There are a few unchanging truths about me as a human being:
- I love Stephen Colbert
- Yes, I want to see a picture of your golden retriever puppy, did you really have to ask?
- I hate exercise
Here’s the catch about me and exercise, though: I’ll do it for a good reason. Usually, that reason is to get my doctors off my back.
I have a really good new reason though. In 10 days, I’m going to walk and raise money for my all time favorite charity, Dysautonomia International.
YES. I’m willing to walk a mile in the middle of June for them, because here are some of the things they’ve done for me:
- They provided me with information about dysautonomia and POTS, teaching me what my previous doctors could not
- They connected me with my cardiologist (one of the top POTS experts in the world)
- They provided doctors with powerful education seminars and tools to give them the information they need to accurately diagnose and treat dysautonomia
- They introduced me to hundreds of people and made me feel so much less alone in this disorder that went undiagnosed for 10 years
- They provided me with the best support system I could imagine (love y’all)
- They empowered me to be a stronger self-advocate not only in my doctors’ offices but with my own government
- They gave me opportunities to volunteer and give back to my community
- They fund tons of research studies
- They gave me opportunities to participate IN those research studies
SO HERE’S WHERE *YOU* COME IN.
Dysautonomia and POTS are so, so common but barely have any recognition or funding.
In the United States, an estimated 1 to 3 million Americans have POTS. By comparison, 400,000 people in the United States live with Multiple Sclerosis, and 1 million have Parkinson’s. Nearly everyone is familiar with MS and Parkinson’s—as we should be!
I want POTS to have the same recognition and funding as MS, as Parkinson’s. I want every disorder that affects and take so much from so many to have adequate funding for research.
I want it so badly that I’m willing to do what I hate most in the world—
In the middle of June.
So, will you sponsor me?
I know a mile doesn’t seem like much, but I currently do about 15 minutes of cardio every day on my recumbent bike—and walking a mile will be a huge challenge for me.
One of my cardiologists told me, “You will never enjoy exercise, your body was designed to hate it.” I suffer from excruciating back pain when I go walking in addition to tachycardia, sweating, joint pain, weird tingling sensations and general grumpiness. (Tell me you wouldn’t be grumpy if everything in your body hurt.) But the statement this makes: that I’m doing what I can, that I’m on my way to recovery every day, and helping Dysautonomia International in the process? Let’s do it, man.
It would mean the world to me if you could spare a couple of dollars for Dysautonomia International—I volunteer what I can to this amazing organization that changes lives, and if you could help us continue what we do with a donation—I would appreciate it so much.
I realize this was a bit long. But that’s a fourth fundamental truth about me—I have difficulties being concise.
A month ago, I had one of those big nights you remember forever.
I’ve felt nervous writing my recap blog—I wanted to do it justice—but I realized I’ve worked myself into so much of a tizzy that I haven’t written anything at all now because I’m in a writing paralysis. (Isn’t it fun being perpetually stuck in your own head?)
So now’s the time to share—forgive me if it’s a bit long, but when you get your 15 minutes of fame, you document it thoroughly, even if it’s belatedly.
Last January, you could say I was a bit distraught about Trump’s inauguration. Thankfully, my uneasiness propelled me into action and I spent a lot of nights with insomnia writing letters to senators and representatives on committees about issues that mattered to me—the Affordable Care Act, disability rights (especially pertaining to education), the travel ban…
My friend and I protested the travel ban at Dulles International Airport on January 29
One of my state senators, Tim Kaine (and still America’s step-dad, thanks John Oliver), put out a form for Virginia residents to share their stories about the ACA and how it affected them. I wrote him a letter about how provisions of the ACA like mandates that patients with pre-existing conditions can’t be denied care and children can stay on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26 were life-changing for my family and me.
A few weeks later, his staff got in touch with me and asked permission for Senator Kaine to share my story. I fell over myself saying “yes! of course!” because that’s one of the many (many) reasons I’m open about my life. If anything I’ve been through can help someone else, if my story can be shared to help others for a bigger, positive purpose, then yes, share it.
