Episode 30: Dating With Health Challenges

with guest Niko

Lauren: So welcome to the show, Niko.

Nico: Thank you for having me. I'm so excited.

L: I'm actually going to start off a little differently than most of the episodes and say this is particularly exciting because you and I are collaborating to help promote your awesome new app, Lemonade.

N: This is true.

L: And so just to be really transparent. You and I met because we found each other on instagram and I just want to share this quick story that when I first saw your follow on Instagram I checked out Lemonade because I was like, “What is this?” And I was looking at the app and I was like, oh my gosh. And I told you this. I kind of, it brought tears to my eyes to see an app specifically for people living with health challenges. And I got to reach out to this guy because it looks like such a, just such a great project I want to support. And then you emailed me like an hour later.

N: Yeah, Yeah! I didn't see your instagram message until after I emailed you. I was like, oh cool. That worked perfectly.

L: Yeah, it was. Yeah, that was great. So it felt really synchronistic and also a very natural fit. And so then we were talking about, you know, collaborating and you're the first I've -- this is exciting -- you're the first official sponsor of This is Not What I Ordered and yes. And you know, we, we believe in each other's projects, so that's, that's really cool. But we were talking on the phone and I was like, “Let's, do you think you might want to share your story in an episode? And you said “Yes!”

N: I was like, yeah, I'm totally in. I would have done it with or without the app.

L: Yeah. Yeah. So I'm glad that we are doing this and I think it's a great way for people to get to know you and the app. But now I can say, we’ll start out the normal way by saying “What is your health journey summary?”

N: Sure. Let's talk about my health journey. Um, I guess I should say right up to the top, it's called Tinea versicolor, which is a skin condition that causes dark, well, sometimes light spots, but in my case it was dark circular spots on my body, so I initially started noticing my symptoms back in 2001. So 17 years ago I was about 15 or 16, getting ready to start high school. During that first summer of high school, that's when I started noticing these tiny dark spots on my chest just popping up all over and I ignored it like most people do. I thought it would just go away eventually. It definitely didn't. It started spreading pretty quickly. Within a week or so it had spread all across my chest, my torso and started going towards my shoulder and my back. Um, and just to give an idea they were really dark. They're circular and they're about the size of a dime and a penny.

L: Okay.

N: Yeah. So about a couple of weeks I started to realize that this thing isn't going anywhere. I better tell my mom. That was my, it was my doctor at the time. I didn't have like health insurance or anything and we didn't have money to go to a doctor unless there was a life threatening issue involved. So my mom looked at me and she said, “It doesn't look that good dying, so no doctor for you.”

L: So that's the measure is, if you're not dying, we're not going know doctor.

N: Yeah! So thank god for moms. So she went to the library and she dug up a couple of medical books. She started scanning through it and eventually found what she believed was the issue. And she said, “All right, this looks like what you have,” because the pictures in the book vaguely resemble what I had. So she said, “Yep, that's it.” Problem solved. And she saw that the treatment was actually Selson Blue -- medicated formula, the dandruff shampoo of all things. It turns out that the, the ingredients in the shampoo kills the bacteria on the scalp. That also exists, um, with TV -- tinea versicolor. That's what the cool kids say -- TV.

L: And thanks for giving us the inside scoop because I want to be cool.

N: [laughter] So ya. She figured out that's what it was. Um, and she turns out, it turns out she was right. I started to use that formula after about two weeks, the spots were totally gone. So I stopped using the shampoo after about a month after, just to make sure. And the spots went away for a year and then the next summer it came back and it came back in full force. It was actually worse than it was initially. And that's usually the case with TV. The second it goes away for a little bit and then it comes back the second time, the spots were larger. They were scaly and itchy and they spread a lot quicker and it didn't start in one spot and spread. They all came at the same time and they came quickly. Uh, so I figured, well, I know what the solution is. I tried to Selson Blue and it did not work at all, like not even a little bit. And it turns out that Selson Blue is something that doctors recommend, but it almost never works. In my case, I guess it worked the first time, which is strange, but the second time it didn't at all. So I was very disappointed and I started looking up a bunch of homeopathic remedies, trying to figure out if there was something that would work. I tried apple cider vinegar, which is a remedy that didn't work. I tried coconut oil because apparently coconut oil is good for everything. That didn't work. I tried some other, uh, what else did I try? Oregano oil and that didn't work either. So after all of these trials and errors I started getting really discouraged, disheartened, and um, eventually gave up because I was like, well, nothing's working so it doesn't make any sense to keep wasting time and money. So I really gave up for about five years until I got a job where I was able to pay for a doctor. So I went to that doctor and he confirmed that it was Tinea Versicolor and his first recommendation was... guess what? Selson Blue. And I was like, “No dude, I already tried this. My mom already prescribed this and, um, I didn't have to pay her for that prescription, so I'm going to need you to step it up.” He was so insistent though. He was like, “This is gonna work.” I'm like, “Bro, I tried it, just drop it.” And he was, I don't know if some doctors are crazy, but he pushed it and I was like, “Okay, so I'm going to buy it.” And I bought it and I applied it. My body was like, “Dude, no, we, we've been through this. It's not going work. It's not going to happen.” My body was not having it. So, um, I went back and I said, “Hey, guess what? Remember when I said it wasn't going to work? No, it didn't work.” I should've went to another doctor. Now that I'm thinking about it, but I went back to the same guy. He gave me a recommendation for, well, he prescribed me some medication, which I was very hopeful about. That was an antibacterial medication, but it also didn't work. That started my journey of researching and trying to find doctors and looking for different medicine and talking to different people who've had TV. That's basically where I am today at the point where I'm just looking for my magic combination. That opens to say, because TV is kind of like that... it's a condition that one size doesn't fit all. The condition itself shows up differently in people like sometimes a spot, so white and weirdly shaped, sometimes the spots are tiny, large, and the solution also, it's not a one size fit all. So some people are able to figure it out and it never comes back and some people are not so lucky. So for me, so far, um, no such luck. But uh, hopefully I will eventually, but I'm on that journey and that's kind of where my journey is. At that point. I, I should also say that I actually saw a nutritionist that was definitely the worst.

