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 4x4 digital frame were: doctor 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 IcyHot 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 physically 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 lineup. 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.
The author at Lupus Foundation of America's "Evening of Hope" Gala 2018 (Photo: Noémie Tshinanga)
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.
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.
Natasha S. Alford is Deputy Editor of theGrio, where she covers social issues, politics, and culture. As an on-camera host, she's contributed to Power 105.1's The Breakfast Club and Cheddar TV, and her writing about Afro-LatinX identity has appeared in The New York Times and OprahMag.com. Follow her latest stories, travels, wellness tips and interviews on Instagram at @NatashaSAlford and #ThePeoplesJournalist.
*Originally published on Medium
Exclusive: Gabrielle Union On Radical Transparency, Being Diagnosed With Perimenopause And Embracing What’s Next
Whenever Gabrielle Union graces the movie screen, she immediately commands attention. From her unforgettable scenes in films like Bring It On and Two Can Play That Game to her most recent film, in which she stars and produces Netflix’s The Perfect Find, there’s no denying that she is that girl.
Off-screen, she uses that power for good by sharing her trials and tribulations with other women in hopes of helping those who may be going through the same things or preventing them from experiencing them altogether. Recently, the Flawless by Gabrielle Union founder partnered with Clearblue to speak at the launch of their Menopause Stage Indicator, where she also shared her experience with being perimenopausal.
In a xoNecoleexclusive, the iconic actress opens up about embracing this season of her life, new projects, and overall being a “bad motherfucker.” Gabrielle reveals that she was 37 years old when she was diagnosed with perimenopause and is still going through it at 51 years old. Mayo Clinic says perimenopause “refers to the time during which your body makes the natural transition to menopause, marking the end of the reproductive years.”
“I haven't crossed over the next phase just yet, but I think part of it is when you hear any form of menopause, you automatically think of your mother or grandmother. It feels like an old-person thing, but for me, I was 37 and like not understanding what that really meant for me. And I don't think we focus so much on the word menopause without understanding that perimenopause is just the time before menopause,” she tells us.
Photo by Brian Thomas
"But you can experience a lot of the same things during that period that people talk about, that they experienced during menopause. So you could get a hot flash, you could get the weight gain, the hair loss, depression, anxiety, like all of it, mental health challenges, all of that can come, you know, at any stage of the menopausal journey and like for me, I've been in perimenopause like 13, 14 years. When you know, most doctors are like, ‘Oh, but it's usually about ten years, and I'm like, ‘Uhh, I’m still going (laughs).’”
Conversations about perimenopause, fibroids, and all the things that are associated with women’s bodies have often been considered taboo and thus not discussed publicly. However, times are changing, and thanks to the Gabrielle’s and the Tia Mowry’s, more women are having an authentic discourse about women’s health. These open discussions lead to the creation of more safe spaces and support for one another.
“I want to be in community with folks. I don't ever want to feel like I'm on an island about anything. So, if I can help create community where we are lacking, I want to be a part of that,” she says. “So, it's like there's no harm in talking about it. You know what I mean? Like, I was a bad motherfucker before perimenopause. I’m a bad motherfucker now, and I'll be a bad motherfucker after menopause. Know what I’m saying? None of that has to change. How I’m a bad motherfucker, I welcome that part of the change. I'm just getting better and stronger and more intelligent, more wise, more patient, more compassionate, more empathetic. All of that is very, very welcomed, and none of it should be scary.”
The Being Mary Jane star hasn’t been shy about her stance on therapy. If you don’t know, here’s a hint: she’s all for it, and she encourages others to try it as well. She likens therapy to dating by suggesting that you keep looking for the right therapist to match your needs. Two other essential keys to her growth are radical transparency and radical acceptance (though she admits she is still working on the latter).
"I was a bad motherfucker before perimenopause. I’m a bad motherfucker now, and I'll be a bad motherfucker after menopause. Know what I’m saying? None of that has to change. How I’m a bad motherfucker, I welcome that part of the change."
Gabrielle Union and Kaavia Union-Wade
Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images
“I hope that a.) you recognize that you're not alone. Seek out help and know that it's okay to be honest about what the hell is happening in your life. That's the only way that you know you can get help, and that's also the only other way that people know that you are in need if there's something going on,” she says, “because we have all these big, very wild, high expectations of people, but if they don't know what they're actually dealing with, they're always going to be failing, and you will always be disappointed. So how about just tell the truth, be transparent, and let people know where you are. So they can be of service, they can be compassionate.”
Gabrielle’s transparency is what makes her so relatable, and has so many people root for her. Whether through her TV and film projects, her memoirs, or her social media, the actress has a knack for making you feel like she’s your homegirl. Scrolling through her Instagram, you see the special moments with her family, exciting new business ventures, and jaw-dropping fashion moments. Throughout her life and career, we’ve seen her evolve in a multitude of ways. From producing films to starting a haircare line to marriage and motherhood, her journey is a story of courage and triumph. And right now, in this season, she’s asking, “What’s next?”
“This is a season of discovery and change. In a billion ways,” says the NAACP Image Award winner. “The notion of like, ‘Oh, so and so changed. They got brand new.’ I want you to be brand new. I want me to be brand new. I want us to be always constantly growing, evolving. Having more clarity, moving with different purpose, like, and all of that is for me very, very welcomed."
