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Artist Creates 'POTS Problems' Comic Series Highlighting Life With POTS

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Sometimes the best way to explain a chronic illness or rare disease is to draw it. With this is mind, Vanessa Matelski, known as “POTS and Spoonies” on Tumblr, created a series of comics calling out some of the problems people living with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) face.

“Chronic illness isn’t a lot of fun – so I make comics to amuse myself, educate others and let my fellow chronic illness peeps know they’re not alone,” Matelski, 22, writes on her Tumblr page. “Laughter might not actually cure anything – but it takes a lot less energy than crying!”

The “POTS Problems” series started this past January, after Matelski, who lives in northern Michigan, visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

“I met another patient there – now one of my best friends – and she really encouraged me to start making comics and post them online,” Matelski told The Mighty. “I try to post a new POTS Problem every Monday, but sometimes I forget because…ya know…brain fog.”

Comic illustrating brain fog
Credit: Vanessa Matelski

“My first POTS-related comic was actually a brief overview of POTS itself, created mostly out of frustration that so few people understand this condition,” she said.

The idea that sparked “POTS Problems” didn’t come until later, after Matelski had joined several POTS groups on Facebook, where she kept seeing the same questions asked over and over.

“I thought it would be kind of fun to visually depict those,” Matelski said. “I also thought it would be an engaging way to share what I’ve learned about this condition because most doctors have never even heard of POTS, so patients often have to look outside their local medical practice to find answers.”

In her comics, Matelski takes care to explain the problem, oftentimes pairing comics with a description of her experience.

Comic describing going non-verbal
Credit: Vanessa Matelski

This is probably my absolute weirdest symptom–but does anybody else ever get so tired that you can’t even move your mouth?

This happened last Saturday–I worked too hard and crashed harder. I was non-verbal for most of the evening (if not most of the day), even after resting. I laid on the couch for a while, and eventually I was able to say SOME words, but I couldn’t engage in a conversation. The words only came if I saw something nobody else did (like the dog going after a cupcake), and they only came in single-word bursts. If somebody asked me a “yes or no” question, I could nod, and sometimes I could point at stuff, but words… Words are hard.

My little brother asked me on Sunday morning, “Do you have any words today, Neena?”

“For now,” I said.

Matelski’s favorite “POTS Problem” is the series’ fourth comic, “Loud Noises.”

“I like that one because the image is really silly,” Matelski told The Mighty. “And the fact that little comic-me dropped a spoon – a SPOON – is kind of a hysterically sad commentary on my life.”

Comic showing a girl reacting to loud noise
Credit: Vanessa Matelski

I contemplated a funny spring related comic for today, since yesterday was the first day of spring, but then life decided to laugh at me and I felt like sharing a story. So have a seat, kiddies.

Today my mother asked me to make bread. Because we have a Kitchen Aid mixer, it’s really not that difficult, and I generally make bread once a week. Now, our mixer lives on a little cart that we roll in and out of the pantry in an attempt to keep our counters and kitchen in general a little less cluttered. So, I was pulling the cart out of the pantry, AND THE MIXER FELL OFF THE BACK OF IT. I watched it fall. I heard it smash against our tile floor.
I sobbed.

Why did I sob, you ask? The answer is simple: Hyperadrenergic postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. A normal person would likely have jumped–but my body produces and handles adrenaline differently, therefore reducing me to a puddle of tears. I had other physical reactions, too–shakiness, palpitations, feeling exceptionally weak–and I had to sit down for a really long time afterwards before I could actually make the bread dough (and even then it was 10 times more exhausting than usual).

These adrenaline surges can come from lots of things, though. Loud noises are definitely one of them–but sudden movements can freak me out, too. I’ve also been known to freak out when someone has touched my shoulder without warning. And I’ve noticed that my reactions are always worse the more tired I am–if I’m exhausted and Mom gently puts her hand on my back, the simple surprise from that can put me in tears.

People with hyperadrenergic POTS are living in a constant state of fight-or-flight. It’s not just jumping when a car door slams–it’s having to actively calm yourself down so you don’t spin into a full panic attack, because your body is convinced that you’re about to be murdered. It’s teaching yourself deep breathing and relaxation techniques so you don’t hyperventilate in public. It’s avoiding suspenseful shows or movies because you hate how your body reacts to them.

It’s a pain in the butt. But on the bright side, it makes for entertaining comics.

Matelski lives with hyperadrenergic and hypovolemic POTS as well as anhydrosis – a condition that prohibits her from sweating – and some undiagnosed digestive issues.

“I wish everyone knew just how hard life can be with POTS,” Matelski said. “It’s hard physically, emotionally, mentally, and I wish that everyone knew and understood that.”

“We’re not faking it, we’re not being dramatic,” she said. “Our bodies have literally forgotten how to function, so we’re facing an uphill battle from the moment we get out of bed in the morning.”

So far her “POTS Problems” series contains 14 comics. You can view more comics below or on the POTS and Spoons Tumblr page.

Credit: Vanessa Matelski
Credit: Vanessa Matelski
Credit: Vanessa Matelski
Credit: Vanessa Matelski
Originally published: July 1, 2016
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