L: Oh no!

N: That was the scariest because her, her diet recommendation was so restrictive. I was like, “Oh my God.” That was the first time I was hoping a solution didn't work. I was like, I hope this doesn't work.

L: [laugher] I think you speak for a lot of people were just like, “Oh, this isn't a fun condition, but my gosh, I really like food and now I have to cut back on all these different foods.”

N: But you basically cut out all sugar because sugar produces bacterial growth and that's what the TV is. So no alcohol, which I don't really drink anyway. So I didn't care about that. But no sweets, no bread, no pasta. I was like, this is insane. What am I supposed to eat? But thank God it didn't work. I was so happy. You got to understand I couldn't have cookies. A world without cookies is not a world I'm interested in living in. I'm just not interested. I mean, that’s absurd. That's...

L: I can totally relate to that. I mean, I did try, um, you know, at the beginning I tried dietary changes and eventually started to realize that I had to weigh that against my enjoyment of my life, which is... everybody has their own way of doing it and I won't say that -- I think it's great when people stick to it and there's definitely a lot out there that shows that your diet really does impact your health. So there's no question for me about that. But really I had some big decisions to make. I really like bread and I really like sugar and uh, you know. It's, it's tough because you're already dealing with a health challenge and then you also have to deal with changing your diet.

N: I know. I mean, my food is the only thing that keeps me up, keeps me going. Come on, don't take that away from me.

L: You're like, “You don't understand. I couldn't eat cookies.” It's like, “Okay, I got it. Got It.”

N: You know what? If cookies is the problem.. Then I’m just gonna have TV. That's fine.”

L: I'm willing to accept it. TV plus cookies. [laughter] Um, so there's this part of your story that is pretty significant and we were kind of, I was joking at the beginning about like, “Oh, if you're not dying, you're not going to go to the doctor.” But there was this very significant piece around just the financial part of having a doctor, but also the piece around it being, as you've mentioned to me… an undocumented immigrant. Which by the way, are you okay talking about that in the podcast?

N: Go for it.

L: Yeah, okay, cool. I don't want to, you know, you put it in your form, but I was like, “I don't want to have to.” Well, yeah, because it's a, it's a really important part of your story and you mentioned how this is significant to you and you've thought about it and I'd love to hear your perspective on, on not being able to have the healthcare that you needed.

N: Yeah, I mean it's, it's tough. It would say it’s tough for everyone, but just not being able to have any kind of healthcare is difficult because, to basically have to come out of pocket for every doctor visit, it's difficult to get, I would say these days, um, I have a job thankfully that um, does provide health insurance. But I was able to get that job because of the new laws that are put in place for undocumented immigrants. Well, before the law was in place, uh, I couldn't get a job that offered health insurance and even if I did, they wouldn't offer it just because they knew that I really couldn't get any other job anyway. So yeah. So it was tough. It was expensive. It was an expensive process.

L: Right, and it kept you from care and that's the piece that I think so many people are experiencing around the world, you know, just not having access to medical support and like you mentioned, yes, it wasn't a life or death thing, which I'm really glad about.

N: Exactly. I'm, there are certainly people who are not able to get healthcare and it is a life or death situation and people, a lot of people in my situation who are undocumented and they just have to deal with it and it sucks. Yeah. I mean I know a lot of people who've been through it.

L: Yeah. So, so that's just kind of a question. I mean that's just a really big question for us to think about, but it's like “What can we do? How can impact this reality that there are a lot of people out there who don't have access to care.”

N: Vote. Call your senator.

L: So yeah. So it's like an... I don't know. Because I know you, you see, this is one of the things you like to talk about is... is that the main recommendation that you make to people?

N: I do. I actually, I get involved in politics a lot. I, um, I voluntarily for the people who, especially in New York, I don't know if you heard the candidate, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez. I volunteered for her when she had just started. Yeah, she's super cool. And I have volunteered for Bernie, I volunteered for Hillary. Um, so you know, anyone who supports the immigrant community and supports everyone getting healthcare... Um, I do believe that universal healthcare is possible and necessary.

L: Yeah. And I something that really touches us in the chronic illness community. Yeah. I was walking down the street the other day and saw a sign posted in my neighborhood that someone had written handwritten and it said, “Hi, please don't take this post down. I have surgery on Tuesday. I really need support.” And it was like so intense to have access to this information from a neighbor of mine and then also not know exactly what to do because it's interestingly coinciding with my own medical treatment and I, I can't be there, but also like I don't have the bandwidth to do it all. But it made me think about … there's access to care. There's also access to community who can support us after the, after the care itself. And it can be so isolating to have a health condition when we don't have as many resources.

N: Yeah, I mean it's, it's, it's really sad. It sucks that they don't, they don't pay attention to it. And uh, I mean it has a lot to do with the fact that the health insurance companies, you know, they pay a lot into our Senators pockets so they kind of lean towards whatever the insurance companies want. And you know, when the insurance companies…  they don't want regulations or restrictions on how much they can charge us, you know, our politicians just lean towards it. So it sucks.