(I also asked his office to send along a lot of my personal feelings about cabinet nominations to which they kindly obliged. I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face: Senator Kaine’s staff is the best.)
On February 9, during Tom Price’s hearing to become the Health & Human Services secretary, Senator Kaine read a selection of the 1,000+ letters sent to him about the ACA and mine was one of them.
I nearly fell off my bed when I watched the video, my hands were shaking watching my senator, a man who was nearly Vice President of the United States, read my words and have them entered into the senate record.
Throughout my life, so many things I have said have been brushed aside and ignored by countless people in various positions of authority—doctors, teachers, school administrators, church leaders, bosses, group leaders in peer projects… For me, validation of my feelings and experiences from individuals I value is particularly significant and in a very real sense, healing.
I don’t know how much more validated I could possibly be: I was being supported by a high ranking government leader, vowing to take my side and fight for the ACA because of my story and stories like it.
Phrases like “hell yeah!” came to mind. (As well as “suck on that!” to all of the people who have doubted me throughout my life.)
I was flying high for the rest of the month, assuming these were my 15 minutes of fame. Then, I got another phone call at the end of February inviting me to be Senator Kaine’s personal guest to the Joint Session of Congress, basically the State of the Union lite.
NO BIG DEAL EXCEPT THAT IT IS (and then my brain short circuited.)
So how do you prepare to attend a Joint Session of Congress?
For me, it involved:
You could say I was a bit nervous…
- getting my hair cut
- buying a new outfit because I own almost exclusively t-shirts, jeans, yoga pants and a denim jacket
- buying makeup to make myself look presentable
- spending hours writing, writing, writing because I had to come up with something smart to say
- FREAKING out because even though I’d done lobby days with Dysautonomia International, and one of my childhood friends’ father was a congressman, this was so different—
I got to bring my parents to the Senate Russell building on February 28. We arrived in the late afternoon and got to know several of Senator Kaine’s staffers who went over my schedule for the evening.
We talked about how his office works—my family and I got to grill them on what they do, the inner workings of Senator Kaine’s schedules, and everyone was so kind and patient with us. (This says a lot about what they go through on a daily basis—my dad’s questioning is very long, very inquisitive, very thorough.)
What nearly every person said is that constituents’ stories are what drive them to do their jobs. No one I spoke to has a personal agenda or even an axe to grind—they’re doing their jobs to make the country a better place.
I did an interview for a local TV station (I never got to see if they used it, but the reporter and cameraman were awesome), had some snacks (three cheers for free Virginia products—peanuts and Pepsi beverages) and kept trying to think of things to say that would make me sound smart.
Tim Kaine is my new best friend, even if he doesn’t know it
Senator Kaine met with my parents and me for a good half hour—he’s the real deal. He took so much time to ask my parents about how and where they grew up and met, about if they had any other kids (my brother couldn’t come because he had to work, we’ve given him endless grief about this)… and when it came to me, I felt heard.
I explained my journey through Fairfax County Public Schools—I told him how we struggled getting a Section 504. That surprised him, given what a successful school system it is, but we shared some other facts about it, and he really took the information in. I told him about POTS and dysautonomia and he picked up on the blood flow problems of POTS quickly—it was beyond heartening and made me think that he’s heard quite a few medical stories like this before. (I also got to give him a dysautonomia awareness pin which he graciously accepted!)
I’m sharing this not to necessarily convert you all to be Kainiacs (another Tim Kaine nickname we can attribute to John Oliver), but to remind you guys that good members of government exist despite Congress’ terrible approval ratings. Yes, some members are nothing short of disconcerting, but others are fueled by constituent stories and want to stand up and fight. I’ve got some really cool senators for my state–find out if you do, too.
After our meeting, Senator Kaine and I did a tele-town hall, where a software system calls Virginia residents and invites them to join in on a conference call. The Senator gave me the opportunity to again share my story about what the ACA meant to me before he answered people’s questions.
I was nervous and scared but daaang. I did it.
