Meredith Smith sparked our interest when one day she left a kind comment on one of Kindness Karma’s Instagram photos. We asked her to tell her story and she did: Meredith developed Epilepsy in her twenties and it ended her career and ability to drive many years later. After dealing with the stigma from former friends and co-workers, she decided to live by the mantra of being kind because she believes that you never know what battle someone is fighting. We were so moved by her story, that we had to tell it – but not only tell it, we want to help her end the stigma around disability.
Kindness Karma: Tell us a little bit about yourself
Meredith Smith: I was born and raised in Brookfield, Wisconsin which is a suburb of Milwaukee. However my parents were born and raised in northern Wisconsin on Lake Superior, therefore I spent most of my childhood summers and weekends up there, aka Up North. I miss Wisconsin terribly. I moved to Maryland when I was 21 to accept a position and have been here ever since! So essentially I have lived in Maryland longer than I lived in my home state. But I still call Wisconsin home.
KK: Can you talk a little bit about your Instagram for those who don’t know anything about you? What inspired it? And how can people get involved?
MS: You will see that my IG account is different in that I don’t feature many photos of myself or my daily affairs. I’m more interested in posting a random mix of items that bring a smile to the readers’ face. As to the inspiration, my kindness lifestyle is a direct result of my epilepsy diagnosis and consequent change of lifestyle. I had a great career, many friends and work associates. Life was good. The diagnosis came out of nowhere, there was (and still is) no known reason for my condition. I was as surprised as everyone else. However I quickly learned who my true friends were. I saw friends and work associates fall away, treating me as if I were contagious. I Initially tried to educate those around me but as months and then years passed, I realized my circle of friends was extremely small. I was broken-hearted. But that was also my inspiration. There is a common saying – I think everyone has heard it at least once, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” I wouldn’t say that was my War Cry but it sure resonated. So I decided to act in order to heal my broken heart. I decided that I would heal through kindness, not through anger or retribution. And that has been my Mantra ever since: Be Kind.
KK: If you feel comfortable, can you tell us about your disability? What challenges do you have to overcome and how do you do that? How can the general public help? How can we end the stigma around disability?
MS: My disability is Intractable epilepsy. By saying Intractable, it means that my seizures aren’t controlled by medicine. I also have a surgically implanted device called Vagus Nerve Stimulator
(VNS) that is supposed to cut back my seizures, but unfortunately in my case, I still have them. It has helped somewhat, but not 100%. The VNS sends an electrical signal to my brain every 5 minutes for 30 seconds. The idea is that if anything unusual is going on up there, (like a seizure getting ready to jump off), the electrical current will stop it. Downside: During that 30 seconds while the current is being sent, I mostly lose my voice. (Or I’ve been told I sound like The Godfather). An annoying issue to deal with every 5 minutes for the rest of my life. But just something I can’t change. I was self conscious at first, now I am less apt to apologize and explain.
I can no longer drive. I need to be seizure free for 90 days in order to drive. I haven’t met that standard for years. I have no family in Maryland and no children (my early diagnosis sealed that life decision) and I don’t live on or near public transportation. I can be frustrated or angry but I choose not to be. My husband is wonderful as far as helping me get around, otherwise I do a lot of online shopping.
Driving. Swimming. Bathing unsupervised. Cooking (with gas) unsupervised. Constant brain fog from the countless medications. Inability to attend events with flickering lights (concerts, fireworks), migraines, pregnancy precautions, depression from the Rxs, isolation, SUDEP (Sudden Unexplained Death Epilepsy) and simply the knowledge that there is no cure.
These are just some of the more prevalent issues we all must overcome, and do so quietly as the stigma is so overwhelming. It’s estimated that 1.2% of the US population have active epilepsy, that’s 3.4 million people Nationwide.
As far as Stigma, yes there is much to be said on this topic and I will try to be concise. The key is education to increase awareness and end stereotyping. Encourage friends, family and colleagues to visit the Epilepsy Foundation at www.epilepsy.com. It contains tips and information about epilepsy. Direct anyone who has questions to me directly, I’d love to answer questions. I have never seen myself having a seizure, but I’m sure it isn’t pretty. That said, I try to think of the glass half full and perhaps observers are just scared? Perhaps they don’t know HOW to ask, or WHO to ask? Those who suffer with epilepsy need to be more willing to be open about their condition, as hiding the condition can sometimes feed the public perception and therefore the stigma. Living with epilepsy is all about overcoming challenges and accepting the condition as part of life.
KK: What does kindness mean to you and how does it play into your purpose?
MS: Grace. Humanity. Inner beauty. Unselfishness. Goodness. Altruism. Goodwill. I’m sure there are more ways to describe Kindness but I think these are my simplified interpretations.
KK: What are some easy ways people can perform everyday acts of kindness?
MS: Smile to everyone you encounter. Always hold doors. Always say please and thank you.
Call your parents and/or grandparents. Send handwritten notes occasionally (vs texts). To step up from everyday to putting in a little effort – consider volunteering, donating food, picking up
trash, plant a tree, walk a neighbors dog. There are so many, the list is endless.
KK: Any advice on how those that aren’t people people can learn to become more kind and open to those around them?
MS: Actually no, I don’t think everyone exudes kindness. I would give it a 50/50 split. I think so many people are caught up in their careers and worlds that the idea of kindness is lost in the translation. Holding doors? Smiling? Please and thank you? Absolutely not. People are too wrapped up in everyday life. But I do notice that once you give them one of your smiles, they (usually) return in kind. On the other hand, there are very kind people too. The Kindness Karma feature to start. Also, do you know that I saved your very kind compliment on IG? It warmed my heart. Other encounters? I was recently in a store wearing a t-shirt that said (in small letters on the left shoulder) Just be Nice. A man stopped me and engaged me in conversation about the merits of being nice. He was genuinely interested in the concept of ‘being nice.’ He conveyed to me that he didn’t think such people existed anymore. We spoke for about 10-15 minutes and departed on the note that I had made his day. To me, that was a kind encounter. He had made my day. Over the holidays a neighbor asked me several times if she could take me out gift shopping as she knows I have limited transportation. I politely declined each time, as I know her schedule is very busy between her job, kids and other family obligations. Then one day I was home and she showed up at my door, told me that she and my husband had arranged for shopping later that day. (She wouldn’t take no for an answer). I was in fact grateful because I needed to get out and get my shopping done. She went above and beyond, observing that I really don’t get out, and insisted that she help me with a shopping expedition. That made my day.
KK: Do most people you meet exude kindness? How so? Any examples or a story or two come to mind of a kind encounter you’ve recently had?
MS: Slow Down, de-stress. Observe the world around you and take care of yourself first. Once you have conquered these things, try to start small. Perhaps learn compassion, observe the quote that I mentioned earlier about being kind for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. If you can believe those words, it will be easy to be kind.
KK: Complete this sentence: Kindness is…
MS: Kindness is contagious. I really believe that. However I also know that it costs nothing to be kind, so why not give it a try?