L: Yeah, it does. And by the way, I also want to finish up the story and say, I called her because she put her phone number on the sign just because I want to get a sense of like what was happening for her and it turns out she's, she's okay. She'd been offered the opportunity to stay in the hospital longer, but she wanted to go home and wanted me to help her. So I was glad to know that she could get support. It's just her preference was to be at home as soon as possible. I think she's going to be okay in case anybody's listening to the story and liked it. “Lauren just abandoned this woman and said ‘Too bad for her!’ and kept walking.” No, I did call her. But anyways... I love in your, your story, you talk a little bit about your relationship with your mom as she was kind of -- you joked that she was your doctor and she prescribed Selson Blue -- but how has she been?

N: She’s my rock.

L: Yeah, she's your rock. How? What's the role that she's played in your life with this health challenge?

N: Yes. She was, um, she was really supportive. She was the person who got me. Well, first of all, she got me the prescription and she was the one who got me to prioritize my condition because I didn't have the money that I made from whatever job I had a, uh, being a kid, I wanted to spend it on other things and she said no, and she forced me to really prioritize it, which is the right thing to do and prioritize my school. I mean, it did keep me from having fun. So the fact that I didn't have healthcare, but um, yeah, that, that's. She really pushed me and got me to focus on it and I'm glad I did because it's the only reason I figured out what it was and I was able to help other people and that’s like, what I'm doing now.

L: Yes. Which is so cool. And, and you have, I don't know, I'd love to hear actually, I don't know the story of how exactly you made this shift from focusing on your personal experience and really learning through your mom that you needed to prioritize your physical health... and then shifting to this external, being involved in community and getting engaged with political figures that you believe in and then also creating something for the chronic illness community.

N: Yeah, I mean I can talk about them, like creating Lemonade and getting involved in something bigger than me, on basically two separate levels. It really comes down to something that I say to myself all the time. Owning your purpose. Owning your purpose, to me, it means realizing the journey that you're on. Realizing that you are on a journey and realizing that you are on that specific journey for a reason. Like for example, when I was in back in college, I used to look around at all these kids who had it really easy because I didn't. I really had to work one or two jobs to pay my tuition. It was, it was not just difficult for me to get into college. It was almost illegal for me to get into college because of my status, but I did it anyway and I had to work during school and there were these other kids, you know, they were well off, so pretty much they had all the time on their hands to study and I studied maybe an hour before every class. Maybe their parents knew some administrators in this school and I didn't have a lot of those resources and certainly didn't have the time and all of these things and I, I looked around and I thought,
“These people have it so easy,” but I never… I don't remember ever being angered by that at all. I was almost happy because in my mind I knew what the end goal was. The end goal was really... the end goal was never school and it was never the journey that I'm on. It was an end goal and that end goal was to get a job at the end and I knew that I had a headstart on them because of the journey that I'm going through. Because of the adversity that I'm currently facing, because that's what the real world's like, I had a better chance at succeeding in the real world because I'm currently facing real world challenges and they're not, and that's how I looked at it. I mean, I was going through a bootcamp and they weren't going through bootcamp and I, I almost looked at my adversity as not disadvantages; they were advantages. To be honest, the main reason I pushed myself to start my own business and to get involved in my community is I don't believe at all that I was dealt a bad hand. In contrast, I believe that I was dealt an unbelievably good hand. My adversities included... Actually my adversities are part of the good hand. They were, they were one of the few of the things that actually helped me become as good as I am. I'm smart, I’m [unintelligible]. I'm good at math. I'm good at writing. I have a unique ability to empathize with people and, by the way, I think empathy is a superpower. I think it's the most important trait that any person can have. I was given all of these incredible ingredients, these five star chef ingredients, so for me to take the ingredients that I have -- and was not given to anyone else -- and to squander those ingredients and put it in the fridge and never use it is... it would be pathetic. It would be so sad that I don't use these special ingredients, that I was given. Something that no one else has asked because I do, I do believe that I have a very... I'm on a unique journey. I'm on a special journey. Something that, a journey that many people haven't been on.

N: I, I think about this documentary that I was watching a lot. There was this guy who was lost at sea and if you think about the first person who was lost at sea and survived, he has a unique credibility to speak on how to survive when you’re lost at sea because he's been through that adversity and that's what I look at myself. I've... so I've been through health conditions, I’ve been through being undocumented. I've been, I've been trying to fight politics from the immigration point and from the healthcare point. I've been through these really unique circumstances so I have that credibility to speak on these issues and, for me to not speak on these issues and for me to not stand up and say something or do something, I'm squandering the opportunity that I was given and I used the word “opportunity” specifically because I don't believe that it's a disadvantage. The adversities. I believe there are opportunities that I, that I was given and I should take advantage of the opportunities that other people weren't given and that's that's why I was able to convince myself that I should get involved in my community and I should start my own business and I should build an app. I mean, I was born in the world of technology. I should start an app that helps other people. Something that I've gone through, I've gone through and other people haven't gone through.

L: Your answer to my question, which I'm just amazed. I was like “Lauren, do not say anything, do not interrupt him. There is some flow coming out of him. He's just... everything he's saying is just wisdom, wisdom, wisdom.” Because when you refer to, I love how you refer to your experiences as ingredients because ingredients are the raw opportunity but making the food, making the dish, creating something out of the ingredients is up to you and you're saying, “I don't want to squander the opportunities that I have,” which interestingly, you've kind of done a shift from saying this adversity is a problem to, “Well, this is adversity and we're not going to pretend it's not, but what am I going to do with it?” You're saying like, “I can't not do something with it.” Like this is you. This is, like you said, it's a unique combination of life experiences that have enabled you to develop your empathy superpower and be connected in the world and create for the benefit of others as well.

