Artist Rana Awadallah grew up surrounded by poverty, abuse, and trauma. Diagnosed with major depression and extreme anxiety at the age of 18, she always felt there was something “wrong” with her body. Then, at the age of 24 — after having dealt with chronic pain for a decade — she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both of her knees. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, PCOS, and possible endometriosis. Having not been taken seriously by loved ones or doctors for years, these diagnoses came as a validation. But they also signaled aggressive change. Because her pain prevented her from continuing work in her dream job (as a chef), these disabilities also created the opportunity to pursue art from home — something she’d had a passion and talent for her entire life. Within a year, she has created a thriving community of fellow Spoonies, inspiring them through her work. She’s taken on brand ambassadors, connected with leading lights in the patient advocacy community, and now…she’s ready to share her story. We are thrilled to welcome the lovely and kind Rana2.0 to Uninvisible Pod!
Tune in as Rana shares:
- that she struggled with a weak immune system as a kid
- that she started having chronic knee pain at the age of 15
- that she was recently diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both of her knees
- that her previous diagnoses of depression and anxiety were blamed for her physical issues early on — and she was brushed aside by doctors and her pain not taken seriously
- how her physical pain began affecting her ability to work
- that she experienced debilitating pain from the onset of her period — and realized eventually that it wasn’t normal
- the textbook PCOS symptoms she experienced
- how the PCOS diagnosis was validating
- that she uses cannabis regularly to manage her pain and mental health
- what her day-to-day looks like as she works around chronic pain
- how her upbringing influences her momentum to this day — the idea that she should overcome and carry on
- the importance of listening to our bodies
- that she grew up in a strict Muslim household — and her family denied her mental health struggles
- how her identity has impacted her experience in the medical industry
- why it’s vital for her to vocally support the Black disabled community
Lauren: Okay, guys, thank you so much for joining us. I am here today with someone we're very excited to have on the show. We've been trying to make this happen for a long time. We are here today with Rana Awadallah. You may also know her as Rana 2.0. She is a Black chronically ill artist, and she lives with a number of diagnoses, including fibromyalgia, PCOS, osteoarthritis, and possible endometriosis. So we're going to talk about all of that. Rana, it is such an honor to have you on the show today, and so great to finally meet you, since we've created this lovely friendship on Instagram!
Rana: I know! I know I took a while but I’m finally here.
Lauren: Oh, no, we all took our time -- we have lives! (Laughs)
Rana: Yeah, I'm excited. This is the first podcast that I've been on. And I'm excited to talk to you more, Lauren, to share my story.
Lauren: Well, thank you so much for sharing with us today. So, with that in mind, let's start from the very beginning, can you tell us when and how you first realized that you were sick, and how you got your diagnoses and how you have kept yourself in a reasonable amount of health up to this point?
Rana: Yeah, I always got sick when I was younger; I would be sick all the time. I thought, oh, that's just me, you know, I get sick a lot. But when I was about 15, I started getting constant burning pain in my knees.
My mom told me, “Oh, it’s growing pains.” The doctors told me, “No, it’s just from your anxiety or depression.”
But a few years later, I got some tests done, and they still didn't really find much. But now at 25, I got diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both my knees.
Lauren: It’s interesting, because it sounds like they were sort of writing off anxiety and depression as possible symptoms early on, too. But those are very serious diagnoses, too, that we can't sort of throw out the window either.
Rana: I was seeking treatment for my mental health, major depression and anxiety. But yeah, they were brushing it under the rug, saying, “Depression causes aches and pains … you know, if you lay in bed a lot.” And I'm telling them, “This isn't normal, though. I know my body and I know that there's something wrong." But yeah, it was disappointing to see that I used to go to the doctors all the time for it. And then now I'm diagnosed with arthritis. And it’s really bad at this point. It makes me think about … what could they have done? Or would it be this bad if I knew earlier?
Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. So this is an osteoarthritis diagnosis that you have in both your knees now. What about the fibromyalgia as well. How did you get that diagnosed?
Rana: So for the last maybe two, three years, as well as the knee pain, it started progressing all around my body — just aches, pains. If you touch me, it hurts. It feels like my body's one big bruise. I wake up feeling I got hit by a truck. I've researched fibromyalgia, and I’m, like, I feel like this is me. But last April, I was still working. I was working as a line cook, which was very, very hard on my body. I started getting sick all the time. I had a lot of UTIs and a lot of cramping, abdominal pain. I would call out of work all the time. Just a lot of stuff was going on with me everywhere. Everything in my body kind of flared all at once. So I kept going to the doctors, and then that's when I started getting diagnosed with everything, just last year. Basically, everything just started flaring, and I just knew that there was something wrong with me. At first they thought it was something wrong with my kidneys, or this or that. So I went through a lot of tests and a lot of craziness to get the diagnosis.
