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How Alan Rickman Taught Me My Illness Does Not Define Me

When I first picked up “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” my favorite character was instantly Professor Severus Snape.

I’m not sure why, really.

His description is not the most attractive, and, to be honest, he was a complete dick to Harry, terrorized Neville and made life hell for the rest of his students (sans the Slytherins).

But, for some reason, 9-year-old me determined he was going to be my utmost favorite character. Twenty years and the rest of the series later, he still is.

Go figure.

In 2001, Warner Brothers Studio released the movie adaptation of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” It was then  I learned that Snape was going to be portrayed by Alan Rickman. I knew of Alan Rickman from “Galaxy Quest” and my parents knew of him through his work in “Die Hard” and “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.” A close family friend adored him and told me how Snape was going to be in good hands. It was at that point I determined I was going to see all of Alan Rickman’s movies.

I remember the first time I saw the trailer, that brief glimpse of Snape staring at Harry with hatred on his face. I remember sitting in the movie theaters on opening night on the edge of my seat as the magical story and characters I grew to love came to life. Was there a difference between Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Snape and how I imagined Snape from the books? Of course! But just ever so slightly.

I was thrilled.

When I was 12 years old, I had my first grand mal seizure during a routine podiatrist visit.  That night, after we got home, I had another. From that moment on, I went from a healthy child to that of a child with a “sick” label.

Almost every day, I would pass out and with it came further seizure-like activity. I vividly remember having to go to all of my classes and explaining to my classmates that this was what I was going through and how they could help me. Teachers were uncomfortable with the situation and were constantly asking me if I was OK. I missed more than 100 days of school that year, and I only managed to pass with high honors because I lived very close to the school and my teachers would stop by on their way home to drop off worksheets and homework for me to do. Some friends were incredibly supportive, but, in the end, I was dealing with fellow middle schoolers. I was already the tallest and the fattest, so to add this humiliation of now having the reputation of just randomly dropping and seizing?

It wasn’t great.

The worst part was when I was banned from recess, due to the fact I had passed out on the soccer field and the assistant principal had to drive onto the field to pick me up to bring me to the nurse’s office.

My middle school years are some of my least favorite. I felt incredibly alone, but had my Harry Potter books. I imagined I was at Hogwarts, that I wasn’t sick. I pictured myself in almost a Mary-Sue character, one of Snape’s top students. Clearly, that meant Snape would give me extra lessons so I could learn more advanced potions. Somewhere among my things, I know I have a notebook filled with make-believe potions and their ingredients.

During all of this, I went to see doctors — a lot of doctors who ran a lot of tests. I lost count of how many we visited and all the tests run. Half the doctors thought it had to do with my brain. The other half thought it had to do with my heart. No one was agreeing on anything, and it was hard to come up with a treatment plan. Even more tests were ordered, and I would continue to just “drop.”

Now keep in mind, dealing with all of these tests was horrible for a kid who didn’t like doctors and who was already sky-high on their stress levels due to the constant loss of consciousness and the seizures. The tilt-table test was a thing of nightmares. That was a horrific experience. I had to wear a heart monitor for a month, including to the funeral of a great aunt.

At one point, I was placed on an IV treatment course where, for three hours and four times a week, I’d have my “cocktail.” I was petrified of needles. I still am, even after countless medical procedures, two tattoos and an eyebrow piercing I got in college. I absolutely hate needles. Even today when people suggest acupuncture for my fibromyalgia? More like acu-no-thank-you.

My mum knew about my Harry Potter obsession and would always make sure I brought a copy of one of the books with my Snape bookmarks in them whenever we went to a doctor appointment. She calmed me down from my panic attacks by reminding me we could rent one of Alan’s movies from Blockbuster. I had made a promise to myself that I was going to see his entire filmography and was slowly making my way towards that goal (since I was 11-13 and a lot of his movies were R-rated.

In 2002, Alan Rickman starred in a play called “Private Lives” on Broadway. Being that we lived 45 minutes away from New York City, we decided to make the trip down there to see the play. I read stories of people meeting him at the stage door, and I wanted to do the same.

On the day we left, I armed myself with my “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” book, and we made our way to the Richard Rogers Theater (now home to Hamilton!). The entire time, I was scared. What if I passed out during the show? What if I did get the chance to meet him and passed out upon doing so? What then?!

We approached the will-call window, and with our tickets, came a small parcel. At first, I thought it was just the Playbill that comes with the tickets. But then I looked closer. It was autographed! To me! From Alan! The rest of the cast also added their names. It was from the opening night a few months earlier. Opening it up, I found a black-and-white autographed photo of Alan that was also personalized to me.

Apparently, without my knowledge, my mum wrote to Alan and told him the story of what had happened to me. She told him how much of an inspiration he was to me to keep fighting and to keep going through all the testing and treatments I had gone through and how his movies helped me to get through them. She told him how his portrayal of Snape was my favorite.

I was absolutely stunned. I held that parcel in my shaking hands throughout the entire performance.

He did all of this? For me?

He stepped in front of me. He took my hand in his and shook it, telling me how very pleased he was that I was able to make it to the performance. I thanked him for the parcel he left, and he was glad I’d received it. He spotted my book and asked if I’d like him to sign it. I responded that he had been so generous already, but he waved that away and opened the book. We turned to the chapter called “Snape’s Grudge” together. “The Prisoner of Azkaban” is already my favorite book but now?

My copy is priceless.

author and alan rickman

We took a couple of photos together, and he told me how he hoped I would start feeling better very soon. I asked him if I could give him a hug, and he graciously accepted.  Not once did my illness come up. For once, I could enjoy a few moments of my life and not talk about it.

Up until this point, I spent so much time having to explain my illness or deal with my illness or trying to convince others that I was OK. Everything in my life was about my illness. My illness was the center of my universe. I couldn’t escape it. If I wasn’t having the symptoms of it, I could cut the tension around me with a knife. I didn’t want to be known as a sick kid. I just wanted to be known as a kid.

He never treated me like a medical emergency waiting to happen. He never treated me any different than what I would imagine he treated other fans (he spent a few minutes with each of us at the stage door, making sure everyone had a chance to speak with him). He treated me like any other person my age. He treated me like I was a person, not a fragile being that would shatter without warning.

At that moment, I learned an important lesson that would stick with me throughout the years. I learned my illness, whatever it may be, did not have to be my defining factor.

I was able to wake up the next morning and fight my battle in a brand new way — a braver and stronger way. I no longer feared the tests and the treatments. That mental change made all of the difference in the world.

I was able to see him on the last performance of the show to say goodbye a couple of months later. He remembered me by name and once again, spent a few moments chatting with us. He had thanked me for the letter I sent him. He asked how I was feeling and whether we were closer to finding an answer. We had, and he was thrilled we knew what I was finally battling. He was extraordinarily sweet.
I always wanted to be able to meet him once again. I wanted to be able to thank him for all he did for that scared 12-year-old kid. I wanted to tell him how his acts of kindness meant so much for me. I wanted to tell him how he taught me that my illness didn’t define who I was. I don’t know if he knew how important that lesson would be to me.

But I never got the chance to see him in person again.

As of January 14, 2018, he’s now been gone for two years. The earth is a little dimmer with his loss. He was an extremely talented actor and just an amazing person to chat with. Harry Potter still remains one of the most important things in my life, and Alan’s lesson to me remains to be one of the most powerful that I’ve ever had.

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