N: And being able to do anything, especially in business, empathy is the most important thing because you have to understand that what you're doing, you're not doing it for you. You're doing it for someone else. If you're doing anything for you alone, it will never grow to the thing that you want it to grow to. Yeah, and I'm like you said, I don't think it's, I don't think it's bad to acknowledge that adversity is tough. I mean, it's a journey. Journeys are not always the same. It's not a constant thing. I mean, I don't even know what the end of the journey is. Am I supposed to rescue someone? Am I supposed to save someone at the end? I have no idea, but I know it's, it's beautiful and it's full of opportunity and I mean sometimes, it's filled with despair and disappointment and sorrow and tough breaks and that's okay. It's okay to acknowledge that and accept it because it's a part of it. It's a part of the journey and all those bad things that come with it. There are adversities and they also build the opportunity. They create the characteristics that you need. It builds character, all those tough parts, so it's okay to acknowledge it. I think it's important to acknowledge it, actually.

L: Yeah. I'm just so excited sitting with you. I wish that we were doing this in person because they feel like, although I'd probably just want to keep talking, talking, talking forever, but that's a wonderful dilemma, but I just really appreciate your perspective on this end because this is a podcast interview. People can't see you as you're saying it, but I can and you just have this glow. You just are like lit up, which is so lovely. It's so nice to see you're so authentically just being real about your experience. So I really appreciate you showing up in this way.

N: I do genuinely believe that I was put here to help people. That's it. I don't believe that it's not a fake feeling.

L: You can't really manufacture that. All right. So let's talk about like how did you come up with the idea for Lemonade and. Yeah, what’s your story with that?

N: Yeah. So Lemonade itself, it really was birthed from my own personal frustration, um, with the skin condition. I was… when I started seeing the symptoms in high school, and we all know high school is a, it's a tough thing to travel... I was very insecure about it and I was pretty introverted when I was younger and the skin condition didn't help, so it really put a damper on my social activities and certainly my dating activities and I didn't, um, start a real relationship really until college. And actually the college relationship was with someone else who had a skin condition. She had psoriasis.

L: No Way. Yeah. That's amazing. Cool.

N: Oh, well, hold on. The thing is I actually pushed this relationship away a lot. I didn't want to get into a relationship. I'll tell you why. Stick with me. Stick with me. For some strange reason, I did not want to convince myself that the only person that I could date is other people with skin conditions.

L: Interesting.

N: Right. I know it's a weird mentality to be in. So I was keeping myself away from something great because I didn't think that it was great. Um, but uh, I eventually lost that battle and we did start dating. Thank goodness. She was very convincing. It was a wonderful relationship. It was amazing. We, we bonded about things that really I couldn’t bond with anyone else about. And here's the thing about that relationship, we were able to skip over that awkward part talking about skin conditions because to us, it wasn't a thing. Like our skin conditions almost in the negated each other. So we kind of started past it because I, we didn't necessarily want to talk about it all the time, but when it did come to like certain weird things, it was cool to like talk about it. It was, it was easy to tell her that I'm really, really itchy today so I don't want to hang out. You know what I mean?

L: I love it. I mean, I don’t love that you're feeling itchy . But yeah, I love that you tell her that…  your truth, without it being intense or dramatic or oversharing or seen as too much information, you just, you’re being real with her.

N: Yeah. And without the hesitation of “Man, she's not gonna like this. She's definitely gonna break up with me because of it.”

L: Right, right. And by the way, I just want to say as, like a side note, that when, when I said those things about being too much information and dramatic, I don't mean that, that those things are inherently dramatic or oversharing. I mean that, that's what the inner voice can tell us to keep us from being real with each other, that we're not supposed to talk our symptoms because that's, that's going to push someone away for all these reasons. So I just wanted to make that very clear for everybody listening.

N: That's what I got.

L: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay. So go on with your story.

N: Totally right. Yeah. So it was, it was a great relationship for that reason. And as part of that relationship, I was able to jump over my skin condition and focusing on my skin condition, really getting to learn about who I am as a person. And it was really the first time I got to learn about myself because she taught me about myself, um, because she never focused on my skin condition because it wasn't a thing. I'm putting air quotes around thing. And um, it was great. I got to learn a lot about myself and I got to learn how amazing I was, if I do say so myself. I was a really awesome person. Yeah…

L: That is so cool.

N: Yeah. I had great traits that I didn't know about until this relationship.

L: I love that the relationship kind of almost mirrored your journey with your body in the sense that if you externalize, OK I’m obviously I'm a psychotherapist right now. I'm saying if you externalize the fact that you like it, she was sort of representing, in some way, your own feelings about your skin condition in the sense that, at first you pushed her away, which makes a lot of sense. That makes so much sense. Of course you did. In fact, I'll be honest, when I first heard about your app, there was a little voice in me that was like, “Ooh, would I want to intentionally go into a community of people like me?” So I just want to relate to you and say, I get why you did that. I'm aware that there are drawbacks to having a health challenge and so it's like, “Why would I want to move towards that?” and then, you know, a minute later I was like, “Wow, look at that.” How interesting that that was my one of my thoughts and there's so much beauty as you know, as I know, and that's why I created this podcast. I think we do have super powers because of our chronic illnesses and I love the idea of being with other resilient people who get it, who want to be more than superficially connected and who care about when life gets tough. Getting through it together, which it seems like she kind of, like you said, she was very convincing and you were like, all right, I'm smarter than I was. That is so cool.

N: Yeah, she knew. She was smarter than I was. She was more mature than I was.

L: Well, thank goodness for her. Good for her. And then, so then this other part that you said was, “Oh, when I actually almost gave in to being in this relationship, I got to see my own awesomeness in relationship with another person. She helped show me. I showed myself that I'm a cool person.”

N: Yeah. She brought it out. She was like, “Yeah, don't worry about this part that other people are focusing on. What about the other parts?” And the good parts far outweigh the bad parts. I guess I can call a bad part because it's my part, but you shouldn't think of it as a negative. But you know what I mean?

