Category Archives: 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.

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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?

Participate in The Spondy Project. Get Paid.

About a year ago I connected with the folks of Self Care Catalysts and downloaded their free app, AS Health Storylines (available on android and Apple products), that helps track medication, symptoms, diet, appointments and more. This, and other apps, has helped me – sometimes I need a reminder to take a certain medication; I also like all this information in one place so I can share it with my doctor and disability attorney.

Recently, Self Care Catalysts has also unveiled The Spondy Project, a paid research opportunity for patients with Ankylosing Spondylitis and other forms of Spondyloarthritis. Participants can receive up to $100 for sharing their experiences through an app for up to four months. Read more below to see why I think you should sign up: Continue reading Participate in The Spondy Project. Get Paid.

A New Wheelchair User’s Experience at the Women’s March

The first time I used a wheelchair was after tearing my ACL during a college soccer match in Washington, D.C. in 2005. My teammates convinced me to use one when we visited the Holocaust Museum, instead of crutches. I remember feeling invisible. I remember being trapped in the middle of congested hallways and exhibit rooms, seeing nothing but the backs of people scooting around and in front of me like I was a planter box in their way. I remember feeling empathy for people who spend a majority of their lives in a wheelchair. I hardly remember anything about the museum from that visit. And I became terrified of ever needing to use a wheelchair again.


On January 21st, 2017, I rolled in the Women’s March on Sacramento alongside some 30,000 people. I have only recently, very reluctantly, decided to begin using a wheelchair because of deteriorating health. My experience from college still haunts me, but I am learning to embrace how much more fully I can participate in life by using assistive devices that reduce pain and fatigue caused by Ankylosing Spondylitis. It’s the difference between staying home and showing up.

However, I was nervous about navigating the march, even with friends to help push me. I expected that I would spend all my energy advocating for space just to be able to proceed in a straight line. I thought I might regret the decision to use the chair, even though not using it could result in being bedridden for days or weeks.

Would I return home wishing I had not gone? Continue reading A New Wheelchair User’s Experience at the Women’s March