Dear, Lexi

Have you ever been nervous to meet a 6-year-old? It must sound absurd, especially coming from someone who is 34. But on August 26th of this year, I got the first-date jitters thinking about meeting Lexi Townsin, who as of that evening, was the first person I had ever met with Blau Syndrome.

“Will she like me?” “Will she be confused that her parents are excited to meet a stranger in NYC?” “Will she understand why meeting her will change my life?”

I often joke that kids tend to gravitate towards me, because at a “towering” 4’10”, they usually think I’m one of them. I’m immediately accepted into their world because we can have conversations at eye-level. And while meeting Lexi was a breath of fresh air because of how radiant she was, she was onto me. She knew I wasn’t a kid – not because of some unnatural intuition, but because she wasn’t completely a kid, either.

When I was growing up, my cousins used to make fun of me, because at family gatherings, rather than playing tag or Barbies, they would find me sitting with “the adults”, propped up next to my aunts and uncles, having conversations about life as though I had already lived it. But when you’re born with an incredibly rare disease like Blau Syndrome, you, for better or for worse, have already lived it… and a lot of it.

It would be impossible to suggest otherwise. When you have to experience adult-like scenarios like swallowing pills, taking eye drops, getting poked and prodded, going to countless doctors’ appointments, and waking up in the middle of the night for a special pancake breakfast because you have to fast for a hospital procedure, it almost makes more sense when a sick child reaches greatness earlier than most.

And Lexi surely did. Anyone that knew her was so fortunate to have been blessed with that gift. I only had the opportunity to spend a few short hours being captivated by her personality in-person, but since she overflowed with wit and sass, I left our meeting feeling lighter. She made me laugh. She knew the sweet look she could flash her parents when she wanted a meal they knew she wouldn’t be able to finish, which was proven as I watched her father snack on a larger-than-life portion of fish and chips while I spoke with them about all of the great work they’ve done for the diagnosis I shared with their daughter.

Most importantly, she had a voice. And not just the voice that knows how to speak up when something isn’t right, or that charms passersby on the sidewalk, selling lemonade for the foundation her parents created out of devotion to their child – she was also vulnerable, and kind, and knew how to express herself when she was scared, or in pain, or tired. She had learned so many hardships about life at such a young age, that it’s a wonder she had any joy left in her at all.

But that’s what speaks to Lexi’s spirit. Even though so much of who she was can be attributed to how she was raised by her amazing parents, it was always so evident that they felt they were the lucky ones, having a daughter whose laugh scared the clouds away each day. I think it’s pretty common to see siblings fight, especially at the ages that Lexi and her older brother, Felix were. But witnessing their bond, again, showed that her affect transcended any social norms that could be assumed of a 6 year-old.

After meeting Lexi, I had envisioned my future relationship with her. I pictured international phone calls when she was struggling to adjust, or confused about dating, or if she simply needed an ear when she had any concerns about life that I would have hopefully figured out by the time of her asking. I wanted to give her the understanding that I so desperately could have used at her age, and frankly, could use now. But most of all, I was excited to watch her grow. I decided that if someone so young was already such a bright light, how lucky the world would be to have her in it.

And it was.

Even though it’s an understatement to say that Lexi’s time on this earth was cut short pre-maturely, it’s pretty unbelievable to think about how many people felt who she was, even just by watching her videos. Social media can be a sterile place, but somehow, Lexi managed to break that barrier as well, with her touching attempts to raise awareness surrounding her circumstance.

I’m not sure why I’ve been afforded the opportunity to be granted more physical years than Lexi, and as I sit here, living with the same medical condition plaguing my body, the anger, and disappointment, and true heartbreak are overwhelming. During a time where not much makes sense in my life, she did. In a quick encounter a mile away from my apartment on a routine weeknight after work, she helped me understand why people don’t generally see my physical deformities the way I once saw them, and for the first time in a long time, I didn’t feel so alone.

