Category Archives: Invisible disease

Your Friend Just Got Diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis. What the Heck?

 

First of all, what is Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS)?

Wait, how do you even pronounce it?

Ankylosing Spondylitis (An-kee-low-sing Spon-dih-ly-tuss) is a disease that causes inflammation throughout the body, especially in the spine and low back, and can cause bone spurs to fuse joints together, typically in the spine. As you can imagine, extra bone growing in your body that’s not supposed to be there can be quite painful. Additionally, since AS is systemic it can also damage organs including the eyes, liver, lungs, and more.

AS is generally treated by a specialist doctor called a rheumatologist. The clinical treatment recommended to slow down the progression of AS, as stated in the 2015 AS treatment guidelines published by the American College of Rheumatology, is a biologic drug if non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs fail (my understanding is that a combination of therapies is common, both pharmacological and complementary). A biologic is a specialty drug made from living cells (biologically, rather than chemically) that, in short, suppresses the immune system. In ankylosing spondylitis, the body constantly attacks itself, seemingly without a real danger present, which causes inflammation and damage. The biologic drugs slow that reaction but in doing so also decrease the body’s ability to fight infection. You can read more about how autoimmune vs auto-inflammatory diseases work here (hint: AS isn’t proven to be autoimmune).

So now that you know a teeny bit more about AS imagine you are the one who was just diagnosed with it.

Scary, huh?


Congratulations are in order simply because you are reading this blog post. It’s difficult to believe, but I often hear from people whose family and friends shun them for “faking being sick.” These same family and friends often don’t make an effort to learn what their loved one is actually experiencing. So thank goodness you believe your friend and want to learn more.

Continue reading Your Friend Just Got Diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis. What the Heck?

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What I Wish You Knew About Living with an Invisible Disease

You may look at my young, healthy-appearing body and ask, “You’re sick? Why don’t you suck it up and try harder? Why haven’t you tried XYZ?”


What you see is the poker face I’ve spent years creating, the one that allows me to pass in an able-bodied world so I don’t spend every moment defending my disease to faux-cure-evangelists.

What you don’t see is that I’m faking health to preserve my dignity, energy, and ability to accomplish whatever task it is I have to do before I collapse. Faking it is hard, but it’s easier than displaying my pain and then having to use more energy to defend my body’s permanent sickness.

What you don’t see are the grimaces I make when I’m in a safe place, when I allow myself to actually respond to the pain that is unrelenting, the pain that I do my best to ignore in public.

What you don’t see is the fear underlying my existence. Will I die young? Will I lose healthcare? What if my disability is denied? Will this new treatment work? Will I become homeless? Will I find a forever partner?

Continue reading What I Wish You Knew About Living with an Invisible Disease

I Wore a Blindfold and Asked People to Write Their Pain on My Body. This Is What Happened.

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.

I have made it my mission in life to do something about that ‘no cure’ part by raising awareness in all the ways that I can. I have been on the news, written articles, interviewed celebrities, represented patients at conferences and meetings, given speeches (including a TEDx talk), and testified in state legislative hearings and with members of Congress on Capitol Hill.

Recently I became a performance artist, too.

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.

Island
Image by Rich Beckermeyer, Rich Beckermeyer Visuals

Continue reading I Wore a Blindfold and Asked People to Write Their Pain on My Body. This Is What Happened.

What do you use your chair for? How a Lyft driver wore me out.

My phone rang – someone was calling from a Washington D.C. number. I usually ignore unknown numbers, but something made me answer this time.

“Hi, this is *Frank, your Lyft driver. I see you have a chair, will it fit in the back of a regular-sized sedan?”

I’d forgotten I had my account on the accessibility setting. This must have been why the only available driver was over 15 minutes away – Lyft had to find someone who could transport a wheelchair.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I forgot I had the accessibility setting on. I don’t have my chair with me.”

“Oh…ok. Well, I’m – I guess I’m about 10 minutes away. Bye.”

In my mind I began creating an awkward (or worse – judgmental) hypothetical conversation for when Frank arrived. Continue reading What do you use your chair for? How a Lyft driver wore me out.

Q&A with Charis about her journey with Ankylosing Spondylitis

 

These questions were asked by friends of mine after I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis. If you have a question, add it in the comments below!


How old were you when you started showing symptoms of AS?

I was 13 when I first began showing symptoms, although I’m beginning to think I was younger since I had really bad “growing pains” in my knees as a young kid. At 13, my hips began aching and cramping – I recall my friends in their 60s telling me it sounded like arthritis.

When were you first diagnosed, and how did you handle it? 

I was officially (clinically/medically) diagnosed during the spring of 2013, although I knew what it was several months beforehand. I did not have insurance when I found out, so I couldn’t have an official diagnosis until after I found insurance. At the time I would have been charged more for having a pre-existing condition. My whole world was uprooted. I have accepted that I have the disease, but I have not accepted what I have lost and what I am and will continue to lose.

How did it present initially and how were you finally diagnosed?

Symptoms multiplied over time as I aged. In late middle school I began experiencing a dull achy pain in my lower back – it hurt to lie on my stomach and prop myself up on my elbows because it arched my back (that aggravated my pain). In college my back would spasm at night. Severe low back pain began my sophomore year in college, even while I was playing college soccer.

Throughout my life: I would be told by people I sigh a lot, but I did not notice it – it turns out I have always struggled to fill my lungs with air. I was also always a very fidgety person, never able to sit in one position for long.

Some upper respiratory bug caught me in the fall of 2012; it wouldn’t go away. I went to urgent care twice in two weeks for a pneumonia scare and a heart attack scare, but each time nothing was discovered. When doctors tried to give me anti-anxiety and anti-depressants, I did my own research and discovered I had inherited my father’s disease. This was days after my 26th birthday in 2013.

I didn’t connect all my symptoms to the same disease until after I was diagnosed. Continue reading Q&A with Charis about her journey with Ankylosing Spondylitis

Talking Ankylosing Spondylitis with Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds

I don’t always interview rock stars – it’s not really my thing. But this day was different. This was personal.

It was a chilly morning, much too early for my stiff body to roll out of bed. But this was a big day – I would soon be interviewing Dan Reynolds, the lead singer of Imagine Dragons.

“This wouldn’t be happening,” I thought, “if we didn’t share a wicked diagnosis.”

In late 2015, Dan announced during a show that he lives with Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS). A year later, he partnered with Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation and the Spondylitis Association of America to launch This AS Life Live!, an interactive talk show for and by patients living with AS.

Before I keep going, I want to express how lonely it can be to trudge through life surviving a disease that people do not know about. I spend substantial time and energy educating friends, strangers, and even doctors about my condition, which leaves little room for receiving compassion and empathy – like the supportive gestures people usually offer to someone who has a disease in the limelight. Everyone knows cancer is bad, but AS is not a well-known disease, so for a celebrity to name it on stage is life-changing. Continue reading Talking Ankylosing Spondylitis with Imagine Dragons’ Dan Reynolds

Ankylosing Spondylitis: Are We at a Tipping Point?

And I don’t just mean our bodies.


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?

Continue reading Ankylosing Spondylitis: Are We at a Tipping Point?