Every morning, I wake up and take upwards of 20 pills. And no, I am not 90 years old. From the outside, I look like an ordinary, exhausted, 24 year old striving to find balance and contentment in all aspects of my life: I work part-time for my namesake PR firm, frequent classes at DePaul University for my Master's program and attend the occasional industry party. Where I differ is under the skin: I have chronic Lyme disease.
Two years ago my world was turned upside down by an undiagnosed illness. I had flu like symptoms, intense joint pain and began to lose my memory and hearing. While I was once a thriving, productive member of society, I found myself essentially bedridden with no answers. Because I had multiple symptoms of many other chronic illnesses, such as Thyroid Cancer, MS, Lupus, Leukemia, Fibromyalgia, Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I went through two solid years of medical testing and retesting, with negative results each time. I was eventually told by one of the specialists that my illness was "all in my head." It took me two years and eight specialists to find a doctor that would go on to test me for Lyme disease. With a long track record of seeking answers, I finally got one. When I was diagnosed, I had no idea that this illness would go on to positively impact my life.
According to Global Lyme Alliance, "Lyme disease is a complex infection that can affect various systems in the body including the joints, nervous system, heart, and skin. Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses often go undiagnosed and untreated, leading to deep-seated infections and long-term impairments. Many symptoms of Lyme are similar to other illnesses, which complicates diagnosis."
Chronic Lyme disease is a hot topic in the medical field: traditional MD's insist it does not exist or that it cannot live in the body past 30 days but upwards of 300,000 U.S. residents tell another story. According to Global Lyme Alliance, 55 percent of Lyme disease diagnostic testing is inaccurate and more than 20 percent of those diagnosed with Lyme go on to experience severe symptoms past 30 days. Most battling Lyme do not have medical treatment covered by insurance and spend thousands of dollars every week to get the care necessary to stay alive, including myself. When I talk about my battle with Lyme, as horrible as it may be, I always say that I am one of the lucky ones because I am able to afford treatment. Most cannot and suffer the long-term consequences of untreated Lyme disease that can tragically end in death.
Alex Moresco (R) at Lyme Disease Fundraiser
After having to take a massive step back from work to receive treatment, I refocused my efforts on helping the hundreds of thousands of people suffering from my “invisible" illness. Through a mixture of research and reality TV (former Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Yolanda Hadid is closely involved in the organization), I discovered the Global Lyme Alliance and quickly realized that I could leverage my professional expertise in PR, marketing and social media to fuel my personal passion of raising awareness and funds for Lyme disease. In that moment, I felt a bit of normalcy return to my life as if my old and new world had married in the most authentic way possible. I felt more hopeful and confident in my personal and professional purpose than ever before.
“People who are passionate and connected to any cause, especially those that are disease related, can truly make a difference in people's lives. With Lyme disease, it's patients like Alex, who have personally committed to take on this challenging and often chronic disease through raising awareness of, and funding for, improved understanding, diagnosis and treatment. She is a shining star for all those suffering from Lyme disease and admired greatly by all of us here at the Global Lyme Alliance."
– Scott Santarella, CEO of Global Lyme Alliance.
Alex Moresco (R)
While my battle with chronic illness took away my drive to be a public relations tycoon, it afforded me a renewed spirit in helping others. As a result of my day-to-day fights with Lyme and weathering the storm, I have been blessed with mental clarity. A chronic illness like Lyme disease is an emotional roller-coaster to say the least. To boot, it is a humbling transformation that makes you realize just how insignificant your “first world" problems.
Freelance writer Kerry J. Heckman had a similar epiphany after being diagnosed with Chronic Lyme disease and autoimmune illness.
"When I was diagnosed with Lyme and autoimmune illness I realized how small the things I used to worry about were and refused to waste another minute of my life not following my passion. I consider my diagnosis my wake up call--a roadblock that was telling me I was headed in the wrong direction and needed to turn around. I'd always loved to write, but being diagnosed with Lyme gave me a story to tell and a way to connect with other people through my words. It is often the greatest hardships that help you find your voice."
While Heckman uses her journalism skills to advocate for Lyme disease awareness, I turned to what I knew: public relations. I tasked myself with getting an underrepresented subject into the media. How does one do that? They throw an unforgettable party. Knowing the Global Lyme Alliance was based on the East Coast and potentially had the opportunity to expand West, I knew this was a golden opportunity to make a huge impact. After relentlessly emailing the Global Lyme Alliance for three months, an email from their team finally made its way to my inbox in May.
