Tag Archives: BeingCharis

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.

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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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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

14 Ways To Become a Chronic Disease Advocate

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.

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Charis giving a TEDx talk in Sacramento, CA in September 2016

Continue reading 14 Ways To Become a Chronic Disease Advocate

“An Invisible Disease” – my TEDx talk

In September, I had the honor and privilege of giving a TEDx talk just two weeks after my father died from Ankylosing Spondylitis, a disease I inherited from him. I am so grateful for having this platform to share via the Sacramento TEDx Changemakers series.

I hope you’ll watch and share this video to raise awareness about living with chronic illness, but I also hope you’ll take something away for your own journey.

Click here to watch the 8-minute video:

An Invisible Disease : Charis Hill : Sacramento TEDx Salon


To the Social Security Administration About Denying My Claim for Disability Benefits

When I first wrote about applying for disability, I mentioned a standard practice of the Social Security Administration: default semi-automatic denials of disability claims. On average, it takes 3-5 years for someone who is disabled to be awarded benefits. This routine dragging out of claims affects me and many others financially and emotionally and also feels immoral and unjust. The disability process has been intentionally crafted to be as difficult as possible to navigate and even survive, yet this program was founded for the purpose of helping people live better lives.

The following letter is my formal response to a denial of my first claim. To be clear, many claims are denied twice before moving to a hearing with a judge. I am sharing this publicly because I want to expose the vulnerability so many go through as they seek disability – as they seek resources so they might live longer, healthier, fuller lives in the face of significant barriers to a substantial work-life.

Before I share my letter, here are some reasons I was told I am not disabled under the rules of the Social Security Administration:

Continue reading To the Social Security Administration About Denying My Claim for Disability Benefits

My Walk to Cure Arthritis

I still remember my first time. I showed up curious, yet expecting to be bored. After doing cancer walks and fundraisers for everyone else, this was just another event for people with some horrible condition. I didn’t really take it seriously – after all, arthritis was for old people, not me.  This walk felt like something else to fill up space on my calendar. I could be doing…something else.

It was May 18th, 2013, and I was standing in front of the California State Capitol building at 8:30am. A month earlier I had been diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis. It was “California-HOT.” People were gathered around without much energy – people I didn’t know, until a few friends showed up and held me upright while I wondered for the last time what I was actually doing there. I still didn’t want to accept I actually had arthritis.

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With Suzy, 2013 Arthritis Walk

I had raised over $2,000 for this walk. Raising the money was a way to share my story after the shock of hearing the words, “You have ankylosing spondylitis.”

It wasn’t about the money. It was about screaming at the top of my lungs to be heard after my world fell apart. It was about what I could control. While I couldn’t control this new diagnosis, I could make sure everyone in my life knew about it.

It wasn’t about the money. It was about people seeing my world fall apart, and I wanted my friends to glue me back together and erase the scars. Continue reading My Walk to Cure Arthritis

Reclaiming Our Bodies; Sex and Ankylosing Spondylitis

I wrote this article, which first appeared on http://www.ThisASLife.com in November 2015. What you see here is an unedited, shared version with a different cover image. The direct link to the original article is here: http://www.thisaslife.com/lifestyle/sex-and-ankylosing-spondylitis/ 


 

I recently attended the American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting in San Francisco as a patient journalist working with This AS Life. While I did not know what to expect, a session about sex and rheumatic diseases caught me completely by surprise. The session titled, “Sexuality and Intimacy in Rheumatic Diseases Study Group,” ignited my interest, so I made sure to attend.

To be honest, it’s a really uncomfortable subject for most of us to talk about whether we have Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) or not. Sexual intimacy is supposed to be pleasurable and it can still be pleasurable even with AS.

When I walked into the session, I found a vastly different scene than the normal chair-filled room facing a PowerPoint-prompted stage. This session was appropriately interactive and small, creating an intimate setting for attendees. I was fascinated to see another patient – a woman with rheumatoid arthritis – speaking to the group of about 20 people sitting in a circle, along with a sexologist and a doctor as facilitator. At a conference where patients are rarely on stage (and even a bit difficult to find), this was refreshing to see.

What I learned or could relate to:

  • There’s a dearth of information and literature available about sex for people with rheumatic diseases.
  • Peer-to-peer conversations (in person) and online support networks (i.e. chat rooms or Facebook groups) are often a helpful go-to for people looking for advice, ideas and support.
  • Patients don’t always feel they can ask their doctors about issues related to sexual relationships.
  • Doctors often don’t know what resources to provide when AS patients ask about sex, or are not aware of local support groups.
  • Sex is understandably a difficult topic for both patients and doctors to talk about because treatment for chronic diseases is often clinical in nature, which leaves out emotional.

I’m no sexpert, but my experience as someone living with AS and the way I’ve adapted in order to enjoy sex may help you. For the record, I’m not a doctor – and just because something works for me, it doesn’t mean it will work for you. Having said that, here’s my recipe for good sex with AS:

  1. Schedule sex. Before you roll your eyes and skip to the juicy parts, let me tell you that scheduling sex can be extremely exciting. Putting sex on your calendar doesn’t mean it will be boring. Personally, scheduling intimacy allows me to prepare my body and mind for the activity. Have fun planning in advance, which can deepen your relationship (and your sex life, in particular), rather than allowing it to be a burden.

    Thoughts to consider: If you put sex on the schedule for the evening, start the morning off with sweet notes and initiate romance throughout the day (phone calls, send your partner off to work with a handwritten love letter, have lunch together). Make each other feel good throughout the day to build up for an exciting evening. Let me be clear, with the unpredictability of our bodies, even scheduled activities may need to be cancelled or rescheduled – and that’s okay.

  2. Foreplay. Place more emphasis on foreplay. Foreplay helps lubricate your body in addition to your sex organs which makes intercourse smoother. Your bodies will warm up together and there’s a greater chance of feeling good, longer, with less discomfort and pain. Speaking of lubrication, don’t be afraid to use lubricant.
  3. Communication. This is crucial to both (or all) partners involved. Have a safe word for when something hurts. If you need to change positions, say so. You can also be very specific: “My hips are cramping,” “I can’t do this position long,” or simply, “That hurts.” It’s equally important that your partner knows what makes you feel good, so communicate this in an encouraging way. Open communication is important to most couples, but I think it’s absolutely imperative for couples affected by AS. For me, being able to communicate to a partner that something’s uncomfortable enhances my sexual gratification in the end because it allows us both to find a new position that is pleasurable. Similarly, being able to show or tell someone that my body actually feels good is a refreshing feeling, especially when I’m used to my body being a source of pain.
  4. Stretch. For me, the most important (note that I said important, not pleasurable) part of sex is what happens after. The moment intercourse has finished, I stretch my hips and my back with the help of my partner. Incorporating post-intercourse stretching adds to the intimate experience. It helps your partner learn about your body in a loving way and gives them an opportunity to explore your body when you are still relaxed. Turning something that could be seen as a burden into a romantic exercise can help bring you closer.

People living with AS have adapted new ways to open the dryer door, tie our shoe laces or even roll over in bed at times when our bodies don’t function the way we need them to. We can also adapt when we have sex, too. It’s important to remember that sex can absolutely be a positive, safe, empowering and pleasurable experience. Our bodies are absolutely capable of feeling good, and we should never forget that.

What are your recipes for good sex with AS?