#Fun4the Disabled’s Vanessa Harris interviews comedian Morgan E Van Dyne, who opens up about their chronic illness, being bipolar, and how these two disabilities interact with one another and shape who they are. Morgan also discusses how they use their disabilities in their comedy and how their situation has changed their perspective on life.
[Transcript with visual descriptions: A musical introduction begins. Text on screen reads: LIVE ON CAN TV21: Talk live with experts on health, jobs, education, and more. Every weekday evening on CAN TV21 and cantv.org/hotline. Video opens on Vanessa Harris and Morgan Van Dyne.]
Vanessa: Hi! This is Vanessa Harris, founder of fun4thedisabled and Strategy for Access. I am here with Morgan Van Dyne.
Vanessa: Hi! How are you?
Morgan: Hi! I’m good.
Morgan: How are you?
Vanessa: Good. Morgan is a performer and comedian with a very severe disability. Morgan, you have a very severe autoimmune condition called Relapsing Polychondritis.
Vanessa: Can you tell me about that?
Morgan: So, Relapsing Polychondritis is an autoimmune disease where your body thinks that your cartilage and your collagens are foreign material and your body tries to reject it. So it’s super painful and it’s degenerative because it does destroy the cartilage in your body. So it just causes a lot of joint pain and it affects a lot of major organs, like your heart and your lungs. And it’s generally just a pain!!
Vanessa: Ok, ok… Um, since it has to do with your cartilage does it make you more prone to bone breaks?
Morgan: So it doesn’t actually make you more likely to get bone breaks, although a lot of the medications you take can make you, like steroids, can make you more likely. But there is some theory that maybe bone breaks cause the onset of Relapsing Polychondritis. So, yeah, they’re connected in, like, some ways, yeah.
Vanessa: Oh my goodness. So, to recap, your body is trying to reject the collagen and the cartilage in all the organs in your body?
Vanessa: Like your trachea and your aorta?
Morgan: Mm-hmm, that’s correct.
Vanessa: Ok. This autoimmune disease, it’s often fatal?
Morgan: Yeah, so for a lot of people it can be fatal because it attacks your aorta, for one, so a lot of people die of heart failure. Or, like, it attacks the trachea so you have a tracheal collapse and you can’t breathe without a trachea, so…
Vanessa: Yeah, ok…
Morgan: Yeah, pretty dangerous.
Vanessa: That is dangerous!!
Morgan: Yeah! (Laughs)
Vanessa: Ok. You mentioned that if you had known about the genetics of it that would’ve stalled you from doing some of the sports as you did at a younger age.
Morgan: Yeah, so there’s some research that’s been done that shows that maybe if you don’t ever have a bone break through cartilage, even if you have this genetic mutation, you won’t develop the actual disease. I do think, like, being active and being in sports was such an integral part of, like, my childhood that I’m not sure I would’ve skipped it entirely, but I think, you know, it might’ve been something like nice to know. And hopefully in the future, you know, people will be able to screen for it and look out for it so that they don’t develop the disease.
Vanessa: Yeah, yeah! Do you feel this sort of changed the course of who you are?
Morgan: Yeah, I mean I definitely, I think that people, like life plays out the way it’s supposed to and like, you know, you get what you can handle and things like that. And it definitely has been like a really humbling experience and it’s been something that I’ve learned a lot from and I think there are, weirdly, a lot of positives that have come from, you know, being sick.
Vanessa: Do you feel we’re supposed to live our life to the fullest potential that we are and handle what comes along the way?
Morgan: Of course, yeah. I think, I think that’s another, like, way of looking at it too. It’s like would I have, like, not raced dirt bikes as a kid or like, you know, done karate if I had known I had this disease. It’s kind of like you don’t want to allow things like that to hold you back, right? You have to, like, live anyway and I think that continues into life as a chronically ill person. You have to find the balance of like, pushing through the pain so that you can still, like, enjoy life and do the things that you want to do. And, you know, finding ways to cope that work for you and then also being gentle with yourself and allowing yourself time to like rest and recover because that’s super important, too.
Vanessa: It is important.
Vanessa: It is important. How does your condition inspire you to keep going and do what you do?