Lauren: So what about also, the reproductive health concerns? We know you've got PCOS. And you mentioned to me before we started the interview that as you've been investigating possible endometriosis, you've gotten the PCOS diagnosis.
Lauren: So did that all happen at the same time? Because you were having a UTI, and you started experiencing pain?
Rana: Yes. Pretty much for years, my period was always heavy, very heavy blood clots. I feel like my organs are all twisting up.
I can't sleep, I feel like I need to be in the ER; I’m crying in pain. I just know this pain is not normal.
It's debilitating. It would be so bad that I would just, if I knew I was getting my period, I would say I'm not going to be able to work. I have to call out of work. So it was just getting worse and worse. Like I said, I would be in and out of the doctor’s. I was getting a lot of UTIs, a lot of pelvic pain, a lot of pain by my ovaries. There were a lot of things going on. And then, like I said, they were testing for endometriosis. And they told me they did see endometriosis on the lab results, but you know, they can't give you an official diagnosis unless you do the surgery. But they did give me a diagnosis for PCOS. And for the last year before that I was struggling really bad with cystic acne. I always struggle with facial hair, and my weight fluctuates a lot, and stuff like that.
Lauren: Textbook PCOS, yeah.
Rana: yeah. And that diagnosis was really relieving for me, because I felt like I was beating myself up for so long. Like, why am I bloating so much? Why am I breaking out? What am I eating? What am I doing to my body? But you know, I realized, it's not me, it's just how my body was made. So I just have to manage those things.
Lauren: You’ve been really open about that on Instagram as well; you’ve shared, particularly with your acne journey, this idea of normalizing … our skin being in all different states and not having to be perfect and clear all the time. Also showing people the journey you've been on and how you've been trying to heal. And so much of your art also reflects this pain journey as well. How have you been able to keep yourself well? I know you use cannabis. So has that been a big part of your healing regimen as well?
Rana: Definitely, I would say. I smoke weed every day. It does help for pain, but it's not the end-all be-all. I would say weed mostly helps me mentally, to just get in that better mental state where I want to be creative. I'll be happy. Even if I'm in a lot of pain, I can still feel kind of good mentally. But there's different strains, different methods that work better than others. So I'm still trying to figure it out pain-wise. But it does give me a little bit of relief, takes the edge off, and it's definitely something that gets me through.
Lauren: So what is the typical day like for you now? How are you balancing the demands of work and life? Because we know that you're now working as an artist and taking on commissions. How are you balancing that as you manage your symptoms day-to-day?
Rana: Oh, good question.
Lauren: It’s another loaded one. Believe me, they keep getting loaded from here!
Rana: It’s good, though, to talk about it with you. So day to day … basically, I wake up and I see how I'm feeling. When I wake up, I'm normally really groggy in the first few hours. But if I'm up for a couple of hours, I start to see how my body is gonna feel for the day, if there’s burning or aching in different spots.
I'll smoke my weed and try to get relaxed, and try to see if I can get into a creative mind zone.
Or, eat breakfast, get ready, then I'll see what I want to create today. Do I want to work on some of my commissions — because I have a lot, and I'm trying to get those done, which we'll talk about. Or do I need to spend energy on promoting, or do I need to package some stickers. So basically, I go with the flow, unless there’s something that I really need to get done so I'll make that a priority first. Then by the middle of the day, maybe I'll take a nap, or I'll do something for fun. I'll take a bath towards the end of the day, because I have to muster up the strength and the energy to do that. So pretty much my day is kind of balancing self-care. I’ve really been spending a lot of time on myself, just doing things to try to make me feel better. Whenever I'm down, I'll take a bath, or I'll do a face mask, or I'll create something for fun. Or I'll create something for my business. I’ll connect with people on Instagram. I spend a lot of time communicating with my followers, and stuff.
Lauren: Is it hard to give yourself permission to create that space for yourself? We come from this culture of work, work work right now … like, you've always got to be great at the next thing. Is it hard, do you think, when you're living in a body that is disabled, to then give yourself permission to be, like, I can do a nice thing for myself right now. Is that kind of a hoop you have to learn to jump through on a regular basis?