It’s hard to reconcile why something so terrible had to happen to someone so special. Maybe we won’t. And I’ll refrain from saying the cliché thing, about how we can “learn” from Lexi’s passing, because I’m not yet in a place to accept that this is our reality, or that there is anything we can possibly gain from her absence that is of greater value than being able to get more time.

What I can say, however, is that for reasons that I’ll probably never know, I am still here, and I am still fighting this unfortunate illness, and I will do everything in my power to continue to forge ahead with the grace, and warmth, and valor that Lexi applied to her courageous daily fight being a patient with Blau Syndrome. And now, as I’m writing this from the “comfort” of a familiar Rheumatology waiting room, I’m thinking of Lexi. And even though the hole in my heart is great, I can picture her toothy grin cheering us on from wherever she is, and reminding us that while it might be difficult right now, tomorrow is only a day away.

xoB

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Fork Your Spoons.©

Hello from Chronic Motivation land.

I am here to tell you a story about my interpretation of the reaction to “The Spoon Theory”, and how I feel it applies to me (and doesn’t apply to me).

In an Instagram live chat I held on April 21st, 2017, I was discussing some of the content that chronic illness forums put out into the universe, with derivatives of “The Spoon Theory” being at the top of the list. For those of you who aren’t familiar, “The Spoon Theory” is an essay that was written by Christine Miserandino, in an effort to help one of her friends understand what it was like to live with Lupus.

To read “The Spoon Theory”, click here.

In abbreviated terms (this is paraphrased), it’s basically understood in the chronically ill community that spoons are used as an analogy for levels of energy, or units to be doled out for anything requiring exertion of any kind. It was basically created to help people who aren’t chronic illies to understand that there is a limit that we hit every day, that more or less becomes our “shutoff point.” Do not pass go, do not collect $200, head straight for bed (and don’t forget the ice cream and the remote).

The theory also does a really good job of explaining how different activities cost us in different ways, and that if there is something we are really determined to do (like go to Prom and dance the night away, for example…), we can “borrow” from tomorrow’s reserve, but we’ll pay for it, and ultimately be laid up in bed recovering from overdoing it the day before.

I have been sick for my entire life – 32 years – and it was only when I saw Instagram’s chronically ill community of accounts that I became acquainted with “The Spoon Theory”, “spoons” and “spoonies” (a name chronically ill individuals call themselves as a result of the theory). It blew my mind to see how many people, people who more often than not are so passionate about not being “defined by their illness”, would label themselves as something that so specifically defines them, and of all things, by their illness.

(Note: I feel like this is the appropriate place to say that, as mentioned above, I do appreciate the Spoon Theory. I think finding a way to articulate, quantify and qualify what we experience every day, in tangible terms, no less, is long overdue, and for me, feels right. I don’t want my thoughts proceeding this statement to come across as an attack on a piece of prose that is warranted for receiving a lot of positive attention. I do, however, have some concern about the way this document has impacted the stigmas surrounding chronic illness, but only as a result of getting into the hands of some bad apples.)

For me, the Spoon Theory is what I think it should be – it’s effective and to the point. Referring to “spoons” isn’t too far behind it as far as my interest-level is concerned, but it does start to make me feel a bit uncomfortable. Finally, referring to myself as a “spoonie” is not something I’m attracted to at all, and I’ll explain why.

As someone who has only ever been battling a debilitating rheumatologic disorder (Blau Syndrome), I have accepted that the life I was born into is the life I will be living until there’s no life left in me. I didn’t have a choice in the matter, but I also have had nothing else to compare to. For this reason, I’ve always said that I give a lot more credit to those who were diagnosed later in life (my definition of later = past the point of remembering not being sick), because they know what they are missing. For example, I will never be sad about not being able to run the same way a runner diagnosed with RA at 25 years old will be sad about not being able to run. Of course, there have been moments in my life where I’ve felt out of place because of my physical limits (field day in elementary school was a major one), but I’ve never sat at home longing for a function that I never had.