Morgan: Yeah, I think it’s been a huge – honestly, genuinely – been a huge inspiration to me. It’s just kind of like a little kick in the butt to, like, really get. Once you realize, it’s like, I think everyone takes their time for granted, you know. You think like oh you know, I have this goal and maybe I’ll achieve it in like five years or you put it off to like work on something else, things like that. And I think it’s really given me a push to be as proactive as possible and sort of just the realization of just, like, my own mortality and, like, that I might not have as much time as the average person, has been a very big push to like, I really like want to, like, I have all these things that I want to do before my times up, you know?
Morgan: Yeah and it’s also, like, you know, I wish that it was easier to have that kind of push without having something like looming over you, you know? (Laughs.)
Vanessa: Yeah, yeah. Ok! You say getting sick was a humbling experience. Can you explain why you feel this way?
Morgan: Definitely. I think when you’re a healthy person, it’s really easy to take life for granted, you know. It’s very easy to just like, not feel thankful for waking up and being able to walk into your kitchen, you know? And I think getting sick, not only made me more, like, in tune to myself and things that I need to grow on and work on as a person, it also made me more conscious of, like, other people’s difficulties and like other peoples, how, like things like accessibility and things like empathy, that I didn’t have to think about before because I was healthy. I’m definitely a much more empathetic and thoughtful person now.
Vanessa: Ok, ok. You say that being diagnosed with Relapsing Polychondritis was the one of the best things and one of the worst things that has ever happened to you. What do you mean by that?
Morgan: (Laughing) So, uh, obviously one of the worst things because it’s super painful and it totally, like, flipped my life around, you know. But it’s also like I’ve found a lot of opportunities in it. I’ve found a lot of humor in it. I’ve found a lot of ways to feel more positive and more thankful in life. And it’s sort of just like, um, I feel thankful for, like, having an experience, you know what I mean? Everybody gets to have their like, specific set of experiences in life and I think being disabled or chronically ill is something that really turns you into a stronger person and a smarter person. So, yeah, in those ways I feel thankful that I’ve gotten to grow, you know?
Vanessa: That’s good, that’s really good.
Morgan: Yeah! (Laughs)
Vanessa: That’s great!! Yeah, that’s great. Tell me about your experience with bipolar disorder.
Morgan: So yes, I also have bipolar disorder. I have bipolar type 2 and it’s definitely hard. I was diagnosed in my early 20’s and I’m lucky in that medication works really well for me. So, I do feel a lot, like, healthier in that way now, but I definitely did have some trying times in my late teens, early 20’s, of really big, long hypomanic episodes and long super, super depressive episodes.
Vanessa: Ok, ok. My goodness.
Morgan: Hm-mhm. (laughs)
Vanessa: Wow. Do you see any benefits to being bipolar?
Morgan: I absolutely do. I genuinely think a lot of bipolar people would agree. Obviously, safety comes first and you have to be, like, healthy and in a place where you can take care of yourself. But there is this, like, gift that is like mania and hypomania, where it’s such a huge creative burst and you have all this energy and you just feel confident and I think it’s really great. I tend to create a lot of art when I’m feeling hypomanic because you don’t have all of that, you know, you just don’t have all of that normal stuff holding you back, saying, like, “I’m not good enough” or whatever. When you’re hypomanic you’re like “I’M AMAZING!!!”
Vanessa: Really?! (Laughs)
Vanessa: Ok, ok.
Morgan: It’s like you feel great and inspired by everything so I think it’s good to kind of create in that headspace and then when I’m feeling more balanced, go back and sort of hone it in and make it more accessible for people who are not also on cloud 9.
Vanessa: Ok, that makes sense.
Vanessa: What kind of art do you make during your bipolar episodes?
Morgan: So I definitely write a lot of comedy, that’s like my go to. I love writing comedy. But I also do things like I paint. I like to paint on clothes a lot.
Morgan: Yeah, I have a lot of, like, jean jackets that I’ve painted on and things like that. I make shoes. Like I’ve made gifts for friends, you know, painted on friend’s clothes, with their permission of course. (Laughs)
Vanessa: Oh, yeah. (Laughs)
Morgan: Yeah, things like that. Mostly those two.