Rana: Definitely, that's probably one of the hardest things. Because I always feel like I need to be doing something. I was always a hard worker. I started working when I was 16, became a manager at 18, and was a manager for years. And then I became a cook, and I had that hustle. I went through a lot of trauma and poverty growing up. So I always had to just keep going, keep going. So that's really where my mindset is. Right now I'm in a more comfortable space. I have my apartment, my dog, my art’s doing well. And I do have that space where I can say, you know, I could just relax today, and whatever happens today, happens today. But I still just want to keep going. I definitely do have to talk to myself and tell myself … you have time, you have 24 hours in a day … I’m the most important thing in my life, I have to work on myself. In order to do all these other things, I have to take care of myself. So I’ve got to just talk to myself. Sometimes I beat myself up over it if I cannot rest and relax. But you know, sometimes we just have to listen to our bodies.
Lauren: Absolutely. It sounds like you're very much on the other side of that battle, even though it's a constant reminder. I think it's something that so many of us in the Spoonie community struggle with, and it's great to see examples of people who are living experiences that are familiar to us, like you … being able to talk about it, being able to share inspirational content as well, that helps us go, okay, if she can do it, I can do it, too.
Rana: That’s great. I love that.
Lauren: I mean, it's so true. So let's dig into … you mentioned some of this trauma that you've experienced, you know, getting to all these points. And I'm wondering, in terms of that trauma, have you been in a position where you've been confronted and forced to justify the existence of your diagnoses to people who didn't understand them because they couldn't see them? Be they medical professionals or friends or family. What has that experience been like for you? I know you've talked about people writing things off as mental health issues when they're physiological, but what does that experience look like from your perspective?
Rana: I can relate to that in many different ways. Firstly, as we discussed, with doctors. As a woman, they're so easy to say, “Oh, it's just anxiety,” or, “You're just anxious.” Or they told me, “Oh, you did track for five years in high school. So, your knees are just messed up.” But I’m, like, everyone else's knees are not messed up from doing what I did. So just not being taken seriously by medical professionals. Another thing is, I grew up in a very strict Muslim household. It was very strict and religious, and very hard on us, the way my parents taught their religion. And they told me all the time they didn't believe in anxiety or depression. We went through so much trauma and all the things that we struggled with, and for them to deny that existence, that depression is real, anxiety is real. And there would be times I’d be crying in bed in the next room, and I would hear my parents watch the news about depression. And they’re, like, "Oh, that's not real.” And I’m, like, I'm over here, depressed! But, yeah, I got it from my family. Even when I told my mom about my diagnosis and stuff, it's much easier for her to understand the physical pain rather than mental pain. Because I used to tell her all the time,“Oh, I can't go visit you, I’m feeling really depressed.” And she would be, like, “Oh, just shake it off, just come over here.” And I’m, like, “Mom, you don't understand. I physically can't get out of bed. I can't do it.” She did not understand. But then when I became chronically ill, and I would say, “Mom, my knees really hurt. I’ve got to stay home," she would say, “Okay, I understand. Feel better.” I've dealt with both sides — from doctors, family, friends.
A lot of people that I used to be friends with from high school and stuff like that, they don't associate with me anymore. They're, like, “Chronically ill? Disabled? What is that?”
And that's been good, because obviously, I don't need those people in my life. But it definitely sucks. You've become chronically ill and disabled. And you didn't ask for it. But then everyone in your life kind of chooses how they feel about you. You kind of just have to move on from there and stick with the people who want to stick with you.
Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. Well, you mentioned also, and you talked about this online … when you made your first chronically ill best friend, and what that was like for you. Do you think that in creating some of your art and reaching out to the community you've actually been able to create more relationships that are based in a deeper understanding, and be able to have closer relationships with people because of that, because they understand your experience?
Rana: Oh, yeah, definitely. I find with the chronic illness community, when you meet someone, you’re, like, Oh, yeah, you have the same chronic illness?” And, you know, we're best friends! You just relate on a deeper level, without having to explain yourself. And then when someone does have the energy, when one of us has energy to explain it, you’re, like, yes, you understand me and I don't even have to say a word. You don't get that understanding from a lot of able-bodied people and people who don't go through what we go through. So yeah, definitely, I’ve made a lot of deep connections — like with you, right now. We're finally talking! And that's great. I have met some other people that were, like, “Oh, we could visit each other one day.” Or, “We can play video games together.” And talk about life. We just relate on a different level. Sometimes I think it's hard to have friendships with able-bodied people. I feel like I want to be friends with people who have mental health issues or who are chronically ill, because they're the ones who understand. They’re not going to be upset when I cancel plans, or when I can't text them back. It's just easier when someone knows what you’re dealing with.
Lauren: Yeah, that's so true. Also, I wonder … especially because of how open you are about your experiences, your online sharing about your personal experiences with chronic illness, with your relationship with life … and coming from a very strict household growing up … is that something that's also been a bit of a push-and-pull with your family to understand your current lifestyle? Or has it been a transition that's worked out?
