The Body That Betrays You In Your Prime (In Response to ‘Unruly Bodies’)
What a life-changing diagnosis taught me about acceptance, priorities and self-care
When you post a picture to Instagram, there’s so much people don’t see.
And for the past three years, I’ve gotten good at sharing my life’s highlights:
Toasting cocktails with Oprah Winfrey, interviewing Denzel Washington on the red carpet, traveling to Jamaica to dance around in a bejeweled Carnival costume and hitting the campaign trail to interview trailblazers.
My career as a journalist and host has been a dream realized and many weeks have felt like drinking out of a fire hose of opportunities with endless stories to tell. I simply love what I do.
But while I was busy telling other people’s stories, I was quietly hiding the most challenging parts of my own — tucking them away from the very spotlight I so enjoyed being in.
Filtered out of Instagram’s 4 x 4 digital frame were: doctor’s visits in small sterile rooms, IVs poked into the softest creases of my skin, MRI scan machines like giant coffins swallowing my body whole, white cylinder pills I could never remember to take before breakfast, and countless days where getting out of bed — once an automated routine — felt like mission impossible.
When I was diagnosed with lupus, I had just turned 30. I’d spent a brutally cold winter hustling and grinding in my first media job in New York City. But life had turned to an upswing. I was settling into my closet sized apartment in Harlem; I’d proudly closed the chapter on a bad relationship; and I had my first big press junket where I’d be the on-camera interviewer.
This was my season to come up.
Then one day I couldn’t bend my wrists.
I recall waking up in my bedroom, looking down and wondering why they were so sore.
The pain was excruciating and it felt like cement had been injected into my joints. My body felt like someone slashed a balloon, letting all the energy inside of me deflate.
So I slapped on an icy hot patch and powered through the day, going into the office for business as usual to film a news video. After about a week of discomfort, finally the pain screamed loudly enough that I made moves and went to the doctor.
Days later, when I’d forgotten all about the visit, my cell rang while I was at work talking with my boss. By the time I finished with him I missed the call, so I stepped out of our tiny shared office space to call back.
“Ms. Alford, you tested positive for ANA, which is linked to arthritis. I’d like you to come in for further testing,” the doctor told me.
Strange. Arthritis at 30 years old? Surely this was a mistake.
More appointments were made. I went along, still convinced nothing could seriously be wrong.
About two weeks later, I met with a rheumatologist (a doctor who specializes in joints and bones) letting him poke, prod and examine my body, before he casually declared, “I think you have lupus.”
The weight of his words hung in the air.
Lupus? What was that? The first thing that came to my mind was Toni Braxton, the legendary singer who I’d heard periodically struggled with the illness.
The doctor explained it was an autoimmune illness, in which your immune system attacks healthy cells and organs. Some cases were mild and others were severe. Testing and observation would reveal where I stood in the years to come.
“Aren’t I too young for something like that?” I told him half laughing, half hoping he would reconsider his diagnosis.
“You’re never too young for anything,” he responded, flatly.
I left the office that day confused and shocked, told to come back soon for follow up tests.
I immediately called my parents and closest friends to share — hoping they would have words of encouragement.
They all said variations of the same thing:
“This means you have to slow down some, Natasha…”
“Take it easy girl…”
“At least it’s manageable… It’s time to put your health first.”
But those were the last things I wanted to do.
At 30, I was in the prime of my life. I wanted the life I had imagined. I didn’t want a new normal. I didn’t want to have lupus.
“I wanted the life I had imagined. I didn’t want a new normal. I didn’t want to have lupus.”
After mulling it over a bit, I vowed to carry on and not overthink it. I had a salsa dancing date planned that weekend, and I could deal with this lupus thing later.
After about four hours of Puerto Rican rhythms and spinning turns on an old vinyl dance floor in East Harlem, I jumped up with shooting pain in my chest — it felt like glass shards were being dragged across my lungs each time I took a breath — sharp, deep and painful.
“I’m really sorry to do this, but I think I have to go to the hospital,” I told my date, completely embarrassed.
“It’s okay, let’s go,” he said.
We waited for hours in the Emergency Room as doctors ran my vital signs, injected me with pain medication and confirmed that these were signs of a flare — a scenario when lupus is highly active in the body, my immune system attacking my healthy tissues, a small pocket of fluid developing in my lungs.
I would be released from the ER late that next morning, but rather than rest, I ran to research questions to ask celebrities at my upcoming press junket.
When I showed up to shoot my interview, no one knew I’d just been in the hospital 24 hours beforehand.
I posted a photo on Instagram smiling with actress Tichina Arnold — who ironically (or maybe divinely) was a lupus advocate. But as much as I wanted to, I wouldn’t dare say a word to her either.
And in that moment being ill in plain sight became my superpower.
Over the next few months rather than dig further into my new diagnosis, I doubled down on denial, blowing off taking my daily medication — two Plaquenil pills that kept the disorder at bay — diving deeper into my work to prove that nothing would stop me from my media career — and of course that lupus wasn’t a real thing, for me at least.
The approach worked — mostly.
For the first year of my diagnosis, there’d be stretches of time — sometimes months — without major issues. So I’d stop taking my medication altogether. Then I’d get a cold that would last for weeks and morph into pneumonia.
Working for a small digital news company, there wasn’t always someone to pass along my responsibilities to, so I’d work when I didn’t feel well, calculating that I simply couldn’t afford to take a day off. That only compounded the struggle.
I fell victim to the dangerously unhealthy mentality that is often ingrained into young women of color: you must work twice as hard. There’s no space for weakness. Do the work or get replaced with someone who will.
