Family

A request from your chronically ill friend: what I need when we talk about my sickness.

When I meet new people, I often struggle to explain what I need. This is it.

When I was 14, I woke up with a fat face.

I was sick with a fever higher than I had ever felt. My face felt like a sumo wrestler had crammed a cantaloupe into my ear.

My mom took me to the emergency room in the closest town to our family’s remote lake house in North Carolina. Receptionists shooed me in, nurses injected butt shots, and doctors gave me doe-eyed stares. They had no idea what was wrong with me.


Photo via iStock.

This routine of waking up suddenly sick, with a fat face and a spiked fever, continued for years.

Finally, when I was 16, doctors handed me a diagnosis and a pill regimen and told me I might be sick forever.

I was young enough that my pediatric doctor called to give my mom the diagnosis over the phone. The most dramatic part happened before the diagnosis, though, when they told my mom that they had somehow lost my eight vials of blood (which had taken hours of sweat and tears and people holding me down to get). Otherwise, the phone call was short and I could hear the words through the phone my mom held up to her ear.

“I’m so sorry,” the pediatric doctor said to my mom. As if we knew anything about an autoimmune disorder called Sjögren’s syndrome, with hallmark symptoms of dry eyes and a dry mouth, and why we should possibly join the doctor in feeling sad.

Now, more than 10 years later, I’m living fairly well with this autoimmune disorder.

But still, when I meet new people, I struggle with how to explain what I need. Part of my introduction to new people has to include these words: “I’m sick.” And that’s not easy.

So hello, new friend. Here’s what I need you to try to understand when we talk about my life with a chronic illness:

1. I need you to let me have my green couch moments.

After that first day at the hospital in North Carolina, they sent me home without answers and I slept on the green couch at my family’s lake house for days. I remember feeling sad, watching my cousins jump off the diving board at the end of the dock.

Photo via iStock.

But I mostly remember feeling sad about how my family looked at me. They all had the saddest eyes, like they knew something about my future that I couldn’t comprehend at the age of 14.

For some reason, I’ve continued to have a lot of different green couches over the years in various houses and apartments. Sometimes when my sickness takes over, I have to spend days — or weeks — recovering on my green couch. I need you to let me stay there to rest and wait for Netflix to ask me, “Are you still watching 'Friends'?”

2. I need you to show up.

No one knows what tomorrow holds. But if my tomorrow puts me in the hospital, I need you to come. I need you to show up. Sure, you can bring me flowers, but I really just need you to be there at my bedside, hanging out.

In high school, when my hospital visits lasted for 12 or 14 days of sucking on lemons in the pediatric wing to trigger my salivary glands and going for walks wheeling my IV bag, I remember the friends who showed up. And I remember the friends who only came after my parents bribed them to sit with me for a couple hours so they could go home to shower.

People were afraid. I get it. I was afraid, too.

3. I need you to stop asking why doctors can’t fix me.

The autoimmune disorder that I have is chronic, meaning there isn’t a cure, just like many other people in the world with chronic illnesses. I know it’s confusing — you come down with a cough and you go to the doctor to get better.

For me, it’s not that simple. I take a couple of medications that help tackle my individual symptoms and improve my quality of life with pain management, but that’s it. That’s all doctors can do at this point.

Please stop asking why. Doctors don’t know. I don’t know.

4. I need you to try to see my invisible pain.

All those years when I woke up with a fat face were just my invisible illness trying to make a guest appearance for one episode. Mostly, my body suffers in ways that you can’t see.

Photo via iStock.

The more visible symptoms happen in cold weather when the blood rushes away from my hands and feet. This is when you watch in amazement because my white hands look like a dead person’s. I need you to know that the invisible pain hurts just as bad as the visible pain.

5. I need you to stop asking me how I feel today.

Some days, it’s a big deal to just get out of bed because my joints ache and after even 10 hours of sleep, I still feel like I have a hangover. My right foot and my back feel broken, and my dry eyes build a white film on my contacts that feels like I’m watching the world through a dirty fish bowl.

When you ask me how I feel today, the answer is complicated. The list of pain that’s both inflamed or subsided is longer than we need to hash out. And sometimes the answer to your questions makes me sad, grieving the loss of a dream of a pain-free life I think I deserve.

6. I need you to let me weep in my mom’s arms, even as a grown adult.

Next month, I turn 27. Recently, I wept in my mom’s arms in a shaking way that startled even me. It was the day I got another doctor’s bill for hundreds that I couldn’t afford, and I wasn’t sure if I could even go to my specialist appointment because it might mean I couldn’t pay rent or buy groceries for a couple of months.

My health insurance doesn’t get it. They cover so little, deeming appointments and blood work as “medically unnecessary.” But truthfully, nothing about this sick life is easy to handle, even as a pretty independent adult. I need you to let me weep from the deepest places and not tell me to just shake it off.

7. I need you to stop telling me I can’t.

I told my parents I wanted to go on a mission trip to Africa. Instantly, they said, “You can’t.”

I’ve heard these words before, about studying abroad or becoming an elementary school teacher, with planes and buildings and countries with germs lurking behind every corner. Their advice comes from places of love. But I can’t have you joining in on this whole “You can’t” chant.

Until a doctor gives a definite “No, you can’t do that or go there,” then I need you to invite me to go places. I need you to challenge me and dream with me.

8. I need you to let me be stubborn.

I have a cousin who’s searching for a diagnosis for something autoimmune right now. My biggest prayer for her is that she stays stubborn, even after she knows she’s sick. She studied abroad before she got sick, before anyone tried to tell her she can’t.