Rana: I'm gonna give you a little synopsis! Because I don't really talk about it a lot. But this is something I'll share with you, Lauren.
Lauren: If it's too much, we don't have to talk about it either. I ask lots of questions. You’re allowed to say no!
Rana: It's part of my healing, something I don't talk about. It'd be good to talk. So growing up, like I said, I had a lot of siblings. My dad had multiple wives because we’re Muslim, so you can have multiple wives in that religion. I grew up in here in Middletown, New York, where I still am today, in a one-family house. With a lot of siblings. My mom had 12 kids of her own. And my second mother, my dad's other wise, she had 12 older kids.
Lauren: How is he providing for 24 children?
Rana: That's the thing, they couldn't provide. That's what the struggle was; they were so stressed-out. My mom worked two jobs. My second mom was a nurse. And he worked from home when he wanted to, and stuff like that. So we grew up really poor, because there were so many of us. We grew up kind of neglected. We couldn't do certain things we wanted; we couldn’t go hang out with friends or hang out at school … a lot of things that other kids are able to do, because our parents were really protective. And our house was in shambles so we weren't allowed to have anybody over. It really affected my childhood. (Pause) Sorry …
Lauren: No, it's a lot to think through and process.
Rana: Yeah, just having a lot of siblings, and I was sad. I’m a twin, I have a twin brother. I'm the second youngest; he's the youngest, I came out before him. We're the youngest. And when all of our siblings got older, they either ran away from home, or did their own thing and took a different path. So we all had distant relationships with each other. Growing up, we’re kind of still that way, still doing our own thing. A lot of them have families. They have kids, they’re working, and this and that. But I think a lot of them, they haven't really taken the time to understand what chronic illness is for me. And a lot of them see that I just keep going and going, and I'm always doing something, or it looks like I'm doing good. So they don't really reach out; they don't really interact with me, with my art. Some of them are creative and do art.
We're really a talented family, but there's just so many of us. It's been a lot of trauma, abuse, poverty, so it's just shaped all of us differently.
We’re all on our own different paths really.
Lauren: It makes me wonder, also … if creativity runs in the family, does chronic illness also run in the family? Is that something that maybe some of your siblings might be dealing with, and be in denial about?
Rana: I do actually have three and four sisters who were diagnosed with chronic illness. You would think that we would be closer. We do talk to each other on surface levels. But just a lot of things have happened. And, you know, people are the way they are. So sometimes you just have to take relationships for what they are.
Lauren: Well, and just because someone has an experience of chronic illness doesn't mean it's the same experience as yours, either. So you have to connect with the people you can connect with, absolutely. I'm wondering, also … when we were talking about introducing you, you said to me, “Can you say that I'm Black?” It's important, your Blackness is a really big part of your identity. And I know you're also working on a Black Disabled Portrait Series right now. Can you talk to us about that experience, especially in the healthcare system, as a woman of color. Do you think that many of your experiences could have been different if you had presented differently, if you’d shown up as a white woman, as a male? How much of that experience do you think was shaped by your race and your gender?
Rana: I think a lot of it, sadly … when you walk in and you present as a woman, some doctors just don't take that seriously at all. Like I said, bigger issues get brushed aside or you're not taken seriously. So I'm Black, but I'm also white, so I'm mixed. I'm a little lighter-skinned. And then I also have an Arabic name. So I feel like I get judged or miss out on one opportunities in a lot of different ways. Which is a shame, because it shouldn't be that way. Even growing up … my name is Rana Awadallah … I feel like you don't get called for certain job interviews, or people assume different things about you. And it's the same thing in the healthcare system. Being Black as well, doctors, a lot of them … I feel like they can't really relate to certain issues, or they have this misconception that Black people have a high tolerance for pain.
Lauren: Which is the most ridiculous! It is unbelievable that doctors still believe this!!
Rana: It’s still being taught, so a majority of doctors believe that.
It makes me think, if I was white and I went to the doctor, would they be giving me different pain management?
Would they care more because of the color of my skin? Would I be getting different treatments? It definitely has impacted.
Lauren: As you mentioned earlier with the osteoarthritis diagnosis, could you have been given that diagnosis sooner, and maybe it wouldn't have progressed as far as it’s progressed, too? Would you say that racial and gender inequality, in particular in the healthcare system, are a public health crisis when people are being treated differently because of that?
Rana: Yeah, definitely, no question. No matter what you look like, no matter how you present — as male, female, non-binary, anything, yellow, purple, blue — I should still be treated with kindness. We're all human beings, all walking the earth together. Why can't we smile at each other's faces? And why can't we just be kind to one another? It doesn't matter what we look like.