I also feared that if people knew about my condition, they would judge me or it would overshadow my talents and abilities. I was told to keep it as quiet it as possible by seasoned advisors.
Being young and “sick” felt like a Scarlet letter, an asterisk on a life that had so much more to it than this one chapter. What if the dreams I’d worked so hard for, went right out the window?
As the months, then years, marched on in my journey, I was discovering something — I was still advancing professionally. Getting new and better opportunities. Garnering some praise for my work.
But I hadn’t poured the same energy into changing my health and wellness. My testing the limits of my condition was only getting worse — I partied harder, ate poorly, and ran from event to event, without enough sleep to make up the difference.
In 2017, the night before the presidential inauguration, I had a lupus flare after weeks of not taking my medication. I would head to the ER for treatment, check out the next morning at 5am and go straight to the national mall determined to get my interviews.
I thought I could run from lupus, not knowing it could catch up to me.
The realest wake up call would come early in 2018, when I flew to Los Angeles. I traveled on barely any sleep after working through the weekend, posting a picture on Instagram announcing my arrival. Shortly after I would check into the ER with a fever and lupus flare, this time thousands of miles from home.
As I sat in the hospital bed a few hours after being checked in, I got a phone call — it was the president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ).
I put on my most professional voice, tussling with my hospital gown and sat up to sound awake.
“Hello, this is Natasha!”
She was calling to tell me I’d won Emerging Journalist of the Year, a signature award given to young black journalists to recognize their potential.
I would be recognized that summer at the national convention in front of my family and peers.
“We look forward to celebrating with you!” she said warmly.
“Thank you so much for this honor, I look forward to it too!” I responded excitedly before hanging up.
The irony of getting this award, was that it had been renamed in honor of another young journalist — a rising star and beloved community member— who right before starting his dream job, died from health complications at the age of 32.
I was turning 32 in two months.
In that moment, I had an epiphany:
I didn’t ask for this condition and it wasn’t my fault, but prioritizing my health was no longer optional.
If I wanted to enjoy the success I’d work for, I had to change my life.
Lupus could be managed.
And the only person stopping that process was me.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
— James Baldwin
Today, I have nothing left to hide.
Over the past year, I’ve started to make changes that reflect a new normal:
I more consistently take my medication. A friend offered to text me every morning to ensure I took it, until it became a habit.
My denial about needing it has given way to understanding that I pay a hefty price (both physical and financially) when I don’t take it.
I no longer say “yes” to every single thing I’m invited to. There was a time I felt obligated to show up to every press junket, interview or opportunity to provide coverage for things that I wasn’t even that interested in.
These days I’m more discerning. Anything I choose to travel to or make time for takes valuable energy. I try to make my schedule reflect my actual values and journalistic priorities.
I’ve learned how to be an advocate for myself with doctors, treating my condition with the same focus, research and attention I put into reporting a story.
This fall, I moved to Washington, D.C. to cover midterm elections for theGrio.com. What most people didn’t know was that I also moved there to be evaluated at one of the best hospitals in the country for rheumatology (the speciality which deals with lupus).
I didn’t feel I was really being listened to by previous medical teams or handled with care (something black women often face in the healthcare system), so like a coach I changed my starting line up. For the first time I really did my research, even visiting the Lupus Foundation of America to get books, articles and contacts in the field of lupus advocacy and treatment.
Now that I’m back in NYC, I feel more equipped as an active participant in my medical care and have found a local team of doctors I trust.
I am now prioritizing physical fitness and activity. During my evaluation period in D.C. I learned that I’d developed some joint damage, likely as a result of steroids used to treat lupus over the years. I’m undergoing physical therapy and getting treatment. I am required to use crutches for the time being to prevent further damage, something I’ve never addressed publicly until now.
It’s been an adjustment to say the least. I cried when I found out about all the lifestyle changes I would have to make to accommodate healing and recovery. But as the great James Baldwin once wrote:
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Or as my Daddy says, “You gotta be real with yourself.”
I am being real about what I need to do to get better, so I can actually get better. That’s called self care.
To that end, I’ve continued working through the psychological and emotional impact of chronic illness.
I’ve always had a therapist to talk with ever since I was diagnosed, and that’s given me space to vent or have support when I didn’t feel understood anywhere else.
I’ve also found the company of others who are in the same fight.
Last month, I put on a pink ball gown and attended my first public event for lupus, the “Evening of Hope” Gala in New York City.
It’s something I would’ve never done before — acknowledging that I was one of the 1.5 million affected — but a new friend and lupus advocate invited me to join.
“We are often never as alone as we feel.”
I wasn’t 100% sure I’d tell the world my story — I had every right to keep it private — but I asked a gifted photographer to document the evening for me, in the event that I would be.
Listening to people’s testimonies of triumph that night at the gala, showed me that I was never alone in this fight to begin with.
We are often never as alone as we feel. And in life, no matter what we are handed, there is purpose to be found.
Still, when an official event photographer approached me to pose for a photo, at first I hesitated.
What if the picture ended up online somewhere, and I couldn’t change my mind about people knowing I was in the room?
Then I shook it off.
“Sure, it’s okay,” I responded.
I was — and am ready — to show picture of life that is full, complicated, challenging and real — one that is bigger than any career, Instagram photo or autoimmune condition.
It is a picture that leaves out no part of me.
The author at Lupus Foundation of America’s “Evening of Hope” Gala 2018
(Photo: Noémie Tshinanga)