I told everyone how for a long stretch of time in my teenage years, I felt more comfortable in a doctor’s office than I did in a classroom. How I realized early on that it didn’t matter what I wanted to do when I grew up—I needed to choose a career that was stable, lucrative and had good health care benefits, not one that made me happy. I told them how the ACA changed that and gave me hope—it gave me the comfort that I could take extra time in school because I would have my parents’ insurance until I was 26. I could even take time off to work on my health and health only if need be. How it meant I could buy insurance and be my own boss, freelance as a graphic designer, a dream of a job I had in my mind.
I also told them that the GOP calling the ACA into question with rallying cries of “REPEAL!” without a solid, safe replacement had brought all of this crashing down. I’m now terrified that my loved ones and I will lose our insurance and our futures—we all have pre-existing conditions. Will we be OK? Will we ever have health care again?
I told them that I’m an active participant in my health, I follow my doctors’ orders, I’m a big volunteer in my patient community, I don’t take my diagnoses lying down. But for whatever reason, the plans I’ve heard from the opposition party seem to promise that I’m going to be punished for illnesses I did nothing to deserve and have done everything to get rid of but cannot.
I reminded everyone that health crises happen to all of us, and if not us, to someone we love, it’s just the nature of life. Whether it’s a chronic illness, cancer, an accident—everyone needs extra care at some point in their life, and that’s why plans and laws with protection are so important to me.
After the tele-town hall, I got ready to head over to the Capitol for the grand event. When the Senator’s office heard about how much difficulty I have with standing, they arranged for a senate doorkeeper to bring over a wheelchair and assist me from Senator Kaine’s office to the Capitol.
I couldn’t bring my phone into the house chamber, so this is the only real proof I went
This was the first time I’ve ever used a wheelchair (and the first time I’ve ever even considered using a wheelchair.) My parents were the ones insistent on me using it but I felt guilt for taking it at first—at the time I was having a good energy/health day and I felt like I was somehow gaming the system by accepting an accommodation I didn’t at the time desperately need. But when I thought about the standing in security lines, I accepted.
For those of you unfamiliar with Capitol Hill—the congressional office buildings are connected to the Capitol with underground tunnels and and a trolley system. But even with the tunnels and trolley, it’s a ton of walking and standing. That night, the route to get to the House Gallery was longer and more convoluted with at least three metal detector security check points along the way.
I was feeling great after the town hall. Top of the world, having the one of the best and most memorable nights of my life. And I got to continue that feeling by accepting the accommodation of the wheelchair. If I hadn’t, I would have been sick as a dog, panting, tachycardic, sweaty, confused, shaking. (I know my body.)
How appropriate to have that continued realization that accommodations matter at an event where I represented the ACA as a young woman who’d been living nearly her entire life with chronic illness.
After the labyrinth of halls and security checks, I arrived at the house chamber and got to my seat. I was tucked away in a back corner of the room which I thought at first was a terrible place to sit but turned out to be a huge score—I was next to several family members of members of Congress and got to network by sharing a short version of my story and told them about Dysautonomia International. I also sat 10 feet away from Sean Hannity—that was a huge trip for me seeing as my dad exclusively watched Fox News when I was a kid.
Leading up to the speech, it was hard to make out who was who on the floor of the House—from my seat with a few exceptions, everyone looked like the same old white man. (Sorry.) Thankfully, I had a great view of Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren, two of my personal heroes and women I’d love to both see run for president one day.
The speech itself was surreal.
I live for the State of the Union, and even though it was just a Joint Session address, it sure felt State of the Union-y to me.
It was very different to hear President Trump, a new person, a new president, deliver this type of speech–President Obama was the president of my teenage years and young adulthood. It felt foreign to (1) be there in person and (2) witness a president so polar opposite to the one I was so familiar with deliver remarks in his place.
The most challenging part of the night for me, even more so than the physical strain standing up and sitting down repeatedly to clap for respected guests and a couple of issues I agreed with was the deafening applause from the Republican party when Trump brought up repealing the ACA in its entirety because it’s been a disaster, period.
I was seated on the Republican side of the room and getting caught up in their applause was painful. I closed my eyes, willing them not to cry because hearing “repeal of the ACA” leaves my future uncertain, bleak, nerve-racking.
