The day before I turned 30 I received an email that would change my life.
It is not abnormal for me to receive emails from chronic disease patients, news outlets, doctors, and advocacy groups.
But this email was from Victoria, a videographer, sharing her vision of a documentary highlighting the stories of three people living with physically debilitating, incurable diseases. She wanted me to be one of them.
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.
I want to go to the doctor one day and once again check the box on the intake paperwork that says “generally healthy.” The once robotic maneuver of sliding my arm smoothly down paperwork to check off a straight line of boxes is now a chore requiring concentration and an agile hand zigzagging across columns.
Having the opportunity to check that “generally healthy” box would reinstate my self-worth as an able, capable human.
My running shoes shuffle hesitantly by the door, moving in unplanned rhythm with cat hair and dust bunnies that create a grey veil over their silent, still tongues. How long have they been sitting there? They peer at me hopefully every time I open the front door, but I can see they feel more neglected each day, every time I look at them and shake my head: “No, not today. I don’t know when. I’m sorry. I miss you, too.”
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:
I grew up privileged – white, yes – but also without ever considering what life would look like if my mother’s job did not provide her and her family with healthcare.
When I had walking pneumonia in fifth grade and was in bed for three weeks, I never considered what it would mean if my mother had to choose what to do or where to seek help if we didn’t have insurance.
When I was on birth control pills in high school, the drug co-pays were predictable. I didn’t fear my medication would suddenly become cost-prohibitive.
When I broke my nose, I never once considered that some people couldn’t go to the emergency room because they didn’t have insurance.
When I was in college I tore my ACL and later broke my hand playing college soccer. My bills were covered. I didn’t know other students didn’t have the healthcare I accessed.
I believed healthcare was something everyone had. If someone got sick or injured, s/he went to the doctor, paid the copay, then went to the pharmacy, paid the copay, etc etc.