It’s the season of dropping things, hips and elbows knocking door frames, “Will this flare ever end?” weeks, buckling knees on flat ground, brain fog competing with memories of the years when I felt younger than my age.
It’s the season of “But you don’t look sick, you look Great!” and “Have you tried yoga?”
It’s the season when, as soon as the door latches shut, the safety of our homes becomes the hell of letting our guards down, removing the mask. Our yoga is the inching off the bed on our bellies, gripping the prescription bottle to suck down a pill and doze for 30 minutes in half-inchworm-half-human-pose before grasping our walker to pee in the middle of the night with shuffle-steps amid stifling stiffness and the pain of partially fused joints that used to swim in the joint juice of cartilage. Chronic yoga.
Some might say it was a dream come true, but for me it was someone else’s dream I fell into. Alice didn’t expect to fall down a hole into Wonderland, and I didn’t expect to be diagnosed with a lifelong progressive disease when I was 26.
Around the time I was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis in 2013 I began modeling. Neither the diagnosis nor the modeling were expected. One happened by an invite I almost grudgingly accepted from a friend. The other happened via email from my estranged father. You can figure out which was which – at least I hope you can.
When I began modeling I had just begun hating my body. It had betrayed me by getting sick after decades of playing soccer, running marathons, and being a professional mover; none of which I could continue regularly after I was diagnosed. Being an athlete had been my whole identity. Suddenly I wasn’t anymore, and not by choice.
Being in front of the camera helped rebuild self-esteem and I began to love my body again, which surprised me. But, even more than enjoying being photographed, I uncovered a treasure trove of humanity behind the scenes. When I began sharing my story with Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), I found many models, hair and makeup artists, designers, and photographers with their own stories of chronic disease.
We are by and large fed stories of health, ability, and perfection by the polished images we see of models on the runway or in magazines. We tend to believe models are perfect, healthy, able beings with happy lives. And in an industry known for celebrating a very narrow, specific type of beauty and body, nonconformity is ill-advised if you’re in the thick of it.
I learned quickly how easy it is to feign – yet also truly find – confidence and identity when performing for the cameras.
Since Zach’s vlog announcement of his Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS) diagnosis in September 2017, the video has been viewed over 4.9 million times (as of time of this publication).
In part one of this series I talked about Zach’s story’s impact, the validation that came with his diagnosis, and lessons learned living with a disease that is always beneath the surface.
In part two I dive deeper into Zach’s decision to announce his diagnosis on YouTube, his approach to coping with AS, and whether he calls himself an advocate. Finally, I’ll share his exclusive message to the AS community.
Before I continue, I want to clarify that I am neither doctor nor medical professional. None of the following should be taken as diagnostic, medical or treatment advice. Please consult with your physician before starting, stopping, or changing treatment.