Lauren: Yeah. Absolutely. If only the world could see through your eyes, through the eyes of those of us who've had these experiences … that everyone deserves to be loved and cared for.
Rana: Another thing with the chronic illness community, like you're saying … we all relate. You don’t follow me and think, oh, she's African-American. You know me as chronically ill. We see each for who we are. But then, there is still a lack of a lot of Black faces in the disabled community. So that's why I'm starting that project. I just want the world to see us, because there's a lot of Black disabled people. When I go through my Instagram feed, or I'm looking through a magazine, I don't see it. I want Black disabled folk who come to me for their portraits, I want them to feel empowered. I want them to be able to share their story. I want them to be able to look at the portrait and say, "Oh, that's me.” And I want people to see them. Because they deserve to be seen.
Lauren: Absolutely. I'm so glad you bring that up, too. Because that's been a bugbear for me, as well. Being in this disability world, wellness world, and realizing how whitewashed it is. And having connections with people like you who are actively trying to change that narrative is really important. It's so vital in this community. I would love for you to talk to us about your work as an advocate in that way — how you've gone on this journey from a patient, to an artist, to an artist and advocate. What does that mean for the wider implications of your work? And how are you working to expand that advocacy in the community?
Rana: Once I found out I was chronically ill, I made the conscious decision to stop working. I told myself, I can’t work as a chef anymore. This is killing my body. I flipped my life upside down. I had to give up my apartment, I had to give up my dream job, a lot of things. So once that happened, I just leaned back into my art. I've always been talented with art, like my mom, since birth. I used to do competitions in school and be in Art Honors, and Art Club and all that stuff. But I never really took like my art seriously. A lot of people were always obsessive with my art and there would be times people would take my sketchbook and pass it around the whole class. I’d be, like, oh my God, I hate my artwork. Why are they looking at it?!
I used to hide my art. I used to rip it up; I used to hate it. You know, a lot of artists are critics!
Lauren: Yeah, we're our own worst critics. All of us. Yes.
Rana: I never really took it seriously. But when I became chronically ill, I realized, I’ve got to do something. So the first thing that my heart went to was my art. But I realized my wrists and my hands … they hurt when I do art that I used to do. I used to do a lot of painting with acrylic and watercolors, or doodling with markers, and stuff like that. That's really hard on my hands. So then that's when I started to teach myself digital art. I didn't have an iPad at the time. So for months, I was doing all my digital art on my phone … until a few months ago, I finally got my iPad again. So I just taught myself digital art. And slowly, I started to post it on my personal Instagram. It only had my personal followers, from childhood. I started to post my artwork, and then I just said, hey, let me make this my art page, let me just keep doing what I'm doing. I started doing self-portraits for people. And then I just started to draw about my chronic illness, because that's the majority of my life; everything is affected by it. So I was, like, I might as well draw how I feel and put that out there. So then slowly I started to connect with the chronic illness community, and I realized how amazing everyone was. And I was, like, oh, my God, this feels like home. I just kept creating and connecting with different people. I don't know, I just keep going and going. Whenever I have a feeling for a project, or something's happening, or I feel connected to something, I kind of just do it. Like, with the Black Disabled Lives Matter project … that was really important to me. If you have that feeling for a project, you just kind of do it, you put the plan in motion, you feel that you want to do it. The same thing. Like before, I did The Chronically Fabulous Project, which was folks sharing a story, a similar thing. I just did that, too. I feel like what's next for me is to keep going, advancing my art, trying to expand my business, trying to expand my merch … just keep doing what I'm doing and see where it takes me.
Lauren: What does it mean to you that you've become this sensation, in the last year, especially.
Rana: A sensation! I don’t know!
Lauren: You went from, as you said, the few followers who were people you knew, to … have you broken 10k yet? You’re about to break 10k?
Rana: Yeah, almost.
Lauren: This is huge. What does it mean to you to have people becoming more aware of not only the work of a Black disabled woman, but the awareness that you're bringing to race, gender and disability? What does that mean for you?
Rana: It’s kind of crazy looking back. Like I said, I just started posting my art, I taught myself digital art. And I said, let's do this. Kept creating, didn't really matter what it looked like. I found people that I connected with, and it feels amazing to go on Instagram every day and to know that there's people who understand me, and they root for me like I root for them.
We're giving each other the same support back. I've never had support like I've had from this community.
And all the love that's just there. So that feels amazing. And to see all the people that have found my work, and they're so touched by it … it touches me. People tell me all the time, “Oh, my God, I love your art.” And they tell me how it changed them and how it makes them feel. It makes you want to cry. It makes me happy because my art touched you. I'm really just putting out there what I feel. People ask me, “Do you think about what you're going to post? Or do you just want to connect with your followers?” No, I'm just drawing what I feel and putting it out there. And sometimes people are going through a similar situation so they're gonna connect with it when they see it. So it's just nice to relate to people on different levels.
