories. Because of my interviews with Katie Georgiou (ep 10) and Dr. Harold Kraft (ep 7), Katie’s been offered free treatment for her MS and will be here in LA receiving it by the time this writing goes live; my friend Dayna Schaaf has been my rock, and decided to join the Spoonie club with an undiagnosed condition she talks about in ep 8; and one of my oldest friends, Clare Stafford, talked about surviving breast cancer – twice – in her 30s! – in ep 44. Also – my friend and former America’s Next Top Model contestant Mercedes Shorte (ep 1) was not only my first subject on the show…but also the first interview I recorded! Having InvisiYouth founder Dominique on the show (ep 18) was also an amazing experience. Her story is…WOW! This show is the best kind of rollercoaster!

• What’s a piece of advice you’ve gained from a guest on an episode? 

A: I always ask my guests for tips, so there are a lot of great answers to this question. But I think my favorite is: be open to trying something new – start thinking outside the box. This also means – seek second opinions, ask questions, and know that there is hope. Be curious, and be prepared not only to learn from yourself – but to be surprised.

• What’s something you’ve learned from being a podcast host?

A: Not a single one of us is alone. It doesn’t matter how complicated or weird or taboo or tough your condition is – you’re not the only one out there. Even with a super rare disease. There are others like you – you just need to look for them.

• What’s some advice you’ve gotten to pass along to new podcasters?

A: Have fun. At the end of the day, this is an investment of your time and resources – so make sure you’re finding joy in it. But also: be a responsible host. Ask the tough questions. Take the reins. Dig deep. It’s your journalistic duty in a post-truth world.

• If you could set a dream episode for your show, who would be part of it? What would it cover? 

A: JAMEELA JAMIL! She’s my Spoonie hero…but also I want to be her best friend! Not only is she blazing trails because of her outspokenness, but her relatability is exactly what makes her appealing. You don’t even have to be a Spoonie to dig what she’s about! I’d want to delve into the overlapping elements of invisibility not only in her experience as a WOC with invisible illness…but also those layers in the lives of individuals she’s met since starting @i_weigh, and how they’ve expanded her perspective. And I’d want to talk about the role of empathy in the future of healthcare, and how she sees that concept developing into…something, perhaps?…more functional for both doctors and patients.

 

Headcase Podcast, hosted by Stephanie Hoffmann

Website        Apple Podcasts        Spotify        Pippa        Instagram

•  What’s your podcast’s description/all about?

A: My podcast surrounds mental health, awareness and wellness. My goal is breaks down the boundaries of this taboo subject by diving deep into the world of mental health and all that relates to it. This show establishes real and honest mental health conversation through stories and discussions straight from the people who’ve experienced them. HeadCase’s purpose is to spread awareness and end the stigma by enlightening audiences on the lack of education, information and options for those who suffer through or are directly affected by it. HeadCase is the podcast you’ve been ANXIOUSLY waiting for.

• What inspired you to make this podcast?

A: What inspired me to make this podcast initially was a concussion I suffered that unleashed many side effects from beneath the surface. Primarily anxiety and depression and it stopped my life in my tracks and to this day is something I struggle with. I wanted a place where everyone could discuss whatever it is they’re going through without judgement, fear or hesitation.

•  Favorite/A memorable episode so far?

A: One of my most memorable episodes, although all of them are unique, would have to be the episode titles Sensitive to a Fault with Hannah Blum. It was the first time I got any real understanding of Bipolar 2 disorder and a raw explanation of of her experience in a mental institution.

• What’s a piece of advice you gained from a guest on an episode?

A: I’ve learned so much from all my guests. I think the main thing I gain is that no matter how bad things may seem or get, there truly is a light at the end, even if it doesn’t shine every day, doesn’t mean you give up on yourself or your life.

•  What’s something you’ve learned as a podcast host?