An important word to keep in mind when you are chronically ill is "persistence." I have always been a persistent person, originally stemming from wanting to prove cynics wrong that made a snap judgment on my skill set based off of my age without knowing me. However, fighting a chronic illness awakens a new kind of persistence. Not only are you battling a life or death situation, but you feel a dire urge to do something about it for others that potentially have it worse than you do. In my initial outreach to GLA, their response was skeptical at best- and for good reason. Here I was, an unknown recently diagnosed 24 year old asking them to let me throw a namesake event for their organization in a brand new market. While everyone involved eventually agreed that Chicago was the right move for growth, what they didn't understand was: I was never going to take no for an answer. After my life was turned upside down, I was searching for a purpose and due to my severe memory loss, I had to be honest with myself - it could no longer be work. Persistence in a personal passion makes you do crazy things and sometimes those crazy things actually work out.
I quickly connected with another GLA volunteer based out of Chicago, Kasey Passen, and spent the next four months on the phone asking for donations: you name it, we asked for it. Building on persistence, living with a chronic illness takes your ability to be resourceful through the roof. You have to work ten times harder than the person sitting next to you to accomplish the task at hand but personally, that just deepens my drive to not only get it done, but get it done right. Through the planning process, I fused my PR skills into everything I did. If I didn't have a contact somewhere, I found a way. If someone didn't reply, I followed up. Long story short: never be afraid to cold email someone and ask to have a quick call. Nine times out of 10, they will give you 10 minutes of their time if you have a clear ask.
"Invest in taking a personalized approach when reaching out and making the ask. Avoid beating around the bush - clearly outline your objectives and communicate how your organization and the targeted brand align and benefit one another. Additionally, make it easy for them to want to help you by conveying the impact your organization or event has made along with other creative ways they can cross-promote your cause. PR reps need to know the who, what, when, where and why so they can relay the value and authenticity of the opportunity, outside of just doing good, to their client in hopes they will jump on board," says Lindsey Palmer, founder of PR and brand strategy agency Palmer Public Inc.
“They say there's no “i" in team, and in truth there's no “i" in PR either. In this industry, it's nearly impossible to exist in a vacuum. Working creatively and collaboratively always leads to bigger successes, and surrounding yourself with a group of people all working toward the same goal makes the long days and extra work so much more meaningful." - Natalie Mazzarella, Publicist and Content Creator.
In the end, by strategically leveraging my professional expertise and documenting my Lyme story and relationship with GLA on the first-ever “PRGirl" web series, The SubLyme Soiree was a huge success. We doubled our fundraising goal and brought in over $60,000. The energy at the sold out event space was absolutely electric and I largely believe this was because of the team I surrounded myself with. Many of us in public relations are not only workaholics, but control freaks. We like things done a certain way, at a certain time and OUR way- which is not always the right way. In business, I always knew to surround myself with people that were not only better than me, but also carried a varying skill set that would add value to the task at hand. The same can be applied to fueling personal passions, whether it is launching a side project or working with a nonprofit.
While our first instinct when building a brand is traditionally to move as quickly as possible, according to publicist Natalie Mazzarella, we should be working in collaboration with others:
“They say there's no “i" in team, and in truth there's no “i" in PR either. In this industry, it's nearly impossible to exist in a vacuum. Working creatively and collaboratively always leads to bigger successes, and surrounding yourself with a group of people all working toward the same goal makes the long days and extra work so much more meaningful," Natalie Mazzarella, Publicist and Content Creator.
Fellow Lyme advocate and writer Hannah Wright put it best: "Lyme disease made me comfortable in my own skin, which is ironic because our bodies are literally attacking us." I would have to agree with Wright- going to bat for something you truly, deeply believe in takes the fear out of failure versus success: ultimately, you will step up to the plate and get it done.
Author Ally Hilfiger believes we all have the power to do something meaningful with our lives:
"After a very long battle with Lyme disease, I chose to use my platform and business skills to help raise awareness and funding for an important and unacknowledged disease instead of wallowing in self-pity. Standing up to make a difference in the lives of our children and future generations, who are most at risk at getting this disease, has given me inspiration and motivation to push forward and stay healthy and strong. We all have the power to do something meaningful with our lives, and I am grateful to have the experience in business to be able to help." – Ally Hilfiger, Author, Advocate and GLA Board Member.
I may only be one voice out of thousands, but I am happy to share my narrative in hopes of spreading light and awareness to this important invisible disease. When you are faced with adversity, you can do one of two things: roll over and let it become you, or stand up and do something about it. While a chronic illness or misfortune will become ingrained in who you are, in helping others we help ourselves heal.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."