Lauren: So let's switch directions a little bit here. I want to talk a little bit about the health care system. I know we've touched on it. Based on your experience, in what way are you seeing the healthcare system work for patients —if at all. You are allowed to say it's not working at all! And in what ways are you seeing it needing improvement, and can you imagine any particular improvement, off the bat, that you could say … it would be better if maybe doctors did this, or admin staff did that? What are the pros and cons of the current system we're living with in the US?
Rana: Well, currently, pros, I would say … tele-med appointments, and all the things that people said they couldn't do for us before … they need to keep that stuff going and progress it further. It's amazing that we can get our medicine delivered, and that we don't have to go into the office for therapy or a doctor's appointment. All that stuff is good.
Lauren: Especially during COVID.
Rana: Yeah, especially during COVID. If people could really take that seriously and just keep these things for us. Because it's hard going to the doctor’s. You have to prepare yourself for the whole day, mentally, physically, and the day after. And it's a lot of stress on our bodies in all these different types of ways. So to be able to have an appointment with my doctor, do the iPad while I’m laying in bed — that’s what we need. We shouldn't have to go travel. There used to be doctors who would do at-home visits, but we don't do that anymore. So I would say, all those things are pros. But for cons … a lot.
Lauren: A lot more than there are pros!
Rana: Definitely, the main thing is … maybe a lot of doctors came into the position caring, but I just doesn't feel like they genuinely care to know the patient. I have a rheumatologist that I really love. I had an appointment with her the other day.
She remembers things about me — she asks me how my art is, how the dog is. She tells me to keep going.
And that there's bad days and good days. I feel a connection with her. I feel like she looks me in the eyes. She knows how to say my name. We need more of those things. And those things are so simple.
Lauren: Well, they're so simple to some people. I think it's hard. Because in medical school … look, I haven't been to medical school, and I don't know. But I feel like we have good great scientists. But that doesn't mean we always have great bedside manner, right. Sometimes people need to learn how to read the room, and how to be with other people and sort of exchange energy. Especially with something as personal as health, and especially for someone who's in pain. And especially if you're someone who's in pain and has experienced marginalization in the system, it's one of those things where you need someone who really is, as you say, taking the time to learn your name, to know who you are, to be able to ask follow-up questions, to understand what your lifestyle is like, right?
Rana: No, definitely. That's one thing that I feel like could be improved. Obviously, health care should be free for all. We all have bodies, we are going to have all these ailments and sicknesses. There’s always something to take care of, and maintain. And a lot of times we get backlash if you're impoverished or you haven't kept up with certain things like your teeth or your eyes, or this and that. But it's out of some people's control, because the way the system is set up, it's not set up for us to succeed; everything is harder. So, definitely, free health care, prescriptions … just everything should be accessible. I mean, they do it in other countries; we have the money, why are we putting all this money into the military and all these other things, when we’re not putting it into the healthcare system.
Lauren: I could not agree more. And it's one of those things, as you say, we've seen this done successfully in other countries. Why can't we do it? Especially when we have so much prosperity here. The military is important. We all feel safe, because of the military, on some level. But maybe instead of worrying about future offenses, we could worry about people who are living their everyday lives. Because those need to be quality controlled, if you will. That people are living in poverty and unable to take care of their bodies is a problem.
Rana: Yeah, well the thing is, they don’t care about those people. They’re, like, oh, if they can’t do it, they can't do it.
Lauren: It’s capitalism, isn't it. It's the role of privatization, I guess. And big money, Big Pharma, and insurance companies in the health care system here. So, you've been able to get to this place where you're being so open and honest about your experiences. And not every day is perfect. There are good days and bad days. But I would love for you to share if you have any tips — Top Three Tips for someone who's also living this chronic illness life. What advice would you give to them now, or even advice that you would give to your younger self living with invisible diagnoses?
Rana: First, I would say, don't be so hard on yourself. We didn't ask for this life, this body, all the struggles that we go through every day. They’re just given to us. They're part of this whatever life, so we kind of just have to make it work. And you can't blame yourself for feeling bad.
Try not to make yourself feel worse by feeling worse. That's just beating yourself up more.
Don't blame yourself. No, it's not your fault. Number two, I would say, you come first. Your health comes first.
Lauren: You’re really good at that. Yeah, I know you're really, really good at that, just from talking to you. I knew already that you were good at that, and that that's been bolstered by the community involvement that you've had, and stuff, too. But you're very, very good at being like … I do this, and I need this time, and this space, and this activity to recover. How? I guess it is about switching your mindset and putting yourself first, as you're saying, right?