A: I’ve learned what it is to truly listen, not just hear. It’s made me a more empathetic person than I already was! And ongoing, I’m learning to speak better publicly.

• What’s some advice you’ve gotten that you’d pass along to new podcast hosts?

A: I would say, try not to talk over or interrupt your guest, pace yourself so you don’t step on your own words and be calm! Let your personality shine through that microphone— (which you should never have more or less than 4 inches from your mouth.

• If you could set a dream episode for your show, who would be on it? What would it cover?

A: I have so many dream guests I’d like to talk to. Lately, I’ve been noticing how active Justin Bieber has been in the mental health world and I’d love to hear his whole story as told from a real, raw and honest place that people may not have heard yet. Other guests I always think about having on are Jay Shetty, Russell Brand, Kevin Love and Pete Davidson. The list truly goes on but I’m thankful for all the guests I get because being candidly open is extremely brave, famous or not.

 

The Women Wave, hosted by Sterling Cates and Tricia Cleppes

Website          Apple Podcasts          Spotify          Instagram

  • What’s your podcast’s description/all about?

A: The Women Wave is a multimedia creative house that produces empowered content for women. At TWW, we encourage women to authentically connect and get involved in the world around them. In addition to an online community of women and IRL events, we have a weekly podcast that comes out every Thursday that covers everything from personal experiences, to politics, pop culture, and more. Each week, you can expect a bold, inspiring, and unfiltered conversation.

  • What inspired you to make this podcast?

A: The Women Wave came to be when we realized we weren’t the only women craving authentic conversations about our experiences. As long distance best friends in constant communication (bless you, FaceTime) about our lives and the world around us, we decided to make our private conversations public, creating space for other women to be just as vulnerable and supported. With so much going on right now, we figured we couldn’t be the only ones trying to figure it all out. We were right — and the best thing happened, now we get to do it with all of YOU!

  • What’s a favorite or memorable episode so far?

A: It’s so hard to choose a favorite because every week is so incredibly different! Over the past 106+ episodes, we’ve laughed (a lot), cried (a lot), and really explored topical stories in ways we didn’t know possible. One great thing about having this platform is we get to express our civic duty and rights, like protest and organizing. When there were families being separated at the border, we had a platform to spread awareness, research, and resources in the form of an emergency minisode.

On weeks where we may be traveling or can’t cover that week’s news, we’ll pre-record episodes where we take deep dives in to 1-2 topics or answer listener questions — which gives us a rare opportunity to dig deep, discover some gems and help our audience get to know us more. Here are a couple of our favorites. Do The Work (Episode 98) and No One Asked, We Answered (Episode 96).

  • What’s a piece of advice you’ve gained from a guest on an episode?

A: We have a bi-monthly series on our website called Women Making Waves, where we feature badass women who are playing active roles in making waves in their communities (which is how we connected with Dominique and InvisiYouth!). We have learned SO MUCH from each and every woman we’ve had the privilege of interviewing. We recapped some of the highlights on Episode 96, Lessons in Boldness from Women Making Waves. To point a quote out in particular, we refer back to this one a lot from Gender Equity Now’s Executive Director, Sara Sanford: “I’ve acted out of fear and I’ve acted out of bravery. I can’t think of a single time in which I acted out of fear that I would look back on and say, “I’m so glad I was timid. I’m glad I dimmed my light.” Whatever the thing is that you fear, it still comes for you. Wouldn’t you rather it came for you knowing you were true to yourself, that you had acted with integrity? Aren’t you coming out of that fire with your head held higher? I’ve endured consequences for being bold, and I don’t regret a single one of those decisions. If a job or a relationship doesn’t thrive in the midst of your strength, it means it’s not right for you; it doesn’t have enough to offer back to you. If you act boldly, you will find the people and the work that honor your strength – but you won’t get to that place by acting out of fear.” FIRE TWEET.

• What’s something you’ve learned from being a podcast host?