L: Yeah. Well, it's interesting because now I see clients who are dating and they have chronic illness. In my psychotherapy practice and I… one of the questions that comes up for people is “When, when do I disclose and how do I disclose my health condition to someone new? Like, is it dishonest if I don't say it right away? Is it too much information if I say it too soon…?” And for me, you know the answer to that is: You're not introducing your chronic illness. You're introducing your relationship with your chronic illness. You are, you are presenting to someone, “This is my story, not this is my diagnosis.” So it's like “I have MS” or “I have MS” and here's what I'm creating with it. Here's how I relate to my MS,” and that's more of what's going to connect you on a relational level. If you know that you're bringing your super powers with you, too, you can say, “I have MS and oh my gosh, I have a much better attitude towards life now because I’ve dealt with some really crummy stuff and I'm, I think I'm funny or for it, and I can show up if things go poorly for you because I can show up for myself.”

N: Instead of focusing on the thing that they might see as negative, you focus on the positive parts that you know, that they get. They're going to think it's positive. That's good.

L: I mean, and also, uh, I also think it's like you have some real conversations, just like with any adversity in life, whether it's because you lost somebody important to you or you're unemployed or you are feeling uninspired in your life or whatever it is. Like you just have to show up as yourself. And I think one of the things that keeps us from connecting is all those stories inside that tell us that we're not good enough or we're not whole enough to be in a relationship. And we are! And we're not supposed to be perfect before we get in relationships.

N: I mean, if you think of any other adversity, like what you said, someone who's lost someone, imagine if you lost someone and didn't think that that was, um, you weren't good enough to date someone else because you lost someone. No one thinks that because everyone's lost someone.

L: Right? Oh, that's such a great analogy. Yeah, that's a really good point. And yet we don't personalize it in that sense. You know, like we personalize our chronic illnesses sometimes. Like “I'm the problem,” as if any of us chose this.

N: Right? I know. Yeah, because I went out to the store and I picked this up. Come on, man.

L: Wouldn't it be cool? I don't know. I don't know how early you are in developing the app, but I'm like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a section in everybody's profile that said, ‘What superpowers do you have because of your chronic illness?’ That would be so cool.

N: Oh boom, maybe I should change health challenge to superpower.

L: Oh my gosh! (Gasp) Not just say like, Oh, here's my chronic illness, but also here's what I'm bringing to the table that I've learned from having my chronic illness.

N: Yeah, here’s the positives behind it because I don't think people should think of it as a negative anyway.

L: That's a good point. Especially on your app. That's your ticket for entry. Is your chronic illness, like do you want to get into this app? You have to have some kind of health challenge.

N: Yeah. You've got to be, you've got to be special. You've got to get into a specific club. You can't just be anyone.

L: Right. And so one of the things that I would love for you to do is share just kind of how the app works, like the nuts and bolts of like, if somebody's going to use the app, how does it work?

N: Yes. So the idea for a lemonade basically was birthed, I guess a while back because as you know, I didn't start dating in high school and uh, it had a lot to do with my skin condition and it has a lot to do with my insecurities and self consciousness that came with a health challenge, as most health challenges do. As I got older I used to think that maybe I was just insecure and I had to get over it, but I really started realizing that there are so many other people in that same position that perhaps weren't as lucky to meet someone that I met to pull them past that part in their life. And that's when the spark for Lemonade started. And I thought, “Hey, why don't I create an environment where people can meet their perfect pair? Where people can meet someone who can maybe help them through a certain part of their life or maybe they can meet their soulmate.” I figured, “Hey, I'm pretty good at tech. I'm smart. I can figure this thing out.” And I did it. And uh, when I've told people about it, they were really excited and they got on board and that's when I thought I was really onto something. And so fast forward, a couple months later, the app was launched. I launched the app last month, about a month ago and immediately --

L: Congratulations!

N: Thank you very much. Much appreciated. And uh, we immediately started getting people and we did some small advertisements and people jumped on board. As soon as people hear about it, they jump onboard. I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback and people telling me how great it is and how helpful it is just to give a little bit back on the app itself and how it was built and how it was designed… it is very. We tried to make it very simple, very intuitive and similar to other apps on the market, like Tinder and Bumble. First of all, it's available currently on the App Store and Google Play. And when you download it, you see a very similar screen or login or sign up button. And when you sign up, we ask a couple of very simple questions just so we know who you are. And we ask for your email, your first name, you don't have to put into your last name, your age, your location, and your gender. And we just recently added transgender, uh, additional genders for everyone. So just to make it as inclusive as possible.

L: Yes, yes.

N: Very excited about that. And that's just the basic information we ask and that's it. And you log in and there are basically four major pages, the search page, where you can find a people, the chat page where you can chat with people and you will not receive chats or messages from random people. People can only message you if you have allowed them to. So if you, if you're interested in someone, you swipe right, like most apps and if you would like to move past, you swipe left and if you swipe right on somebody and someone at same person swipes right on you, you've matched and you get a message saying that, “ey, you should message this person. You're both interested in each other,” and that's the only way you can chat.

L: Awesome.

N: Yeah. We tried to create a little bit of privacy where people don't randomly message you because I don't like that either.

L: Yeah. That that can be, that can get, that can turn people off I think from dating apps. And you can put your health challenges in their publicly so that people could see them or you or you can choose not to. Right?

N: That's correct. So that's the third major page which is the edit profile page and you can enter a little biography about yourself, tell people about yourself and you can enter your health challenge if you'd like. It is optional. You can enter it or you can not enter it. You can just put a little blurb and say, “Hey, you can ask me later” or something like that. But um, we don't force anyone to release any information that they don't want to.

L: Sweet. That's good. And I think it's empowering to share your health challenge and it's and I think it's empowering to not share your health challenge. I think both are like a really important personal decision and I imagine somebody might want to spend a few weeks without sharing it and then maybe spend a few weeks with sharing it, like kind of experiment and see how it goes.

