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.
On April 11th, 2013, I walked into my first appointment with a Rheumatologist and walked out with a diagnosis of Ankylosing Spondylitis and the beginning of a life of advocacy, both for myself and for so many suffering silently with this progressive, degenerative, extremely painful disease.
I was always a strong person, yet I am stronger now than I ever was before, but in ways I don’t want to be. I would much rather have the freedom to choose to be mediocre if it meant I could have my health.
We do not choose to be strong. We become strong when we choose to survive.
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.