The ACA is far from perfect, but its provisions have given me hope and security:
- protection for pre-existing conditions
- the ability to stay on my parents’ plan until I’m 26
- mental health parity
- no lifetime coverage caps
I’m publishing this post after the AHCA was thrown out before a vote. It looks hopeful that the ACA will remain the law of the land for a while, and even if that leaves me feeling a little safer, I still feel the need to advocate for it. Because health insurance is the difference between life and death for millions, my loved ones included.
That’s why this matters.
OK, and just to end this on a lighthearted note–
This is the face you make after you crushed it networking, did multiple interviews, had a great time with your senator, advocated for what matters to you, and feel like you’re on top of the world. NO BIG DEAL.
What I want everyone to get out of my experience is that this all came from writing a letter to my senator. I know that attending a Joint Session of Congress might not be the dream night to other people that it was for me, but it made some waves–I showed up in my local newspapers (and a couple of national ones!) and the issues I advocated for got some light. If there’s something you care about, start writing.
Call your members of congress. It’s scary at first, but it’s not so bad. E-mail them from their websites. Write letters. Fax them online. There are so many services that make these things so easy. If there’s something on your mind (even if it’s contrary to what I’m promoting!), let them know. Be active in your government, just like Schoolhouse Rock taught you.
AND! Please be nice to the staffers! Especially the ones on phone duty!
I’m a rambler when I’m nervous. And when I’m not nervous. When I’m perfectly fine, when I’m happy, when I’m angry, when I’m every emotion, I usually talk.
When someone gives me a question I don’t have a good answer to or don’t want to answer, I still answer. I’ll give them an answer to a related question without addressing the fact that I’m not even answering the thing they inquired about. If I’m slick enough, they won’t even notice.
But maybe now, after this declaration, they will.
Sometimes friends ask me about how I’m doing with POTS—and even though I’m always game to talk about Dysautonomia International and the work they’re doing, or maybe cool new research, or the fact that my arm fell asleep in under 30 seconds last night–I know my friend is kindly asking about my chronic health problem.
And here’s where the real baggage comes in.
chronically wide eyed and vulnerable
When there’s been no progress with POTS, I don’t want to tell them that. I hate that there’s been no changes. I hate that there’s nothing new to report in my health, I hate that sometimes it’s even getting worse, because then I’ll have to explain that yeah, sometimes that just happens, and no, it’s not my fault (even though I occasionally blame myself when I shouldn’t) because I don’t want them to blame me either (even when I know my friends and decent humans would never do that).
I run away from the reality of “chronic”, I run away from the reality of life and I divert their attention.
They ask about POTS, I answer about something else.
Sometimes I answer about the progress I’m making in therapy, how I’m not standing still or regressing. How I’m moving onward, forward; how I’m doing something that they can be proud of—even though the very act of getting through a day with one chronic illness, no less a handful, is something they can be proud of their friend for.
Because the vulnerable side of me feels like if I can’t produce results in one area, I better produce results in the other.
Today is a day where I can see things clearly, and I want to say and reaffirm to myself and to anyone who might struggle like I do at times: please don’t feel like your life has to be strictly results oriented. Making an effort, taking care of yourself, being a kind person matters so much more than producing tangible results in work or in health or in any realm. If you have a chronic illness, leave the results to the doctor. All you’re responsible for is effort, that’s all anyone can ask of you.
I didn’t make any formal resolutions for 2017 on New Year’s Eve, but every year as I get older, I realize how important it is for me to be nicer to myself. I want to treat myself today like I would treat the younger version of myself—protectively and with patience and compassion. I look at my younger self and want to wrap her up and say “it’s going to be OK, just hold on!”
I want to have those same feelings for myself now, and by having those feelings, I think I’ll be able to be more honest with myself and with my friends.
And maybe I’ll get around to answering your questions head on.
Happiest of happy holidays, friends!
The gift giving holidays are rapidly approaching and I’m procrastinating my holiday shopping like nobody’s business. That doesn’t mean I don’t have time to help you guys in your holiday shopping for your loved ones with dysautonomia.
And if nothing here strikes you, check out last year’s guide, because I feel very confident that something will strike you as a good gift.