"I want you to be brand new. I want me to be brand new. I want us to be always constantly growing, evolving. Having more clarity, moving with different purpose, like, and all of that is for me very, very welcomed."
She continues, “So I'm just trying to figure out what's next. You know what I mean? I'm jumping into what's next. I'm excited going into what's next and new. I'm just sort of embracing all of what life has to offer.”
Look out for Gabrielle in the upcoming indie film Riff Raff, which is a crime comedy starring her and Jennifer Coolidge, and she will also produce The Idea of You, which stars Anne Hathaway.
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Feature image by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images
It seems like 2023 was a whirlwind, flying by a bit too quickly for many of us. And now that we're approaching the last month of the year, there's a push to prep for a great 2024. I'm not a huge fan of resolutions---as I never keep mine, and I'm unapologetically not sorry for that---but I'm heavy into at least getting a head start on looking forward to the possibilities of a fresh start, finally achieving a few lingering goals, and embracing more adventure.
If you're ready to plan ahead, it's the perfect time to make December count in order to plan for a successful new year. Here are a few fun ideas to get you started.
1. Host a reflection party.
Hey, you could do this alone, but you could also make it fun and interactive by inviting friends or industry friends to reflect on the highs and the lows of the year. Create a theme, offer customized cocktails, and talk about what each of you has accomplished, reminisce on the fun times you've had, talk about the challenges you've faced, and set a few goals. Add in a few fun activities like vision boarding or career mapping.
You could also have one last girls trip and attend a conference or networking event together. After each session, take the time to put on pajamas and reflect on what was learned, who you met, and how you'll apply pressure in your careers next year.
2. Declutter and reorganize.
If you haven't been purging throughout the year, December is a great time to get a head start. All those old clothes or shoes that you don't wear? Sell or donate them. If you need help, have a consultation with a professional organizer or watch a few good tutorials on Konmari methods.
Still holding on to furniture, appliances, or other home decor that really isn't functional, doesn't scream home for you, or needs an upgrade? Go thrifting, shop around, or treat yourself to interior decorating services.
If you can't afford to do any of those, move a few things around, repurpose your household items, or try DIYs. Sometimes a bit of paint or moving your home office into a different room can be small changes that lead to big differences in mood or convenience at home.
And, as mentioned before, invite a few friends, family, or bae, and make it another excuse to close out the year with good drinks, laughter, and connection.
3. Create a bucket list.
From your career to your personal life, it's good to write down your dream or must-do activities to get clear on what you want to accomplish in the new year and to serve as a nudge for accomplishment. And it doesn't have to be grand goals like "Save a million dollars," (though, if that's a bucket-list contender for you, go off, sis, and get that money.) It can be places you want to travel to, concerts you want to attend, professional development courses you want to take, or new adventurous experiences you want to enjoy.
One thing I like about bucket lists is that I don't approach them in the traditional way, where I feel pressure to do these things before the Lord calls me home. I like to think of a bucket list as a fun guideline that will help me get clear on what excites me, what I need to do to grow, and what challenges me to push past self-inflicted boundaries.
4. Prioritize wellness.
If you've slacked off a bit or know you might be facing a few issues in the health and wellness department, now is the time to start prioritizing. Set those last appointments for a full physical, gynecological, or dermatologist visit, follow-up tests, or therapy for next year. Sign up for fun fitness classes and schedule a few visits to the spa while you're at it.
Block out time in your schedule for meditation, prayer, religious services, and exercise, and go ahead and change that calendar setting to "daily" or "weekly." Set email updates and other ways to remind yourself to put wellness at the top of your priority list leading into the new year.
If you're already pretty consistent with your fitness and wellness goals, try a new activity or incorporate new technology to level up a bit and challenge yourself more. Try a new skincare routine, join a running group, or learn a new activity that requires movement, such as dance, karate, or boxing. Mix things up a bit so that you can enrich your experience on the journey.
5. Take an honest look at your finances and adjust accordingly.
If you're reading this, I'm sure you know the importance and power of budgeting, no matter how much money you make. Getting into a habit of knowing exactly how much you earn and how you're spending those earnings is vital to your success and financial freedom. If you have goals for next year that will require a significant shift in your budget, you'll need to adjust.
Be realistic and account for the things you enjoy doing, your lifestyle, your debts, and your other financial obligations. If you have vacations or other big events planned, be sure your budget accommodates them or set goals in order to save up. If you've experienced a major transition such as a marriage, divorce, or addition to your family, take some time to reflect on how your income is impacted and what you might need to do to ease the transition when it comes to your pockets.
Research ways you can make residual income, how you can invest, start a side hustle, and prep for retirement. (As much as some of you would like to think you're too young to think about that, imagine how much more of a nest egg you'd have if you started saving for retirement in your 20s or 30s.)
And don't sleep on insurance beyond coverage for your car or healthcare. Life, long-term care, and disability insurance are important if you have children, want to be sure your loved ones are taken care of financially in the future, or if you want to protect assets such as your income, home, or business.
Think about your prep for next year holistically and start this December to ensure that you're going into 2024 with a mindset and intention for success.
Featured image by Getty Images