100 million dollars. I’ve never lived in a world where that figure represented an actual amount of money. I don’t think I’ve ever used it for anything more than hyperbolic effect in conversation. As in, Anthropologie is so expensive even a scarf there is like, 100 million dollars. I’m not even sure I could write out that number with confidence about how many zeros follow the number one. Unacquainted as I am, I’m learning to write and say it with total conviction, because now it does represent an actual amount of money, and I am seeking it with earnestness. Within the strange world of politics-meets-medicine, it’s no longer an absurd number. In this new context it’s become completely reasonable. In fact, some would say given the facts, it’s an exceptionally modest amount. Go figure.
As many of you are probably tired of reading about, I began a campaign earlier this year requesting that the NIH allocate this amount of funding toward the research of a mostly neglected, orphaned disease. Over the year, this has become the most important pursuit of my life. And I believe the cause to be one of the most important in anyones life: our health. Like many things, you don’t realize how important it is until you don’t have it anymore. Stepping foot into the advocacy world provided me with a new, unexpected perspective–to see the community I’m a part of, from the outside in. This adjusted outlook has fueled my insistence for change to a degree I’ve never felt before. Interestingly enough, this outside viewpoint began within my own family, but not from my own experience with the disease.
I rarely talk or write about it, but my mom has lived with ME/CFS for two and a half decades. Most people with this disease will tell you there is a pre-sick version of themselves that couldn’t quite survive once the illness took hold. I was only 2 when my mom became sick, so I don’t remember or know her as any other way than how she is. I’ve been reflecting on the reality that there is a whole side to her I’ve never really known. Prior to getting sick, she might better be described as a type-A personality. She was fast-moving, organized, sharp–an ER nurse. She and my dad had a large social circle and were both involved in the community and church. But no one would ever know about this past part of her, how could they? She left work tentatively to devote herself full-time to motherhood and raising four children under the age of five. In pictures she looks happy and privileged to be a mom and wife. In old videos she is lively and beaming, her voice animated, giggly at times.
Christmas morning, 1984. 4:30 am. Grainy video footage taken mostly by my dad (a tech geek elated by new video recording technology) reveals this other side to my mom that many people besides me have never known. In the classic reddish-brown hue that tints all memorabilia from the 70‘s and the early 80’s, three kids under the age of five are glowing in wait in our sunken living room. The fourth kid, me, is five months old sitting in a car seat on the sofa. (Thanks guys) My siblings frantic excitement is palpable–the kind that only comes on Christmas from children who still believe. They remind me of shaken up cans of cola, overflowing with joy. In contrast my mom and dad aren’t entirely awake yet given the hour, and early video footage provides evidence of a boisterous Christmas Eve party late into the night before. They speak in soft tones of voices and have glazed over look on their faces. Despite the lack of sleep, my mom still looks beautiful in a long white robe, rubbing her eyes intermittently to try and pep up. The kids grow more intoxicated with each new gift, and both my parents take turns reacting to 3 individual shouts of “Look at my new toy! Look! Can you open this?” Crumpled up wrapping paper begins to litter the room like discarded wads of kleenex. Outside, it’s still dark.
I love this footage for many reasons. For one thing, it captures such an iconic display of Christmas morning during such a happy time as if out of a Rockwell painting. You can sense the love between my parents, and observe childhood traits in my siblings that still exist today. Nick is methodical and organized with his unwrapping, and with everything. At one point my sister Amelie opens a gift and says “Wowwww!!!”as her eyes grow huge with excitement. When she shows it to my mom she laughs and says “Amelie, this is just the box.” My brother Doug still receives high-tech gadgets for Christmas and maintains the same enthusiasm. And me, I am still perfectly content to lie on the couch surrounded by my siblings–listen to them tell stories, laugh, bicker, cook, play games, and pine for my mothers attention. Even as a baby, I was comfortable and entertained just watching and listening to them live around me.
The footage is also deeply nostalgic of course. It’s both wonderful and emotional to hear my dads voice again, to see him alive and in his element. Happy, goofy, making corny jokes. But it’s also a snapshot of the woman my mom was before she got sick. It’s not that this part of her is totally gone, but the illness simply changes your capacity for regular things, even socializing. As such you’re forced to make adjustments. She appears so spirited and vivid in these videos, so unweighed down. Maybe it’s because I so often see how the illness has effected my own appearance every time I look in the mirror, my posture, my facial expression even, that I can easily spot how it’s changed her physically, her whole body language, the inflections of her voice. Even sleepy and in the early hours of morning, there’s an underlying, unrestricted vigor in her–something that lies dormant now. There is a heaviness to this disease, like an invisible ton of bricks you carry with you at all times. Look hard enough and it’s not so hard to see.