With that said, since this is the only life I’ve known, it is what feels normal to me. I know that on paper, compared to every other 32 year old on the planet, there is probably not much “normal” going on for me physically, but all that has ever mattered to me (and will hopefully ever matter to me) is that relatively speaking, I’m living a normal life. And I think that’s sort of the key point that makes me hesitate when starting to label myself as anything other than what I am – which in my case, a physically disabled young woman. I think what many people fail to understand, whether it’s a result of a denial, a need for attention, or otherwise, is that everything is relative for everyone. I might have an autoimmune disease that roughs up my life in some ways, but other people my age might have lost both of their parents in a car crash as a child, or maybe they are sorting out navigating through life as homosexuals, or better yet – maybe their sore point is the fact that they’ve been exposed to no hardships at all, and they are just shitty human beings because they don’t know how to appreciate things.

What I’m really trying to say is that we all go through something; none of it is fair, and not all of it is out in the open. There is also a lot of discussion on social media about how chronic illies live with “invisible illnesses”, but the last time I checked, many illnesses, whether chronic or not, are not seen (headaches, stomach bugs, pulled muscles, etc.), and when walking through the streets of Manhattan, I’ve never seen “I just lost my job” or “I got an eviction notice” stamped across anyone’s forehead, either. There is nothing special or unique about being chronically ill – what makes chronically ill people special or unique has nothing to do with the chronically ill part at all… we are just another group of people, like any other group of people, facing a hardship, which in this case, manifests for us in a physically detrimental way.

It’s funny, because as I’m playing these typed words back into my head, it doesn’t sound like someone who is painfully struggling has written this at all – and that’s exactly what my intention is. I will not start using cutesy words like “spoons” to describe something that isn’t cute at all, and I will certainly not refer to myself as a “spoonie”,  since frankly, I think it’s a word that has become epidemically used and in many cases, abused. Because again, for a group of people who advocates so much to try to be seen as equals and not “disabled,” why would we go out of our ways to highlight the fact that we are different than the rest of the socially accepted population?

And this is when I say: “Fork your spoons.” ©

I don’t mean for that to sound aggressive, and again, I am not trying to discount or discredit the Spoon Theory in any way. I mean for that statement to be empowering, and to motivate the chronically ill population to really accept and appreciate their lives for what they are. We can’t sit here and denounce that we’re different, and then go to great lengths to identify ourselves as such. I say we be exactly who we are: chronically ill. I am a sick person. I am defined by my illness. I am physically disabled. These are just words, and words that, in my case, represent facts.

When I say I am a sick person, it’s because that’s exactly what I am. I am a person who is sick. Every second of every day. There are days I feel better than others, but even on good days, I am medically compromised. My autoimmune condition is always inside me, ready to fight, and just when I think it’s under control, it rears it’s ugly head. Knowing that, alone, humbles me constantly, because I know what a good day looks like, and when it’s happening, I savor it and pray to God it never goes away.

When I say my illness defines me, I’m saying it shapes me. It makes me a better person. My illness has made me tough, articulate, passionate, and wise. I am able to read people well, I matured at lightening speed, and I am more independent than anybody I know. I am so grateful for these character traits that I sometimes wonder if when people get upset by the idea of being “defined by” their condition (but label themselves as “spoonies”), they might not have fully come to terms with or accepted the fact that this is their permanent situation. Because once that epiphany presents itself, it isn’t hard to see the positives at all.

When I say I’m physically disabled, I’m saying I have physical limitations. Again, as someone who has truly accepted my fate, I am not afraid to use words that sound scary if they represent the truth. There are things that I know I just can’t do, and I’m OK with that. I’m sure there are things I think I can’t do that if I cared enough about, I’d do them, but I feel satisfied with that list at this moment. It’s not about a lack of confidence or downing myself, it’s about understanding what is actually within my reach, and not holding myself accountable for the things that aren’t. If there’s anything I’ve ever wanted to do badly enough, I’ve done it, regardless of my setbacks in mobility. This part of my life is what gives me drive and determination, and as a result, I know what hard work and perseverance look like.

