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Wide Awake: Meaghan
Getting to know my niece’s pain
By Marianne Aleardi

Before Joe and I had kids, we had five nephews and one niece. The five nephews came first, over a 10-year period. And while I truly love my nephews, that’s a lot of boys over a lot of time. But then Meaghan was born. And we loved this new little girl.

We went to all her dance recitals, the one field hockey game she played in (she wasn’t really an athlete) and about 60 high school/community theater musicals, where she often had the lead and frequently wow’d the audience. She always wow’d us. 

And then big news came in 2015. Meaghan was 25 when she appeared on CBS’s reality competition show “Big Brother,” where strangers live in a house, cut off from the rest of the world, and are eliminated week by week until one winner is left. It was a crazy time, and every member of my extended family paid the monthly fee to watch the live feed of the Big Brother house online. It was on 24/7.

A big part of the competition are these weekly physical challenges, where the winner gets special privileges and avoids any chance of elimination that week. It was a big deal to win, but Meaghan never did. Those of us at home knew she wouldn’t. There was no way, because she has arthritis and is pretty much always in pain.

She was diagnosed in seventh grade with something called psoriatic arthritis, but I never really knew the extent of what she was living with. I found out, though, when I watched that live feed.

You could see Meaghan always walking slowly and with her knees bent, almost like she was tip-toeing around. It was odd at first, like you wanted to say, “Why is she walking like that?” But I never asked, because I knew the answer. Her knees hurt. They hurt so much she couldn’t straighten them.

Everyone watching the live feed also saw her take medicine every day. And some days, we could tell by the way she was moving the pain was really bad.

But the odd thing is that if you knew her, or if you watched the show, you’d say Meaghan is the happiest, most energized, outgoing person you’ve ever met. She was able to go far on Big Brother because of that personality. (And if you did watch the show, you’d be calling her Meg Maley, not Meaghan. This is an aunt privilege I hold on to.) I think her positive personality is why I didn’t understand the extent of her disease when she was young. She never gave any signs of her pain. Never.

Soon after the show ended, Meaghan began talking publicly about the arthritis. She had an audience now, and she decided to use her voice to raise awareness – and money. She’s organized fundraisers in New York and Los Angeles called “Reality Takeover,” where fans can meet lots of reality TV celebs. Money raised goes to the Arthritis Foundation. She’s been to Capitol Hill with other advocates, and this year she’ll speak at the Arthritis Foundation’s Juvenile Arthritis Conference.

She also did something a few months ago that she’s never done before: She got real on Instagram, telling her 85,000+ followers she was having a rough time physically. She wrote, “The gram can be deceiving…” And she explained that she had been experiencing flare ups and thanked her boyfriend for keeping her spirits up.

I’ve been watching her help people just by talking about her pain. And that conversation is probably very hard for her, because it isn’t something she has ever dwelled on, and it certainly isn’t something she’s talked about before. But she keeps doing it.

Meaghan has always been one of the cheeriest people I know. And isn’t that remarkable, because for all these years, when she was smiling and laughing and chatting, she was in pain.

I’m in awe of her strength, and I admire her desire to do good. My young niece has taught me that life can be difficult and wonderful at the exact same time. And those wonderful parts are worth smiling about, even if the difficult parts keep creeping in. Meaghan brought happiness into our family the day she was born. And 29 years later, she still is.

July 2019
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