Rana: I'm still anxious, but I used to be very, very anxious. I would go to therapy and I would tell my therapist, and he would say, “What's making you anxious?” And I would talk about my family members or friends, and I would say, “This person is going through this … this person has gone through this … this person is going through this …” And he told me, “What does any of that have to do with you? What are you going through?” I realized I was putting so much energy into other people. And I wasn't getting it back; it wasn’t reciprocated. I saw that, so I took a step back, and realized, I'm always gonna have me. At the end of the day, yes, you can have a partner or a dog or this person, that person, But the end of the day, you have yourself, so you can't give it off to other people and forget about yourself. So one day, I just decided … if I need something, and that's taking care of myself, for the better of me … I'm gonna do it. As long as I'm not harming someone else intentionally in the process. Sometimes people do get hurt when you make decisions for yourself. But you have to really think about yourself first.
Rana: You gotta set those boundaries. It's hard, but it's worth it.
Lauren: Absolutely. What about one more tip? You've said, put yourself first, and don't beat yourself up. What would be another piece of advice?
Rana: Find small things to make yourself happy. A lot of people say … today was a horrible day, or, this is a bad life. But I just feel like everyone goes through so many struggles; life is full of it. We’re all given different things.
We can't compare ourselves to other people's journeys.
You’ve just gotta find one thing that makes you happy every day — whether it's drawing something, or binge-watching Netflix, or having your favorite ice cream, or taking a bath. Just do something that's going to make yourself feel good — because some days are really shitty, they suck. Just treat yourself nice. I feel like once you start to treat yourself with more love and kindness, you feel better.
Lauren: Yeah. And you're someone who's also been really good at removing stigma from perhaps stigmatized self-care things, like weed, right? This is one that's super controversial, because some people are really anti-smoking, and some people are, like, it's a drug. But for you, it’s also medicine. And you see that as … this is what I do for myself to be well. And you're clearly a lot less anxious because of it, too.
Rana: Definitely. I did have a conversation with my therapist a couple of weeks ago, and one of the first questions he asked about my drug use was, “So are you planning to quit smoking? Are you trying to cut back?” I’m, like, why is this the first question that he's asking? It's obviously helping me, but then he's asking me, “Do you want to go up a dose on your anti-depressants?” And I’m, like, “No, I never said anything about that.” I said it was fine. It’s gonna make me feel better, and I'm not harming anyone. It's a plant from the earth that is amazing, that I'm in love with; it’s my favorite herb! I’m gonna do what makes me feel better.
Lauren: I think it's really interesting, the whole weed debate, too. Because we've had Lara Parker on the show, who obviously uses cannabis as medicine, and the debate goes back and forth all the time. Because of (a) the long-term health implications of smoking. But you guys are, like, this is what I need to take care of me now. But (b), also because it's considered this psychoactive drug. But so are the anti-depressants that are controlled substances that your doctor is trying to peddle to you, too. How much do we accept a plant as medicine? And how much do we accept something that's been changed in a lab and altered a million times through scientific research. I think it's a very fair debate about … why not use this thing from the earth? Why not rely on nature?
Rana: They want to make money. They tell us all these pills to try, that just give us more side-effects, and this and that
Lauren: And withdrawals, yeah.
Rana: And then you go back for more, and you're a lifetime customer. I'd rather be a lifetime customer with my marijuana. Like you said, the long-term effects of smoking. But it's not anything compared to the effects of all these other drugs. I'm not shaming anyone for taking pills, because I take pills as well. I take anti-depressants, painkillers, birth control — as well as smoking cannabis.
So whatever works for you, you’ve got to keep trying to find ways.
Lauren: I really like that you said that, because it is about looking at what's available to you, and choosing what works best for you. And what works best for you might be weed, and what works best for you might be an anti-depressant; it might be a combination of both. But you have to be open to everything.
Rana: Yeah. And it takes a while to find the right balance on something that's gonna work for you.
Lauren: Totally. So speaking of weed, give us your Top Three Things that give you unbridled joy. Obviously you've had to shift your lifestyle to work around your chronic illness. But what are the Three Things that you're totally unwilling to compromise on? These can be guilty pleasures, or secret indulgences, or comfort activities when you're flaring. What do you turn to when you need a moment of joy, when you need to light yourself up a bit?
Rana: Like you said, definitely, literally lighting up! Whenever I'm feeling down mentally or physically, I’m, like, when's the last time I smoked? Then once I start smoking, I’m, like, hey, I feel good. I feel connected with myself. Number two, I would say … taking a bath.
Lauren: Bath time with a joint is the best, isn’t it.