My mom was never able to go back to ER nursing as planned. “I couldn’t trust my brain anymore” she says, and the stakes in that line of work were just too high. While she still calls so many people friends and loves them the same, her social life took an extremely hard hit. Given the insidious nature of this disease, I imagine it’s difficult for those who knew her before she was sick to adjust to this comparatively different, limited person–who by most accounts appears so much the same. As a result, relationships struggle to sustain the blow dealt by all the change, and to continuously explain the illness and your newfound incapabilities is exhausting, especially because you have such little energy to begin with. As a result, many people tire out and turn inward, ending up more like hermits or monks. My mom has always been strong and independent, never one to feel sorry for herself or even reach out for help, perhaps sometimes when she could use it. As much as she’s made the best of it and adapted to a less social life, I know a place in her aches not just for the friendships she had, but for the friend she was once capable of being. This is one of the hardest adjustments to the illness, particularly painful because it happens during a time when you need friends and support the most.
Since the birth of her second child, my sisters health has been steadily declining. For the past year and half she has slowly worsened with classic MECFS symptoms. Ruling out many other diseases that mimic this one, she will see a specialist soon for an official diagnosis. But many tests are showing the same abnormalities as those with ME. She is the same age that my mom was when she got sick. Fortunately because we know now the best course of action, she has a better chance of recovery by addressing it early and aggressively. In March, she left her job tentatively to attend to her health full-time and attempt to get her symptoms under control. She has seen what pushing it has done to both my mom and me, and I don’t think any of us could stand it if it happened to her too. I know leaving her job was not easy for her. She loved her career as an interior designer, began a successful start-up firm with a partner and worked extremely hard. But as her symptoms became more frequent, more severe, longer and harder to recover from, she knew she had a decision to make: Cut her losses now or risk losing a lot more later on. She chose to act now, which was no doubt the right way to go, but I doubt that made the decision any easier on her.
For so long, my whole family, especially my sister and my mom have been my champions who carried me when I was weak and encouraged me when I felt hopeless. I’m so eternally grateful to them for all they’ve done and continue to do, and I’ve always wondered how I will ever repay them and my whole family for their kindness. I believe now it’s my turn to be their champions. Maybe this is my chance to finally return the favor.
I don’t have money to pay back the expenses, and I don’t have the strength to reimburse them by “working off” my debt. What I do have is a voice. A small platform. And a petition with 40,000 signatures. I’ve watched what this illness has done to my family. I’ve read the hundreds of heartbreaking stories that sick people have left on the petition page or emailed to me. I’ve become friends with Jamison Hill, the first person I’ve met who’s close to my age and has MECFS. He was a former personal trainer, and has now been bedridden since January of 2015. He lives in a dark room, able to tolerate exceptionally little light and sound; most days he is barely able to talk. Seeing this widespread devastation was upsetting but also opened my eyes to the urgency and dire need of this issue. It lit a fire within me that’s stronger and different than before. I think sometimes it’s easier to fight for other people than it is yourself.
My mom and sister never gave up on me, and so I promise that I won’t give up on this. It’s a black and white petition with a very specific ask. I won’t settle for the gray bureaucracy of political red-tape that is slow moving, inefficient and has failed this community for the last 30 years. I am hoping Santa, or the right senator, can bypass all that.
What an amazing Christmas it could be for millions of people with this disease around the world, to finally have real hope knowing that change is happening now, and the kind of research we’ve all been waiting on will finally be possible. It’s not a change that would normally happen quickly. And I don’t expect this fight to be easy or painless. But, it is Christmas. And even at 32, I still believe in something powerful around this time of year that makes anything possible. I know that this is, but it will require the right kind of help. Here’s hoping, for all of us, that we get it.
Health, Happiness, Believe
If you’d like to add your voice or help circulate the petition to more people, that would be amazing and please click here.
To donate to Jamison Hill’s medical fund click the link!
Yall Rock, Thank you to all.