Today, Congresswoman Doris Matsui hosted a press conference in Sacramento in response to the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill. I was invited to share my healthcare story as a Chronic Disease Patient Advocate alongside several elected officials in attendance, including the Congresswoman, California State Senator Dr. Richard Pan, California State Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, and Councilmember Angelique Ashby.
If you don’t already know, pain is a deeply personal subject for me. I have been fighting ankylosing spondylitis (AS) since 2000, since I was 13. AS is an often-invisible, progressive disease that attacks joints of the body with painful inflammation. In severe cases, it can cause bone spurs to grow that can fuse the spine into a single long column of bone. AS can also damage multiple organs, including the intestines, liver, kidney, lungs, heart, and eyes. There is no cure.
Each month, Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California hosts a themed ‘ArtMix’ night. In August 2017, the theme was Combust, inspired by Burning Man, and I was granted permission to be an interactive art installation. I named the piece ‘My Body the Temple,’ inspired by the Temple at Burning Man.
I wore a bikini, sat on a stool, blindfolded myself, and offered people the opportunity to write their invisible pain on my body.
I’ve heard some say disability benefits are unnecessary hand-outs for people who should just die off, and why should hard-working people foot the bill for people who are lazy, whose lives mean nothing?
The disability process itself mirrors these same sentiments – the 3-5 years (average) process for applying, fighting for, and receiving disability (SSI or SSDI) in the USA is by its nature a grueling process, with analysts hired to deny applicants not once, but twice (standard procedure), forcing the applicant to appeal their case twice over several months before a hearing is granted, which then takes years to schedule due to a shortage of judges. It is a process intended to force people to give up.
Recently, during a visit to the pharmacy, I noticed someone wearing the same compression gloves I was wearing.
“Hey, nice gloves!” I held up my hands to show mine.
She responded, “I have Raynaud’s.”
I said, “I have Ankylosing Spondylitis.”
…crickets. I might has well have just ripped off my clothes.
She looked as though I’d spoken another language. For a disease that is oh-so-NOT-rare, it sure feels like it in these instances. Not only is it a difficult pair of words to pronounce, people’s initial thoughts might revolve around names of dinosaurs – Ankylosaurus Spoondywhat?
There is not a one-size-fits-all way to become a chronic disease advocate or activist. Everyone’s journey will be shaped by personal experiences, interests, time and ability.
I’ve gathered these tips from my own journey, but by no means is this an exhaustive list and I don’t recommend attempting them all at once. Also, while directed at people who have chronic diseases, these tips can apply to partners, caregivers, friends and family who want to become allied advocates.
As long as the end goal is to raise awareness publicly for the sake of social or political change, there is no inherently wrong way to create an advocacy platform.
1) Get comfortable telling your own story. Come out as sick. Introduce your disease to friends, family, and peers in a manner that also outlines your clear desire for them to listen – you may even need to say, “This is my story and unless you have lived it, I expect you to really hear me.” No one can tell your story for you and owning your experience can be empowering. Also consider that there are hundreds, thousands, or millions more people experiencing the same things you are.