Shopping reminder: when you use Amazon, shop through smile.amazon.com and select Dysautonomia International as your charity of choice! 6% of your total purchase price will be donated to them at no extra cost to you!
Terry Cloth Robes
Some people feel invigorated and reenergized from a shower. POTSies are not those people.
Bathing can be beyond exhausting, and since you can’t change that fact, you can give the gift of a comfortable calm down in the form of terry cloth robes. POTSies can sit and dry off in warmth and comfort rather than shiver in the cold in makeshift towel coverings.
I got the pictured Lands End robe for Christmas last year and it’s my favorite robe that I’ve ever had.
Himalayan Salt Lamp
POTSies live on salt, so it’s no surprise that so many of us are intrigued by the possibilities of Himalayan Salt Lamps being helpful. Allegedly, the lamps produce tons of negative ions which are supposed to help oxygen travel our brains more easily, help us feel more alert and even clean the air we breathe.
According to all of the research I’ve done, there’s no basis for the claims that Himalayan Salt Lamps can create negative ions strong enough to produce any of these benefits. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an awesome looking lamp, and that people on high salt diets won’t appreciate having a giant salt rock as a lamp and decoration. For that reason, I still recommend it as a great gift to give. They come in tons of different shapes and sizes.
Swanky Box for Pills & Supplies
Most everyone I know with dysautonomia has a personal pharmacy. Some of us use clear plastic storage boxes, shoe boxes or large trunks if it calls for it. Still, it’s nice to be offered alternatives to our personal pill storage (or even storage options for our other medical supplies, because we got ‘em).
This is the perfect time for a gift buyer to give us the “ooh, pretty!” options we didn’t feel like we could treat ourselves to before.
The Spoon Theory is huge in the chronic illness community—it started as a way for us to explain our limited energy supply in terms of spoons—and has evolved into an identity. The chronically ill are Spoonies, we need more spoons (or energy) in order to get through the day.
A quick way to pay homage to the Spoon Theory for your chronically ill friend is by gifting them a spoon ring—rings made out of old spoons that are great as thumb rings in particular. I’ve had one for about five or six years and have gotten endless compliments on it. Etsy is the best place to find them in my experience—and here are some great ones.
One of the good rules of gift giving is to get someone a gift that they wouldn’t buy themselves. When you’re chronically ill and strapped for cash, you’re not going to spend your limited money buying artwork for your bedroom, no matter how much it improves your morale.
I can’t say what your friend/brother/sister/daughter/son/girlfriend/boyfriend/acquaintance/secretsantaperson will like best in terms of art.
If you’re going with a dysautonomia fighting theme, look for turquoise, ribbons, spoons, zebras if they have EDS. Otherwise, just look for something that looks nice, something that reminds you of the best parts of them.
Hat, Scarf & Gloves
Give me a room full of POTSies. Half will be shivering and half will be sweating. Temperature control does not exist where dysautonomia is concerned and winter does nothing to help matters.
Even though a lot of POTSies run warm (or even sweaty—myself included), if it gets cold where you live, hats, scarves and gloves are the classic gift for everyone, dysautonomia or not. They’re festive, they’re pretty, it’s hard to go wrong.
Also, a common comorbidity with dysautonomia is Raynaud’s Syndrome which leaves peoples’ feet and hands feeling numb or freezing cold due to poor (or truly just garbage) blood flow. So if your friend is constantly rubbing their hands together complaining that they’re freezing, this is your time to shine as a thoughtful gift giver.
Some people with dysautonomia are bed bound. And even the ones who are not bed bound still tend to spend a lot of time in bed or lying flat on their backs because they’re least symptomatic that way.
All of us who have used laptops are familiar with how quickly they go from computers to searing hot irons of white hot burning pain without proper ventilation when sitting on your legs which is why a lap desk is necessary to use a laptop. They’re also great for setting up pills in your room, doing homework and coloring in coloring books (a perennial favorite of humans everywhere.)
Aromatherapy Diffuser & Drops
Essential oils are tricky. There are some companies trying to suggest that their blend of juniperberrycitronellaspruceetcetera is going to help me forgive people if I rub it on pulse points and heart. But I do know for a fact that I feel a little calmer when I take a deep breath and inhale peppermint very deeply.