A: The nature of our podcast keeps us accountable for doing the work and doing the research. Each week we challenge ourselves by keeping up with the news and what’s going on in the world around us. It can be exhausting, yes, but ultimately it fuels our curiosity and desire to spark similar dialogue in our listeners own lives. We’ve also learned that vulnerability breeds vulnerability. By being willing to come to the table as we are, we’re creating a space for others to do the same. We’ve gotten so many wonderful messages from our community members who have similar stories or who were inspired to do something by something we said – and that’s an extremely humbling and motivating feeling. That connection keeps us going!

• What’s some advice you’ve gotten that you would pass along to new podcast hosts? 

A: Start. We didn’t have it all figured out when we decided we wanted to start a podcast – we just started. This whole thing has been through so many phases (#same), and ultimately hasn’t been the most by-the-book journey, but it’s been ours and it’s been beautiful. We are all works in progress, and that includes our expressions of creativity. Aside from that, don’t allow all the blogs out there to intimidate you – you don’t need the fanciest equipment or millions of dollars behind your podcast. You don’t need sponsorships to have a platform. If you’re committed to consistency and have a desire to use your voice in this way, just do it! And yes, do your research. 😉 Go in with a vision and a why. Our vision was to make our private conversations public. Why? We believe women are craving authentic connection and reassurance that they are not alone. Despite having gone through a rebrand and the natural evolution of this project, our vision and our why has never wavered.

If you could set a dream episode for your show, who would be part of it? What would it cover?

A: We sometimes lovingly say that our podcast is just a recap our Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations, so we think we’d have to say the obvious answer here: Oprah. There would be birds chirping as we sit with her on her Maui estate’s lawn. We would talk honestly about fear, resilience, purpose and the power of being a woman.  After we finish up she’d call Gayle and Stedman and we’d all make dinner using ingredients hand-harvested from Oprah’s famous garden. Then she would turn to us and say, “You know, after our interview today you’ve convinced me: I am running for President. Oh and also, you can live here if you want.” …Oh sorry, did we go too far?

In Visibility  Today, hosted by Laura Elliot

SoundCloud     Apple Podcasts    Patreon     Twitter Podcast     Twitter for Laura

  • What’s your podcast’s description/all about?

A: In Visibility Today is a (usually!) monthly podcast featuring an extended interview between me and another disabled or chronically ill guest, covering topics ranging from politics, culture, activism, art, and everything in between. The tag line is: sharing who and what’s visible in disability, and every month (my own health allowing), I aim to provide a platform for someone with a chronic illness or disability to share the work they’re doing within and outside of the community.

• What inspired you to make this podcast?

A: Before I became disabled, I completed my MA in Broadcast Journalism, so when I became housebound in 2016 one of the things I really missed was working in a radio newsroom. I decided to use the skills I still had to provide a platform for people like me to share their work and experiences outside of the mainstream media. As well as offering that platform, it’s also been a valuable way for me to learn about disability and chronic illness as a newcomer to this community. I intended the podcast to help other people learn about disability and other topics, and to understand that life doesn’t stop with disability, but actually, I think I’ve ended up learning more than anyone from my guests!

• What is a favorite or memorable episode from your podcast so far?

A: There have been so many it’s very hard to pick! Some highlights include speaking to Eugene Grant about compiling his own library of dwarfism history (his preferred phrasing), and interviewing Gail Ward from Disabled People Against Cuts in the UK, who have been fundamental in challenging the current government on the impact of their austerity measures on disabled people. I’ve also loved talking to author Lydia Ruffles about how chronic migraine lead to her writing her first YA novel, and writer and performer Sabrina Richmond about incorporating British Sign Language into her theatrical work.

• What’s a piece of advice you’ve gained from a guest on an episode?