N: Right, exactly. And I think you should be allowed to choose who you release that information to.

L: Yeah, exactly. And okay. So one thing you shared with me the other day that I'm really excited about is you got your first feedback about a real life match, right?

N: That's right. That was a couple days ago. It was really exciting. It was a female. She sent me a message and say, “Hey, I want to leave the app. And I was like, oh, why do you want to leave the app?” She said, “Oh, I found someone in New York that he, he doesn't live too far from me and it's really great, so we're done.” I was like, “Oh, you go, you go!”

L: Get out of here you two.

N: Yeah. That was fun. So that was really exciting. I feel like was very appreciative.

L: That's a really big deal for you as the founder to get that real life feedback. Like, “Hey, this is actually working. It's not just a dream.

N: Yeah, I did it!

L: And you know, one of the things that I'd love to chat with you about a little bit more, which we've touched on in the past is just that you have mentioned to me that there's a little bit of vulnerability in you being the one to create this app and I would love to hear a little bit about what it was, what it's been like for you to be the founder.

N: When I had the idea, I was a bit conflicted as to whether or not I should be the person to start it. First of all, I had enough confidence to say, “Hell yes, I'm definitely the right person. I have super smart. I know how to do math. I'm good at marketing and good at business. I'm good at everything that is required to start a startup.” But I think the most important part I had credibility because I've been through this. I've had, I have a health challenge, so I understand. I'm able to empathize with the potential audience. I'm able to empathize with the problem that I'm trying to solve and there are other certain apps out there or dating websites that don't particularly have that, that level of empathy and would be able to have the same perspective on this problem that I do. However, when I did start it, mostly the people who started joining and people who started sending feedback were people in the chronic illness community and people who had certain health challenges that I actually was not able to identify with. People with, for example, fibromyalgia or people with MS and I figured, well, I don't really know about a lot of these health challenges. Should I be able to identify with these challenges? And I thought to myself and I felt like I didn't... and maybe I wasn't the right person to start the app because maybe my skin condition isn't good enough. Maybe my condition it isn't the right... isn't the right condition. It really second guessing myself, which is weird. I was like, well, maybe I should have a different health challenge. And um, I started gaining that confidence back through actual users. And the people who started doing the app and people who I spoke to about the app and they were just sending feedback and telling me that I am the right person. And I got that credibility from the people who wanted the app and they allowed me almost to join the club. They allowed me to be part of their community and they, yeah. They gave me the credibility and the confidence I needed because I didn't have it in myself. I needed it. I needed to get it from other people. So it was very reassuring to hear that, um, I, I did have enough credibility to start the app because I think that's incredibly important. Especially with something like this.

L: Yes. And I actually really love your use of the word ‘credibility.’ Like you've mentioned before, that when you look at what you bring to the table, you include your health challenges in your own definition of what makes you credible to do this. Which I love because it's like all of us living with any kind of health challenge have added credibility because we have the lived experience having bodies that are doing, you know, whatever they decide related to our health challenges. And, and I, you know, personally, as also an entrepreneur relate to that inner conversation of like, “Should I be the one doing this?” And I've mentioned this in another episode or maybe a few episodes. But actually it was, it was at the beginning of creating the podcast that I said to one of my mentors, Allison Puryear from Episode 27, I said, what if, you know, because I have a fairly low level of disability… I said to her, “Well, am I, am I sick enough to make this? Who am I to make this, right?” And like, you know, first of all, who's the judge of that? Right? But she said to me, she totally respected what I was saying and she, she got what I was getting at and at the same time said, “Well, maybe you have just the right amount of energy to be able to do this. That you can... maybe someone who doesn't have quite the same amount of physical energy as you do at this point in time... might not be able to make it.” And actually so that was really helpful and then also the fact that I don't know how much energy I'll have in the future and I feel like I really want to live my life now and create now and not count on waiting for somebody else to create this podcast or you know, the Lemonade app. Like we, we have to be the ones to create what our vision is and that's part of our credibility to. And so it is, it is vulnerable, I think, to share ourselves with the world in this public way.

N: I think so because you don't know if you have the right credibility. And for you, you have the right amount of ingredients to do what you're doing and I feel the same way.

L: I love that.

N: Just on that topic, this is how I convince myself to do most things. I have this mantra that I live by “Owning my purpose,” and owning my purpose to me means understanding that I'm on a journey and I do believe that I'm on a very special journey that not a lot of people are on. And instead of saying, “Well, how come I'm the only person that's going through this specific adversity? How come no one else is doing it? That's so unfair.” Instead of saying that, I say, “It's so great that I am the only person going through this adversity because I am the only person with this credibility to speak on this topic and I'm the only person with this specific perspective. There's no one else in the world who has this specific perspective on this adversity and on all these multiple adversities.”

L: All the perfect ingredients. Yeah. I do think that adversity does like press fast forward on personal development in many ways, or it can, because it brings out our resilience. We're calling upon our strengths and developing them even further in order to get through that.

N: Right, and I had to push myself. I had to convince myself that my adversities weren’t disadvantages. They were at actually advantages. There were the thing that's going to give me a leg up on the competition.

L: Yes. I just did my victory pose again. I always do that at some point during interviews and I think it's because this is a video interview and like you can't see the rest of my body to see that. Like I'm really excited. I put my arms up in the air like this. There's so many themes right now that we're talking about that I, I want to crystallize. One of them is the whole concept of “Am I ______ enough to be doing what I'm doing?” Which is a lesson. I'm kind of learning it as we talk about it that I think every single listener, I want you to know, Listener, if you ever question if you are supposed to be doing a project or or if you're sick enough or if you're too sick or if you're not diagnosed enough or you have too many diagnoses and you're questioning yourself about whether or not you should create, I think I want to give you that thumbs up to say, “Go for it. Do it. Create it.” Because if it's in your heart, that's what you need to know. That's all you really need to know. If you have a vision in your heart, do it, create it.