Vanessa: Ok. What would you say to a person who suddenly develops a disabling disease to help them see that they can live their best life?
Morgan: Sure. Yeah, I think that’s one of the most difficult things you can ever go through and I wish, at the time, I had known someone or heard someone say, like, that life does feel normal again, eventually. You will feel happy again, you will be able to do the things you want to do because it feels so overwhelming when it first happens. It feels like it’s over, you know? It feels like, it’s done, I’m never going to be myself again. But you do, you do find ways to get back there and sometimes, in some ways, you find even better ways to live, you know?
Morgan: Yeah, totally!
Vanessa: Can you give me some examples?
Morgan: Um, I think I used to push myself really hard and never let myself rest and it wore me down, you know. I had, like, more depressive episodes than I needed to because I was constantly trying to, like, push through it, never taking time off for myself, or even just slowing down and like spending time with friends, like hanging out. That was hard for me because I felt like I’ve got to be working all the time, you know? And now, since being sick, I’ve realized how important it is to allow yourself to have a day where you’re just relaxing and you’re just building relationships with people and, you know, that it’s ok to have a slow period, you know?
Morgan: Yeah, that’s been like really enriching in life. Like my relationships with my friends have gotten so much better since I got sick.
Vanessa: That’s really cool!
Morgan: Yeah, it is.
Vanessa: So you got a great balance going on there now.
Vanessa: Yeah, that’s excellent. So you were a professional dancer for a while there?
Vanessa: What did you do?
Morgan: I did a lot of musical theatre. I did some, like, some gig work and things like that. And I also danced for a professional basketball team.
Vanessa: Ok! You really get around!
Morgan: (Laughing) Yeah!!
Vanessa: What kind of musical theatre did you do?
Morgan: Um, I mean like everything. I did, I did any show I could get my hands on.
Vanessa: Really? (Laughing)
Morgan: I still do, yeah, I still do musical theatre now, too. I just finished a production of Urinetown.
Vanessa: Do you sing?
Morgan: I do!
Vanessa: Ok, sing and dance.
Morgan: I do!
Morgan: She does it all!!
Vanessa: Ok! Have you ever considered Para Dancing?
Morgan: Um, I think Para Dancing is super, super interesting. I don’t know a lot about it, um, but I’ve seen like, you know YouTube videos or people in the competition shows. Um, I think it’s so cool. It’s definitely something that I would like to get into. I’m sure there’s a community for it in Chicago.
Vanessa: There is.
Morgan: We have everything, right?
Morgan: There’s so much art here. Um, yeah, definitely that’s something that I’d like to know more of and like maybe find a workshop or something to take. That’d be very cool.
Vanessa: Ok. We featured some of that on fun4thedisabled.
Vanessa: So you can check out the events calendar and you can find out when they’re going to be here.
Vanessa: Ok. How has comedy help you cope on a daily basis to keep pushing forward?
Morgan: So, comedy has been my go-to coping mechanism my whole life. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t make a joke about whatever was, you know, ailing me. But I definitely think it’s, it’s such an important skill for people who are chronically ill or dealing with a disability, not only for yourself, you know, to remind yourself that it doesn’t have to be so serious, but for other people, too, because I think there’s this immediate once people find out or realize or see that you’re sick, it can be such a, people don’t know how to cope with it, you know? They don’t know, you know, am I supposed to be like super emphatic, do I have to, like, tiptoe around this person now? And of course, no one wants that.
Morgan: So, yeah, comedy is a great way to sort of, like, break those barriers down and I found like that it helps with new friends that if I can make jokes about my condition, then they feel much more comfortable and they don’t feel like they have to be worried all the time, you know?
Vanessa: Excellent, excellent. What are your goals for the future?
Morgan: Uh, to become the most famous comedian in the world.
Morgan: Step 1. No, I’m just kidding.
Morgan: Uh, maybe. Uh, no, I would love to write for late-night TV or NBC. I would love to, like, write a TV series, that would be amazing.
Morgan: Yeah, definitely.
Vanessa: What kind of TV series?
Morgan: Definitely a comedy.