The reason I’m explaining all of this today is because a) I am a passionate person, and b) I wanted to express my thoughts in a way that was thorough and representative of the entire picture. My experience utilizing social media to advocate for others suffering has been overwhelming, and not always in a good way. I am vulnerable and open about what my experience has been as a patient, but I also want to be clear in saying that I have, at times, been disheartened by the misrepresentation of how strong chronically ill people really are.

We are tough cookies, stronger than your average bear, feisty, brave and resilient. We’ve been through a lot, but the ones who have the best handle on it also know that we’re blessed with a lot. (And if there are some out there who haven’t reached that point yet, I hope it comes for them soon). We live our lives on purpose, with meaning, full of zest, and with the intention to do as much good as possible. We don’t need to feel validated by others, because we know the darkness that we keep locked away for no one to see. And the only attention we ever want, is not the kind that feels pity for our differences.

It’s the kind that celebrates them.

© Becky Lewand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chronically Becky

For as long as I can remember, writing has always been my therapy. I’m not really sure why it started or how old I was when it did, but I think it had something to do with having a lot going on at such a young age and not knowing any other outlet to express what I was dealing with, since looking to my left and right, there was no one I could relate to. For those of you who are only just meeting me, I was born with quite the unique auto-immune disease. It wasn’t really determined that anything was wrong for the first year or so of my life, because the way my parents figured out I was in pain was by the way I screamed during diaper changes. I think there was a strong component of screaming generally in just about everything I did (not unlike me at 30 years old…), and then when I wasn’t walking with the rest of the kids my age, I was evaluated and misdiagnosed as having JRA (Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis). I had a Rheumatologist at the time who wanted to give me gold shots, which thankfully scared the shit out of my parents, and after getting a second opinion, I was diagnosed with the disease I called myself for the next 25 years: Sarcoidosis.

If you are reading all of this and thinking, “who cares what the fuck she has – these conditions are hard to pronounce and I’ve never heard of them, anyway,” I have to say that you aren’t so far off from the way I was treated for most of my life by hundreds of doctors I had the “pleasure” of meeting. I spent many days sitting in doctors offices, getting poked and prodded and put on display at teaching hospitals for residents and students to gawk over. It wasn’t until I was about 26 that I got my last (and hopefully, final) diagnosis, which is known as “Blau Syndrome”, which is really just a fancy way of saying, “rheumatologically, you never had a chance.”

The way my medical condition and I “hang” is basically by planning out every second of every day in every way possible; you know, so I can be a normal spontaneous individual. I have arthritis in every joint in my body, degenerative osteoarthritis in pretty important spots like my knees, hips and spine, orthopedic deformities (which I actually think are unrelated and just an added bonus to all the fun…), and eye disease (Uveitis) to round things out. The biggest problem I face is managing the inflammation that is caused as of a result of the arthritis, and when you have it every place you possibly can in the machine you’re living in, it can be pretty difficult to figure out how to how to make it through the day successfully, let alone accomplishing basic tasks like getting ready for work or washing dishes.

There are many layers to my chronic illness, and as a result, many layers to me. Rather than sit here for the next 45 hours and type out a rough history of the craziness I’ve been through, I really just meant this post to be a mic check, if you will. You know, to see if this thing is on and if anyone is interested in staying for the live show. It’s more in my nature to reference specific events in my life as they relate to how I’m feeling on a certain day or how I can tie them into a point I’m trying to make. It is my sincere hope that this blog provides some source of comfort for those who have been sick their whole lives or recently diagnosed alike, and for those who aren’t sick, to just really consider this: waking up every day with an illness that won’t ever go away was certainly not my choice and is not the choice of others who are the same position. I do not need you to feel bad. I do not need pity. I am a strong, capable, grateful young woman who is appreciative of every good thing I have. But compassion seems to be a lost quality in many people I meet. All I ever want is to be understood.

But will you take the time?