I have ankylosing spondylitis and several mental health issues. I asked my mother some questions about them impacting my life. Here’s what she had to say:
What was I like as a child?
You were always physically active – as a baby, stretching and leaning toward what you liked/wanted. You enjoyed crawling, walking, later bicycling. I enjoyed watching you do backbends and cartwheels at about ages 6-10. You wanted to be scored – 1-10 – as though in the Olympics. You loved kittens and puppies. You enjoyed holding them and carrying them around. You were inquisitive. You were very shy as a toddler, often hiding behind my skirts or my legs so you would not have to talk to people who addressed you. You enjoyed spending time with people of all ages as you became an older child. You became friends with adults and enjoyed learning new things such as tennis and fishing from your grandparents. I had come to believe that “it takes a village to raise a child”, so I encouraged your independence in going alone by bicycle into our village and forming many relationships with nurturing adults there. I allowed and encouraged you to be outspoken to the point of some thinking you were “too sassy”, but I believed that as a female in this society, you would need to be able to speak up and take care of yourself as you grew up. There could easily be a book about how you were as a child, so this will have to be an incomplete capsule.
When I was a child I got into everything. I mean, everything. At least, everything kids get into when they live in southern rural America in the early ’90s (except somehow I skipped the drugs and wild parties). I climbed trees, I played in ditches and mud, I “planted” corn in the fields behind my house from kernels stuck on the left-behind harvested ears. I helped my mother and grandparents in their vegetable gardens. Three channels on our television set meant I watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Sesame Street, The Simpsons, Star Trek, and cheesily-dubbed Godzilla vs King Kong movies with my brother. I ran around shirtless in a community of less than 900 residents until I was at least 10, then I became known for speeding along on my bicycle to go cut grass or shelve bolts at the neighborhood hardware store. I swam in the streets when they flooded during hurricanes. I was and am still weird – not cut from the same fiber. But that’s rural America for you. And I loved it.
In elementary school I played basketball and began running in road races with my mother. In middle school I played volleyball, softball, and soccer too, along with band.
In high school I ran track and cross country, played soccer, and briefly, basketball. I played alto saxophone and was drum major in band. I acted in school plays. I was awarded MVP and Most Athletic and other athletic and academic honors. I became one of the primary care-givers for my grandmother; I fed her, dressed her, cleaned her, talked with her, and moved her from her recliner into bed most nights.
Throughout my early education, I was also heavily involved in church activities and church youth events. During summers I held part-time jobs in local businesses on top of freelance gigs: cutting grass, babysitting, washing windows, and tackling hurricane clean-ups.
College was just as busy. I played on the soccer team and became a co-captain my senior year. I worked half-time in two campus jobs and remained active in church. I dated a couple people. I studied abroad in South Africa and bungee-jumped from the highest commercial bungee in the world. Each semester included a full course load. I participated actively in multiple clubs, often leading fundraising campaigns for them. On Earth Day I wore dresses crafted from paper I found in the recycling bin. I was awarded a Community Achievement Award and other academic and involvement honors.
I graduated Magna Cum Laude, and the day after graduation (Mother’s Day 2009) began my first professional career as a job coach – I helped people with disabilities obtain gainful employment, then acted as a liaison between them and their coworkers and employers. I dated more people. I began a community garden in my apartment community. I led a youth group at church. When I got burnt out after two years from my first professional job, I became a professional mover and called it my Sabbatical From Thinking while I lifted heavy furniture and became the most muscular I have ever been.
For 60 seconds I will be famous. On the runway, the catwalk – whatever surface my heels will be wobbling on as I make my legs appear longer than they are and my heart less frantic than it will be. Few in the crowd of celebrities, photographers, stylists, and designers will know my name, but for 60 long seconds I will be the one everyone is looking at. It doesn’t matter to them who I am, and that’s ok. I’m there to sell clothes.
But I’ll be selling something else, too. I’ll be selling dreams and awareness for those living with incurable chronic diseases.
For the five hours before I take the first bold step on that plank runway I will be backstage interacting with dozens of people – models, makeup artists, hairstylists, designers, stylists, photographers, and producers. Many of these people will see me as another model who wants to make it big in fashion. I’ll be another face to paint, another head to sculpt, another frame to drape and dress. I don’t blame them. That’s why most models walk in big fashion shows – to make it big. But I’m not in this to be America’s Next Top Model.
I’m in this to share my story. I’m in this to bring fashion and sickness together in a powerful way that changes people’s perceptions and awareness of invisible illnesses.
It wasn’t always this way. I used to trust that doctors could, and would, cure me. They knew all the right answers, whether I needed medication, and which medications would fix me. Going to a medical establishment carried the promise of making me feel better within hours or days.
Many believe, like I used to, that visiting a doctor means getting better. But doctors who treat permanent diseases have a tough job: they stare down diagnoses every day that they can’t eradicate. There’s a huge difference between curing a temporary malady and managing a lifelong disease. And to choose to be a doctor who treats patients with incurable diseases takes special courage – or a desire to make a considerable amount of money.
Doctors leave medical school with heads full of practical clinical terms: elevated T-cell count, HLA-B27 positive, elevated bilirubin, polyenthesopathy, erosion of the spine with bone calcification. But, unless they share our diseases, they do not know what it is like to be in our bodies; to feel our forever pain, our fatigue, our fears. They rely on us to paint a picture of what it actually feels like to have a high T-cell count and polyenthesopathy, but many of them forget to ask, and when they do, sometimes they don’t know why they need to know what the patient is actually feeling. If they’re smart, they try to help us manage our pain, fatigue, and fears by prescribing treatments based on what they see in lab, X-ray, and MRI results, with final decisions based on the symptoms we present. Continue reading The Doctor Who Renewed My Hope In Doctors→