Morgan: Uh, I think I’d really like to do something that intersects comedy and mental health. Because we are in a place, I think, where audiences can handle mental health now, but we still have to like, we still need to really push it so that it becomes such a, it becomes just as normal as being, like, I have the flu to say I have depression. You know?
Morgan: So I think that would be like, it would be really cool.
Vanessa: Yeah. Ok. Um, what personal goals do you have?
Morgan: Um, wow (laughs). I think I just would really like to continue building personal relationships. It feels weird to say because I’m like 25 but it’s a new, it’s a newer thing for me. Like, you know, I’ve had friends but I haven’t had like the level of intimate friendships that I do now. And it’s so much nicer than I would’ve imagined. So I’d really like to just continue building relationships like that, and you know, try to make the people around me have a good time as possible.
Vanessa: Ok. How do people relate to you as a comedian with a fatal autoimmune disease that you address in your act?
Morgan: Um, I think, you know, the autoimmune disease itself is super rare and it’s interesting, but not relatable per se, but the idea of like having to face your mortality and face the fact that we are all going to die is the most relatable thing in the world. And it’s, you know, it’s a thing, like, humans worry about all the time and I think my act very much, like, makes fun of the idea of death, you know. It’s just kind of, it’s just the most normal thing ever and you know, it’s become less scary to me because I’ve had to think about it. And I think that’s something that’s a really cool way to connect with the audience. They’ll come up to me after and be like, “I never thought about it like, that way, it doesn’t sound so bad,” you know, things like that.
Morgan: So it’s like I’m really going to, like, think about it now and I think that’s very cool.
Vanessa: Um, is there anything in your comedy that people are drawn to?
Morgan: I definitely think people like hearing about the autoimmune disease, especially because it’s such a, like, I was normal and healthy my whole life and then all the sudden had this thing that people don’t deal with. So I think that it is, uh, an interesting story. I also think I have just a very goofy and like, nothing’s that serious, kind of like vibe onstage and I think that’s fun. I hope people like it! (Laughs)
Vanessa: Ok. Ok. How does it affect you having a combination of bipolar and Polychondritis?
Morgan: Yeah, it’s definitely been a wild ride! (Laughs)
Morgan: There’s this thing of, like, so when you have a lot with a lot of autoimmune diseases, you have chronic fatigue, which I do experience a lot. Like, it doesn’t really matter how much I sleep or rest, I’m always tired. And then bipolar can do the exact opposite, where you have like, you know, a heightened awakeness, alertness. So it can be super weird when my body is exhausted but my mind is, like, running, you know?
Morgan: Yeah, it can be crazy. And then on the flip side, when I am in, like a more depressive state, it can be really hard to do the things I need to do to care of the Relapsing Polychondritis, you know?
Morgan: It’s a challenge.
Vanessa: Yeah, it is.
Vanessa: Do you have a mantra that you say to yourself when you wake up or to get yourself going?
Morgan: I don’t know necessarily say that I have a mantra, but I do just try to wake up and have the best day that I can, you know? I think that’s really important to just remind yourself that you have the opportunity to, uh, you know, for the most part control your day, control your mood and just, you know, work hard and try to enjoy yourself. Even if it’s just for, you know, part of the day.
Vanessa: Ok, to be the best thing you can.
Morgan: Yeah, just have a good day.
Vanessa: Ok! Excellent! Well, um, what kind of performances are upcoming for you?
Morgan: So, I’ll be doing improvised Jane Bond. That’s James Bond but it’s all women.
Morgan: We will be doing that in March and April, which will be super, super cool. And you know, I’ll be doing some stand-up gigs around the city.
Vanessa: Ok. Well, to find out where Morgan will be performing, check out our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages and our handle is @fun4thedisabled. Thanks Morgan for spending the day with us today. It was a pleasure.
Morgan: Yeah, thank you so much for having me!
Vanessa: Thank you. You made me very happy to know you.
Morgan: Yay!! Me too.
Vanessa: Please come back.
Morgan: I’d love to!
Vanessa: Ok, thanks a lot!
Morgan: Thank you.
Vanessa: Um, thanks a lot, bye bye.
Vanessa: This is Vanessa Harris signing off with fun4thedisabled.com. Bye bye!!
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