So with that in mind, that I’m not suggesting that grapefruitpeppermintcinnamongingerspice in water will cure dysautonomia, I’ve heard some nice things about diffusers—if nothing else that they make your loved one’s house smell amazing and that’s a nice gift to give.
Plus, I found a diffuser that looks like a WHALE. If that doesn’t excite you, nothing will.
Headache Essential Oil Roller & Cream
So another thing about aromatherapy. These things (an essential oil rollerball and headache cream) will not make headaches go away. But they help so much and are as important to my routine of treating headaches as ibuprofen and drinking lots of water or consuming caffeine to fight off a headache.
I’ve become a bit of an evangelist about these two products (I don’t get any kickbacks from them, but I’d love to), and while it might seem weird to give as a Christmas gift, I can guarantee you that even though these are things I buy maybe once a year (because yes, they last that long!), I would also love to receive them. They cool your skin on contact and help ease the tension you feel during headaches and migraines. I love them and maybe you should buy a couple for yourself, too.
Miscellaneous dysautonomia themed gifts
And some things I found online that just looked cool
Did I miss anything awesome dysautonomia themed gifts this year? What’s on your wish list or shopping list? Share in the comments!
Seven years ago today, at the age of 16, I had a major POTS episode. But at the time, I didn’t know it was a POTS episode. I was undiagnosed and blamed the whole event on myself, my interpretation of my own laziness, my inability to take care of my body.
My heart rate was sustained at 180+ BPM for close to two hours with a mess of other symptoms (nausea, blurred vision, I was white as a ghost, pain in all of my joints, etc.) and I ended up sleeping on the floor of the bathroom with gastrointestinal problems. My mom tried to take me to the emergency room but I was a headstrong teenager and refused. I reasoned that I was just having a stomach flareup and the tachycardia was a response to me being very out of shape after doing a bit of running around in the heat of summer.
Because for years, those were the things my cardiologists had told me when we asked about my tachycardia.
“You’re fine, you’re just out of shape.”
That night, my mom texted my psychiatrist, the only doctor along with my therapist who believed there might be something else at play besides “harmless” tachycardia. He told my mom to take me to urgent care as soon as possible.
They performed an EKG and they said there appeared to be nothing wrong, but sent me to the hospital where they performed an echocardiogram. Everything was structurally sound. We made appointments with my cardiologist. I didn’t get much help there.
You’re fine, Shannon. Drink more water. Add more salt to your diet. But you’re fine. Nothing’s wrong.
They did a holter monitor a few months later. They never really addressed the tachycardia, the fatigue, the chronic pain, any other symptom. They just referred back to the EKGs and echos. You’re fine, Shannon. You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine.
Seven years later, to the day, I just finished up my fourth conference with Dysautonomia International.
For four years, I have now known that I’m not “fine.” My autonomic nervous system is a disaster. Standing up, even for 10 minutes, makes me lightheaded, gives me brain fog, turns my hands bright red and makes my back feel like a twig that might snap into two.
For four years, I have had a new team of cardiologists who believe me. They run EKGs and echocardiograms and holter monitors and even when they come back “fine,” they know that the rest of me isn’t. They know that I navigate a long list of symptoms every day of my life and there’s no saying what comes next symptomatically.
For four years, my psychiatrist and therapist have been able to help me cope and learn to navigate my new normal, my new life with a chronic illness. It’s not easy, it’s not fun, but we now know what we’re dealing with. We know the card we’ve been dealt. We’re no longer in the dark.
I’m so grateful to be here, now, with the resources available to me so I feel less alone. To have friends, support, physicians and information that will keep me going for as long as I have this illness (very possibly the rest of my life.)
I’m had such a lovely weekend surrounded by hundreds of people with this shared experience of dysautonomia–whether it’s the patient or caregiver perspective, we’ve all gone through the journey of “WHAT IS HAPPENING” and have gotten to (or will get to) “OK, we got this.”
It’s not the same as it was seven years ago.