N: And um, everyone was given a certain amount of ingredients. I was given all of these incredible ingredients and these ingredients were formed mostly through my adversity. So with all of these five star chef ingredients, how can I not be... how can I not use it? How can I not aspire to something great? Right?

L: Yes. It's almost like not only is it, “Hey listener, go do your go do the project that's in your heart,” but when you say, “How can I not use it?” I'm like, “Yes, please do it. In fact, you kind of have to do it. You're not able to NOT do this thing. Nobody else can do it, but you.” So, so keep in mind. And I think I also just want to say between you and me, Niko, I kind of see the common thread around like permission giving. Where you said to me earlier in the conversation when I was sharing about, like second-guessing myself, you said “You have the perfect amount of ingredients” and that felt like permission. It felt like a reaffirmation that I'm doing the right thing, which as a podcast host, I'm often giving out like encouragement and support and I think I need to acknowledge that I need that, too. So when you said that to me, it felt like I felt like… I was both relaxed and relieved, but also excited like a little kid that it's like, you know. When a little kid brings their artwork to their parent and they're like, “I hope you put it on the refrigerator.” That's what it felt like when you said, “Yes, you have the right amount of ingredients.” And I think what I want to say is I think we need each other. We need to keep reminding each other when we have our doubts that, that it's okay, that we're on the right path. And I really… that's part of why I created this podcast is so that people could create community to further their own sense of empowerment and connection and belonging as a person with a health challenge.

N: Yeah it’s so important to get that credibility from other people.

L: I mean you've demonstrated you can give it to yourself as well because it's a balance between... we have to know our own inner sense of worth and then also it really helps to be in connection with people who get it too.

N: Yeah, because they have the credibility to give you the credibility.

L: Ooh, I love that!

N: I don't... I don't want it just from any random person on the street. You know what I mean? I need it from someone with street cred.

L: Yes, with, with health cred.

N: They've got to invite me to the club almost.

L: What does it mean to you to live a fulfilling life and has that definition changed as a result of your health journey?

N: Well, I'll start by saying I don't believe I'm fulfilled yet based on my specific definition of fulfillment. Fulfillment for me, uh, will be when I can get to a point in my life where I'm asked the fulfillment question and I don't immediately compare myself to someone else. And that's fulfillment. And I don't, I don't think it's healthy to measure fulfillment by way of comparison and I do it all the time. So I'm not there yet, but I'm getting there and I'm working on it and I accept that I'm not there yet and that's okay. And it's something to aspire to and it's something to work towards. And I think the reason for me specifically that I don't, I haven't gotten there yet is because I don't know what fulfillment is. I have no idea. And I think that's okay.

L: Yeah.

N: So yeah, what I do is I look at other people and I try to find out if they're fulfilled. I try to find out what it is and what they have that I don't because I don't, I don't believe that fulfillment is necessarily happiness. I believe that fulfillment is the room where happiness is kept.

L: I like that so much.

N: So yeah, it's, it's still, it's the place that you need to get to in order to find happiness. So I look at people that might be happy and I think, “All right, well if they're happy they might have that fulfillment and they figured it out. So let me see what they have that I don't,” and in a lot of cases it might be money. So I think, “Well they have money so maybe I should get money and maybe money is the room where happiness is kept. Maybe money is the container, maybe money is the thing.” That is of course toxic and it's bad way to think. And I do it. I still do it and I try to knock myself in the head. Everything I, every time I find myself doing that… because it's wrong. And that's not necessarily the way, um, you find fulfillment. It's a fulfillment for me is when I can, um. Well I've, what I realized is fulfillment is just having the courage and the self awareness and the confidence to not compare myself to other people ever under any circumstance.

L: Ooh, I'm just taking a moment to imagine. Okay. I'm going to invite myself in. Anybody who wants to do this with me right now.

N: Okay.

L: To imagine a day, an hour, even a minute where it doesn't even occur to me to compare my experience and my journey with somebody else -- with anybody else. If there was no such thing as comparison, what would that feel like?

N: How Liberating? Right.

L: Yeah! I mean even just thinking about it right now, I'm kinda like... I even notice I feel it in my body. I feel like this sense of being really strong, if that makes sense. Like my body feels whole and complete. I’m always connecting emotions back to physical sensations because I think there's a big link there. So I noticed that my… that's where I noticed it first. Usually when I do these visualizations is like I feel freer in my body when I imagine what you just kind of invited, which is not comparing everything.

N: Yeah, you feel like you're floating.

L: I also want to make a side note and say your… the way you talk the about the search for fulfillment and understanding from this curious place, could be a children's picture book. Like “Nico’s Search for Fulfillment,” like “Is this the room where happiness is kept? This is the money room, wait a minute. People don't look happy here!” So just putting that idea out there. I love. I love your definition and I also really appreciate that you're saying “I don't quite know what fulfillment is in all aspects, but I know that it's up to me to decide and for right now what I know is that it has to do with not comparing.”

N: It’s a journey.

L: All right. You said it. Alright. So do you have any funny stories about your health journey that you can share?

N: So many. So once. A long time ago, I would say I was maybe 21 years old, I went to the beach with a few friends, a place that I hate because I hate the beach in general. It's hot and sandy and salty. It's not a fun place to be.

L: You're not a beach fan.

N: I'm not a fan.

L: Okay. But to be fair, you live on the east coast, right?

N: I do live on the east coast and I also was born on an island in the Caribbean. Trinidad.

L: Okay. Okay.

N: So even worse. I'm not into it.