A: I think the best piece of advice I got was from Sabrina, who spoke very eloquently about making autobiographical work, and the importance of defining how much of yourself you’re willing to share with an audience. She said she always tried to find that balance between honesty and vulnerability, and protecting her own privacy and the important parts of herself that aren’t for public consumption, by asking: will I still feel comfortable with this three months from now, when the adrenaline has faded and the work has already been shared?

• What’s something you’ve learned from being a podcast host?

A: I’ve learnt just how many incredible disabled people there are out there doing so much awesome work! Coming from mainstream media into a much more niche, homebound format has narrowed my focus, and it’s been a privilege to learn about various topics more in-depth than I’d ever have been able to do in a newsroom. Also, the importance of letting a conversation flow naturally, and not being afraid of the mic!

• What is some advice you’ve gotten to pass along to new podcast hosts? 

A: Try not to be too performative when you’re running the show. It’s tempting to over-compensate because obviously you’re relying purely on audio, but the best podcasts feel like being invited into someone’s living room for a chat, so just relax, and enjoy the conversation as you’re recording. Oh – and make sure you actually hit “record”!

 

• If you could set a dream episode for your show, who would be part of it? What would it cover?

A: I have two dream guests that I’d love to have on, and they are Frances Ryan, a journalist at The Guardian, and Jack Monroe, an author, cookbook writer, and campaigner in the UK. I’d love to talk to Frances about working as a disabled freelance journalist with a focus on disability rights and austerity, and how she manages her health and her investigative work. And I’d love to talk to Jack about their adaptive techniques cooking and writing, and their extensive knowledge of diet and health.

Made Visible, hosted by Harper Spero

Website       Apple Podcast        Spotify        Stitcher        Overcast        Google Play

Instagram for Podcast        Twitter for Harper        Instagram for Harper

• What’s your podcast’s description/all about?

A: Made Visible is a podcast that gives a voice to people with invisible illnesses. This podcast aims to change the conversation around invisible illnesses, helping those who experience them–whether as patients, caregivers, or friends or family members–feel more seen and heard. There’s no blueprint about how to live with an invisible illness, or how to be there for someone who has one. The goal of Made Visible is to help people living with invisible illnesses feel less alone as they strive to create a “normal” life, while also creating a new awareness of how we can be sensitive and supportive to people who are navigating these conditions. We never truly know what another person is going through unless we ask, listen, and do our best to understand.

• What inspired you to make this podcast?

A: I spent the first 27 years of my life hiding my invisible illness because I felt so much shame about it, and wanted to fit in. After undergoing a major surgery in 2012 where I could no longer hide my health, I started sharing my story and health challenges with friends and family and felt like I peeled off a layer that had been protecting me. Additionally, I started writing about it and found that my story and experiences resonated with others. But, as I searched for outlets and stories that were focused on invisible illness, I felt like I couldn’t always find content I related to. As an avid podcast listener, I decided to create the content I wanted to consume in podcast form. Thus, in July 2018, Made Visible was born!

• What’s your most memorable or favorite episode so far?

A: There are so many! I don’t play favorites. An episode I enjoyed was with Jaime Walden (Episode 56) who lives with Crohn’s disease. What I loved most about Jaime was that she didn’t hold back–she shared so much of her life, her health and the real struggles she faces while managing this illness…many of which are not so fun to talk about. She brought a lot of humor into our conversation.

• What’s a piece of advice you’ve gained from a guest on an episode?

A: Letty Cottin Pogrebin (Episode 30) talked about the importance of treating people like humans, not as patients. If you’re looking to support someone who is managing an invisible condition, it’s important to identify the things they love and how you can continue to make those things part of their life. Offer to bring them their favorite meal (or just show up with it!) instead of assuming they want soup.

• What’s something you’ve learned from being a podcast host?

A: I’ve been listening to podcasts for a while and when I started this I wanted to ensure that the content did not get stale. Over time, I have worked really hard to make sure I come up with unique questions, listen intently to my guests, and create diverse content so it never becomes repetitive. I never want someone to feel the way I have with other shows and get bored and stop listening.