Rana: You got the bubbles, incense. So definitely taking a bath — because it's the same thing as smoking. Whenever I feel down, or I feel like I'm in a funk, or I just feel like I've been in bed for a long time, or I want to freshen up, I'll do a nice face mask, take a bath, with music. That’s something that I do that makes me feel better every day. I'm lucky to have a bath and have accessibility to that. So I'm really grateful for that.
Lauren: I’m so with you on that. I'm at the point where I will not move somewhere that doesn't have a bathtub. It’s a necessity.
Rana: I feel the same way. Number three … I would say, dark chocolate.
Lauren: Ooh, I love that!
Rana: I love chocolate. I've always been a chocolate lover, as comfort food. I used to like milk chocolate every day when I was really depressed. But I realized I was making my symptoms worse with the dairy. So then I said, let me just do dark chocolate. So I've been eating dark chocolate for over a year, and it actually helps some of the symptoms like PCOS.
So dark chocolate is a guilty pleasure, but it has also kind of helped me.
Lauren: It can give you a little zing with your energy, too, because cacao has natural caffeine in it, I think. It can make you a little peppy. Plus, it tastes good. And you develop a taste for it, too, I think. I know what you mean about that transition from milk to dark chocolate, because it's hard to give up the dairy. But when you develop a taste for it, it gets more indulgent and it gets better over time, which is really, really nice. So what is your ask for listeners tuning into this episode today? What can people tuning in do to support you and the community, the chronic illness community, and the Black disabled community in the work that you do?
Rana: Some ways you can support me is by following me on Instagram @Rana2.0. You can check out my website for my artwork, my merchandise, clothing, that's all on there at RanaAwadallah.com, and on my Instagram. I'm also doing, like you mentioned, my Black Disabled Lives Matter Portrait Project. Maybe I should make the name a little shorter!
Lauren: BDLM Portrait Project!
Rana: Yeah, sounds good! So I'm doing my Portrait Project for Black Disabled Lives. Each portrait is $25. So if anyone has extra funds, and wants to donate to that, you can message me on Instagram. Just keep supporting, liking, commenting, sharing, connecting with each other. I would say a big ask for everyone is just, like I said, take care of yourself. Know that you're doing your best every day.
No matter what you do, just keep being yourself and putting more of yourself into the world, because that will make you happier, and it will make the world better.
So just keep doing your thing.
Lauren: That's how you live your life. We have to model after you and your success. Really beautifully said. Thanks so much for that. So what's next for you with your advocacy work, and with your wellness journey?
Rana: What’s next for me? I did just have an appointment with my rheumatologist. I have been having a lot of symptoms of POTS. So I'm gonna see a cardiologist to see if I get some tests done and see what that's about. But what's next for me … just keep doing what I'm doing. I try to go on daily walks, to exercise a little bit if I can. To keep taking care of myself. I really want to expand my merchandise.
Lauren: You’ve got a ton already.
Rana: I made a shopping page, Rana 2.0 shop. So that’s another thing you could follow and check out, the clothing.
Lauren: It sounds like, in so many ways, you’re starting to put your art out there and really using that as a vehicle to express your personal experience, and that it has connected you to the chronic illness community and to the world in a new way and sort of changed so much for you. It goes to show the power of community, and the power of, as you've said, following what makes you light up, following your passions, right?
Rana: Yeah, definitely.
Lauren: I'm so excited and a reminder to everyone … @Rana2.0 on Instagram and Rana2.0 shop and RanaAwadallah.com. We’ll link to all of this on the website for the episode. Rana, it has been such a pleasure having you on the show today. I'm so glad we finally connected. It's so awesome to see you in person. I know everyone listening can’t see her, but she cute!
Rana: You, too!
Lauren: Well, thank you! But we're just so honored to have you on the show. And I can't wait to watch as your journey continues to unfold. I'm sure we'll have you back to talk about more stuff. I hope you don't have POTS. But will have all that stuff sorted out and the endo stuff, too. Keep us posted on everything, and we'll follow you along the journey.
Rana: I just want to say, thank you so much for having me. I'm so happy we connected, somewhere along the road. I don't really know how! I love working with you, and I loved creating your portrait and everything.
Lauren: If you guys haven't seen the portrait, I'll repost it before this episode goes live so people can see the portrait again. It's so good and as Rana knows, I love pink. I’ve got pink hair now. So I love it! And I've had such good responses from it. People are, like, “Oh, my God, who did that?” And I tell them. “You’ve got to meet Rana!”
Rana: You’re so awesome. Seriously, thank you for having me. And it was great connecting with you more. I really appreciate you and your support.
Lauren: I appreciate you so much, too. So thank you!