The last couple of years, I moved to a new time zone, even when some told me I couldn’t. You might get to know me now and want to protect me in a plastic bubble everywhere we go. Please don’t. If you’re planning a trip somewhere exotic, invite me. I’ll tell you if it’s too much.

Photo via iStock.

Let me wrestle in the dark with my own stubbornness, just like when I was a little girl and insisted on riding my new bike with shiny tassels on the very first night, even though it was too big and pitch dark outside. I might fall down and get hurt, but I promise you I’ll learn from stubbornly ditching the training wheels in the dark.

9. I need you to tell me to stop staring at that hospital waiting in the sky.

I live in Dallas with a clear view to Baylor hospital in the skyline. Sometimes, while I’ve sat by the pool at my apartment, I’ve caught myself staring for too long at the hospital waiting in the sky for my future arrival.

You might be familiar with how we tell the “sick narrative”: sick, sicker, dying, gone. I have a higher risk of lymphoma and other complications, but this doesn’t mean that’s definitely how my story will end.

So if you catch me anxiously staring at my scripted future, stop me. I need you to remind me that the story can twist in so many directions, especially with technology and modern medicine that completely shatter traditional death sentences.

10. I need you to let me change the world today. Now.

The best (and worst) part about being sick: It moves me into action. I don’t have time to wait. I probably quit jobs sooner than you would or chase after dreams in frantic ways while you put yours on the back burner. I also don’t have time to waste.

It’s scary and exciting all wrapped into one. I need you to help me figure out how little me plays a part in this big story. Let me fight for things that matter today because tomorrow is just a gift.

11. I need you to love me like the 80-year-old grandma I am.

I’ve finally found a pill box that fits all the vitamins and medications that I need to sort out for designated times each day. My dream night is one cozied up and warm on the couch, followed by a 9:30 bedtime. Sjögren’s means I don’t produce enough tears, but if I did, I would cry while laughing at how many times I have to go to the bathroom because of all the water I have to drink to stay hydrated.

Yes, me and your 80-year-old grandma probably have more in common than you and I do. I’ve completely accepted this fact. Especially since I’ve been 80 since I was 16.

So love me like a grandma! Stop inviting me out to all-nighters and saying it’s so funny how I go to bed early and love warm socks. It’s not funny or cute. It’s who I am.

My autoimmune disorder is in no way categorized as “the worst.”

Believe me, people suffer every day with far worse, much more incurable diseases than mine. Some days, my illness feels mostly annoying, like an accessory I carry around and must remember to bring with me when I leave the house.

But I hope you will one day meet one of my best friends, a woman who has learned to love me and my sickness. She remembers little details, like how I lack the saliva required to eat dry pretzels filled with dry peanut butter. She figures out how to eat each pretzel with a huge swig of water so I won’t choke, and she does it with me, too. Together, we laugh.

She sits with me on the green couch for Netflix marathons when I’m sick. And together, we cry.

That’s what I want, what I need, and what I want you to know about me, friend: W​e all have our stuff, and this is mine.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

TikTok about '80s childhood is a total Gen X flashback.

As a Gen X parent, it's weird to try to describe my childhood to my kids. We're the generation that didn't grow up with the internet or cell phones, yet are raising kids who have never known a world without them. That difference alone is enough to make our 1980s childhoods feel like a completely different planet, but there are other differences too that often get overlooked.

How do you explain the transition from the brown and orange aesthetic of the '70s to the dusty rose and forest green carpeting of the '80s if you didn't experience it? When I tell my kids there were smoking sections in restaurants and airplanes and ashtrays everywhere, they look horrified (and rightfully so—what were we thinking?!). The fact that we went places with our friends with no quick way to get ahold of our parents? Unbelievable.

One day I described the process of listening to the radio, waiting for my favorite song to come on so I could record it on my tape recorder, and how mad I would get when the deejay talked through the intro of the song until the lyrics started. My Spotify-spoiled kids didn't even understand half of the words I said.

And '80s hair? With the feathered bangs and the terrible perms and the crunchy hair spray? What, why and how?

Keep Reading Show less
Pets

Ginger the dog reunited with family 5 years after being stolen

Ginger's family never gave up hope, and it payed off.

Ginger the dog was missing for five years before being reunited with her family.

A sweet pup is finally home with her family where she belongs after way too many years away.

Ginger the dog was stolen from her family back in 2017. Her owner, Barney Lattimore of Janesville, Wisconsin, never gave up the hope that his sweet girl was out there somewhere. Whenever he'd see a dog listed on a rescue website or humane society website that even remotely resembled his Ginger, he would inquire about the dog. Unfortunately, it was never her. You'd think that after a while he would stop, but if he had, he likely wouldn't have gotten the sweetest reunion.

Keep Reading Show less

"Veteran" mom and "new" mom parent differently.

When a couple has their first child, they start out with the greatest of intentions and expectations. The child will only eat organic food. They will never watch TV or have screen time and will always stay clean.

But soon, reality sets in and if they have more kids, they'll probably be raised with a lot less attention. As a result, first-born kids turn out a bit differently than their younger siblings.

"Rules are a bit more rigid, attention and validation is directed and somewhat excessive," Niro Feliciano, LCSW, a psychotherapist and anxiety specialist, told Parents. "As a result, firstborns tend to be leaders, high achievers, people-pleasing, rule-following and conscientious, several of the qualities that tend to predict success."

Keep Reading Show less