• What’s some advice you’ve gotten you would pass along to new podcast hosts? 

A: Screen your guests in advance. Ensure they are media trained and good storytellers. Also, if you’re going through an assistant, publicist or manager, ensure the guest you’re recording with knows the premise of the show. This seems obvious but I’ve had a guest record and then ask me what the theme of the show is.

• If you could set a dream episode for your show, who would be part of it? What would it cover?

A: I have been watching Selma Blair’s journey with multiple sclerosis over the last year and am so thrilled to see her willingness to share so much of her day-to-day challenges. It’s important for people of influence to share their stories and help others know they’re not alone. I would love to interview her and talk about the process of deciding to share, how she chooses what she shares and when, and what it’s like to be a mother living with an invisible illness that’s becoming increasingly less invisible.

* * * * * * * * * *

Want to know another special addition to this epic InvisiYouth Podcast MasterClass Mini Series?? It’s my selection of some of my favorite episodes of InvisiYouth Chat Sessions!! And this was TOO HARD because we love something about every episode and each wonderful guest! But here are some of my MUST-WATCH and MUST-LISTEN episode from our podcast series!

Season One, Episode 14

For forever, my favorite is our tribute episode to my friend, and one of the best cystic fibrosis activists, Claire Wineland. I was planning with Claire her guest appearance for Season One before she passed away, and I decided to switch around and create a memory episode filled with Claire’s best YouTube moments. Highlight: getting to have Claire’s mom, Melissa, as the special guest because she’s one of the kindest souls I have met. It’s been two years since Claire passed away, and still to this day, I will watch this episode and feel the love Claire was always able to bring into the room.

YouTube        Apple Podcasts        Spotify        Google Play

Season Two Episode 26

Season Two ended with a dream guest, Diversability’s CEO and founder Tiffany Yu. In the early stages of InvisiYouth Chat Sessions development, we made a wishlist of powerful women in the chronic illness and disability space we’d love to have as a guest and Tiffany was on the top of that list. Her episode has an impactful discussion on the importance of good allyship and life lessons we still get comments about from people finding our series with E26.

YouTube        Apple Podcasts        Spotify        Google Play

Season Two Episode 24

Fun Fact: This episode is our most viewed YouTube video AND most popular audio podcast! And with the Kowlessars chatting about relationships with chronic illness, I know why! Anna (founder of People Hope) and her husband Randy have a a dynamic of fun, love, and passion that makes them guests you’ll be hooked to listen to from the first minute. I had the most laughs filming with them, and every listener will share this podcast to friends, it’s so good! Also BTS: we had technical difficulties and had to re-record the episode entirely again, so I got to experience two completely different episodes with Anna and Randy!

YouTube        Apple Podcasts        Spotify        Google Play

Season One Episode 7 and Season Two Episode 25

Our only returning podcast guest of InvisiYouth Chat Sessions is also one of my greatest friends and BOTH of his episodes are podcast gems! Cystic fibrosis activist, producer, and author Travis Flores brought two completely different tones to both episodes and that diversity makes him a standout guest. The friendship with me and Travis is such fun and clear in both E7 and E25 so you feel like you’re just hanging out with some new friends!

YouTube Epi7        Apple Podcasts  Epi7      Spotify Epi7        Google Play Epi7

YouTube Epi25        Apple Podcasts  Epi25      Spotify Epi25        Google Play Epi25

* * * * * * * * * *

When I decided to create this Podcast MasterClass, there were a ton of series that our team immediately mentioned that they were huge fans of too. It started when I began developing the premise of InvisiYouth Chat Sessions being the vocal point of our virtual programming. I was finding all these wonderful podcasts, hosted by these talented and diverse people and I was being inspired about the show I was creating for InvisiYouth Charity that I knew could hopefully become an addition to this list of shows I love.

And now InvisiYouth’s team has created our honorable mentions of top podcast picks.