L: You are totally not into the beach. Got It, got it.

N: I got outta there. But uh, I was convinced to go. I was dragged along. We all went. Was with a few friends, right. At a certain point, someone decided we should go into water. So I thought, yeah, fine. Sure. Um, but I had no intentions of taking my shirt off. I had a tight fitted shirt. I knew it wasn't going to take my shirt off because at that point I never took my shirt off. Now, I don't care. I'll, I'll take my shirt off. Doesn't matter me. But as a younger me, I was a little self conscious about my skin. So as I was walking into the water with my shirt on, a girl from behind me just yelled out and said, “Hey, you're not going to take your shirt off before you go in the water?” And there was like, um, okay, “First of all, we just met. I barely know you.” So this is a ridiculous question, I hope. Yeah. I hope you just stop asking me questions now that don't even know this lady. She was, she was part of our group. She wasn't a random person.

L: Right. Like a stranger running up to you at the beach shouting at you to take your shirt off.

N: It's like a lifeguard, but like a fashion lifeguard. She's got on heels and a skirt. Yeah. I was like, “Yeah, I would prefer if you didn't ask me stupid questions.” Well I. What I said was, “Yeah, I don't feel I take my shirt off. I don't want to take my shirt off.” And she, um, she continued the line of questioning like I was being interrogated. She was like, “No, but you have to take your shirt off because everyone's taking their shirt off if we're going into the water,” and the conversation went on for quite some time and I was really flabbergasted that this woman was not into me going like, I don't think she was going into the water if I didn't take my shirt off because she was hanging back really far back. Like, lady, I'm not going to take my shirt off. Okay, let's just get over it. We're going to have to move through this. And I was so confused.

L: When you tell this story… It's funny, whenever I asked the question, “Do you have any funny stories?” A lot of the time, people share a story which is funny, but then it also has this really important morsel of like “You're not alone” for people who can relate to that story. So for example, anybody with like any kind of cosmetic, you know, or visual condition that other people can see. Like, I'm sure there's so many people listening to this who also swim with their shirt on or who have a similar type of scenario where like I think we all know that that's her exact worst case scenario when you're just trying to go for a swim with your shirt on is that somebody literally calls you out and says, “Wait a second.”

N: Like no, you know, and she was like standing there with their arms folded, like she wasn't titled to an answer. I'm not going to give you an answer, I'm just not going to give you an answer just because I know you want one.

L: I'm so glad that you got through that and like who would've thought that years later, you would be on a podcast sharing that story and that that story would be part of what helps us to feel connected to you.

N: Yeah. I hope. I hope she's listening.

L: Yeah, I hope she's listening too. I think she learned something today. By the way, I want to say something about when I said the east coast. I grew up in New Jersey, so when I think about the beach, it's just a very different experience than like a tropical beach. It wasn't meaning to knock the east coast, which is a beloved part of our country.

N: Sure.

L: It's just a different kind of experience at the beach, you know, like you're in New York, right?

N: Yeah, I mean, granted, the Jersey shore is a different kind of experience in many, many ways.


L: So what do you have now that you might not have had without your skin condition?

N: A greater ability to accept outcomes that I have no control over.

L: That was so like mic drop. It just ended on that. A greater ability to accept that I have no control over it. Did I get that right?

N: Perfect. There you go.

L: I love that.

N: Um, that has to do with I think all of my adversity, everything that I've been through because I consider myself a bit of a control freak, a micromanager. I like to be in control of every aspect that's happening around me. And I've gotten to the point where I have to accept that things are most likely not going to go the way that I have perfectly planned it out in my head. That's okay. That's totally fine.

L: Yes! This is not what I ordered and that's okay. Oh wait, I just answered. I just answered the fill in the blank [laughter].

N: Don't answer my question!

L: But that is why I want to bring up my favorite quote once again, “It wasn't as she had planned, it was perfect instead,” from Byron Katie. It's exactly the essence of what you're just sharing, which is even to the part of you that's the controller, the micromanager, that that part of you is constantly learning.

N: Yeah, that's right.

L: And it is quite a rigorous curriculum. I will tell you that my manager controller is like regularly like, “Oh really? I have to step back again? Okay. All right.” Are you ready? Are you ready for the fill in the blank?

N: Yeah. I mean I can't imagine what it could be.

L: Yeah, I know. I don't really shock anybody with this last one because it's pretty consistent at the end of each interview, so finish the sentence. This is not what I ordered.

N: This is not what I ordered and as I look around the room, I noticed that everyone else also has something on their plate that they didn't order.

L: Oof, chills.

N: And we're all just trying to figure out how it got there and what to do with it.

L: That's right. You know what I think of actually when you say that is we all got plates of ingredients so we get to decide what we cook.

N: Boom. We've all got plates of ingredients.

L: We were all given different ingredients and you're walking around to everybody's table and telling them that they have the right ingredients for their specific dish and you're giving them all...

N: Tell me about your ingredients and what you're going to make with yours. Those are different from mine, so instead of trying to figure it out on my own, I'm going to find some other people who wouldn't mind some company as we embark on a similar journey.

L: I liked also that you're saying “I'm not alone. It's not just me. It's not just me and my plate, it's all of us. We're all dealing with this in our own way.” That's why I got chills.

N: You see your cooking classes are more fun with other people. You know you can talk about what you're making.

L: Yes, yes. That's so true, and it's a social occasion most, right?

N: We're all just people in strange rooms just trying to get comfortable, man.

L: [Laughter] That's the name of your next book.

N: Totally.

L: I'm so glad that you shared this time with me and I'm really grateful that that we connected in the way that we did and that now I'm just excited to... to know you.

N: I’m so excited to know you as well.

L: And thanks for being on the show.

N: Thank you so much for having me. This was so much fun.

Lauren Selfridge