*fun fact: I’ve been a special guest on some of these shows too!

Bit Different Pod        Chronic But Iconic        What Fulfills You?        Hey, Girl

Two Disabled Dudes     Call Your Girlfriend     Sickboy     The Gurls Talk Podcast

Disabled to Enabled    Point of Pain    Gentler Pod     This is Not What I Ordered

Please give a listen to all these podcasts that I am chatting about because they are AMAZING, their hosts are BADASSES, and I am a mega fan of all of them, and feel like I grow as a podcast host because of them too. Make sure to subscribe to their series, AND SUBSCRIBE TO INVISIYOUTH CHAT SESSIONS TOO too because their shows are so much fun!  We learn when we are open-minded, curious and eager to become better people, so when you listen to podcasts, you are truly getting to become a student again, be entertained, and feel that human connection. It’s why I love podcasting, and why I love that InvisiYouth Chat Sessions gets to be the focal point of our virtual programming. Lots of love!

~Dominique, founder and executive director

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.

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

*repost from February 25, 2018*

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

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

I feel flooded with a ping-pong of thoughts:

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

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

Photo Courtesy of IMDB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Dominique

InvisiYouth Launches Fundraiser Campaign, InvisiYouth Give Back Challenge for December

November 25, 2019

InvisiYouth’s month-long fundraiser campaign, InvisiYouth Give Back Challenge, launches December 1st and has goals beyond just raising needed funds that will support our programs/events helping young adults with chronic illnesses and disabilities.

(Donate on our JustGiving Page or GoFundMe Page!

100% goes towards InvisiYouth’s 2020 programs!)

This is a fundraiser encouraging everyone to find the ways in their life they can donate back at any scale—where quantity per donor is NOT the priority. It is all about mobilizing young people and their support networks to be small pieces of a large fundraising goal and knowing with certainty each cent matters.

#IYGiveBackChallenge is the first fundraiser campaign built to be easy and stress-free…how amazing is it to be able to feel good AND do good during the holiday season without the hassle.

And the steps to give back are simple:

1. Find one part in your daily life this December and flip it into a mini fundraiser moment!

We’ve got lots of quick #IYGiveBackChallenge ideas here!

Make your coffee and donate that to InvisiYouth!

Collect your coins for December and make that a donation 

Donate in someone’s name as part of your holiday gift that keeps on giving!

Make those holiday parties and friend movie night hangouts super feel good and collect mini-donations from each person for InvisiYouth!

Just want to be awesome one day and drop a donation, that’s perfect!

More ideas on our website too!

2. Donate that amount (any amount, in any currency) to either of our fundraiser pages! (JustGiving or GoFundMe)

3. Donate Shout yourself! Use our #IYGiveBackChallenge certificate on our Instagram or download it here. Plus, we want to give you a shout out for your donation! So tag @invisiyouth!

4. We encourage everyone to get into the giving back spirit and challenge up to four people to also take the #IYGiveBackChallenge!

Friends, family, colleagues, loved ones, Instagram friends or your favorite celebs, influencers and athletes too! Anyone you can think of, challenge them, the more the merrier!

Our goals of $2,000 is so tangible if each person even donates the smallest amount they can and creates a way of donations for change!

100% of all donations in the #IYGiveBackChallenge will be used for InvisiYouth’s 2020 programs (virtual, resources, and leadership training opportunities) and events. Your money will be directly aiding young adults with chronic illnesses and disabilities that truly need our help to thrive and succeed in their lives.

When you donate to InvisiYouth Charity, you are changing a life for the better, and that’s a guarantee! So please, help us be able to continue our work supporting these deserving young people because we cannot do it without you.

Take the InvisiYouth Give Back Challenge, share it on social media, challenge your friends, family, followers and favorite celebrities to get philanthropic with you! What better way to end 2019 feeling good about yourself than knowing each cent you donate is impacting thousands of lives in the year ahead of us!