Michelle Vandy is a designer known for a unique talent: using her nose more than her hands. Her so-called “nose pad” allows the designer to create almost entirely without touching a keyboard or mouse—something that she believed gave her a debilitating repetitive stress injury (RSI) when she was still a university student.
A few years ago, at a friend’s urging, Vandy designed a website to document how she worked. Since then, her stress injuries have improved, and her story has taken a new turn. Instead of having RSI, Vandy believes that she has tension myositis syndrome (TMS), a psychosomatic condition that externalizes stress and other psychological issues as musculoskeletal or nerve pain.
TMS is controversial in the medical community: although there are many high-profile advocates, there is not yet consensus that the condition actually exists, since it has not yet gone through the paces of a proper clinical trial. Vandy is the first to admit, in fact, that her recovery might be a placebo effect… albeit a placebo effect that has lasted quite a while, and lead to a better life for her.
Regardless, upon being treated for the condition, Vandy soon found the pain in her arms went away, while she herself got physically and mentally healthier in the bargain.
Today, twenty-seven-year-old Vandy lives and works in San Francisco, designing by hand and not by nose. She spoke with Folks about pain, workplace adaptations, and proactively seeking solutions beyond the doctor’s office when your doctors are stumped, until you find something healthy that works for you.
Where did the nose pad come from?
My dad is a software engineer. He’s the same kind of person as me; we love making things. He’s always fiddling around in his workshop, he’s always building things. He’s been building drones for the last like 40 years, before the word drone even was coined.
He builds everything from miniature airplanes to furniture. He’s always tinkering. So he prototyped a few things for me. He was thrilled that he could help me on something. I’ve never seen him jump onto something so quickly.
What made you want to tell others about your creative, hands-free design approach? Were you keeping it quiet on purpose, or were you nervous to tell other people?
I’d never thought about sharing how I worked with anyone. I’d actually kept it a secret for almost all the years I worked with my nose. But then I was living in New Zealand and I came [to the U.S.] for a short trip just to sync up with my friends and colleagues, including one who was a blogger. I just happened to mention that I don’t work like everyone else and told him I use my nose.
Immediately, he started in, “Oh, can we do a video about you? Can I write something?” I was so surprised by his response! We never ended up writing anything; we didn’t have time. But I went back to New Zealand and I thought, maybe this could be actually quite interesting. Maybe people would find it helpful.
It was like a gradual shift for me. I only got positive responses as I told people how I worked, and eventually I decided, okay, I’ll make some kind of proper website. This was over the holidays between 2014 and 2015.
I had a colleague who knew I was working on a website, and she asked if she could share my story with a colleague at Fast Company. They ended up publishing a short article about my website and the way I was working. And then from there it just kind of took off. I was looking at the statistics on my Web page, and I got 100,000 views in the first week, or within the first few days.
That’s great! Did people get in touch with you?
It’s a funny story. After I launched the website, I kind of went off the grid. Friends and family were like, “You need to take a break, Michelle. You’ve been obsessed with this website!” So I went with a friend to the northernmost part of New Zealand, and there’s not a lot of cellular coverage there. My hands were also really, really sore. I’d done way too much, even though I voice dictated the text on the site.
I came back a few weeks later to a lot of e-mails and also noticed how many people had reached out to me on Facebook. It kind of just blew up from there.
What’s changed since you launched the website?
The update is that I no longer have any pain…and that I haven’t been designing with my nose for the last one-and-a-half years.
You’re kidding! What does that mean?
My pain was always really mysterious. The doctors told me I had tennis elbow. But it was so strange, because it was always more in my right arm than in my left, and I was never using my right arm. The few things I did with my hands were with my left hand.
If I did more work than usual, it was ridiculous; my arms were so incredibly sore. After I published the website, yeah, I got a lot of e-mails, but I also got really overwhelmed because I was like, oh my God, like I’ve ruined my arms completely just for this silly website. Can I even work anymore?
I was like, oh my God, like I’ve ruined my arms completely just for this silly website.
It was actually a blessing in disguise because I took some time off to really figure out what was going on and take care of myself. I was like, okay, I’m going to do yoga every day, I’m going to eat healthy, drink lots of water, and just do everything I know, everything according to books on how to heal as fast as possible. And then I thought, oh, maybe I’ll go back to those e-mails that I never ended up reading, because I got so many e-mails that I felt too overwhelmed. They were so supportive and so many deserved an answer.
There were several e-mails stood out to me because they all mentioned the same thing. One that caught my eye read a bit like, “So I know you’re not going to believe this. I’m a software engineer and my arms used to be so bad. But then when I found out what I actually had the whole thing just turned around. Read this book by the American, Dr. John Sarno. What you have might be psychosomatic.” He added, “I know you’re not going to want to read this. You probably don’t think you have anything like this.”
He was right. But, I was also like, what do I have to lose? I was already taking other healthy steps, and several people mentioned these books in their notes to me. So I downloaded the book onto my phone, and then I literally read it for the next several hours straight. After I finished the book, I thought that Dr. Sarno had described me perfectly. I thought, I know what I have right now. Everything just made sense.
You thought you had a physical injury—but you didn’t?
So it turns out Dr. John Sarno has coined a term called TMS, which is tension myositis syndrome. It’s the best diagnosis I could ever have because it’s rooted in your mind more than your body. With TMS, your brain basically tries to focus your attention on something other than the real cause, which is that you’re either stressed or you’ve suppressed a lot of stress, or worry, or maybe it’s like emotional baggage. It can be like a ton of different things.
But when you suppress it to the point where you don’t even know that you’re stressed or that you have all of this like on your shoulders, that’s when your body tries to trick you and like divert your attention away from that, so it creates this physical pain that will trick you and not make you realize what the true cause of it is. And I was like, I’m not stressed; I’m so chill.
But there are all these techniques in the book, and one of them suggests mapping out everything that could be on your mind right now, maybe that you aren’t even thinking about. I started doing a mind map, and I realized, to my surprise, that I am really stressed! By stepping back and looking at it that way, I realized I’d had a lot on my mind, and it made sense it had manifested physically.
Do you think there is also a physical explanation for what you had?
What I read later is that TMS can be triggered by actual real tendonitis, and I’m pretty sure I did have tendonitis initially, because I was a bit of a maniac and I was working like 17 hours a day sometimes, just designing nonstop between work and school.
So yes. I do think I had tendonitis. But then I believe it triggered TMS. That’s what Dr. Sarno describes in his books.
So after I’d read the book I decided, okay, I’m going to go to the gym. And for the last four years I’d been like absolutely terrified of doing anything that would strain my arms. I’d completely avoided anything that would strain my arms even the tiniest bit. And I was like, I’m going to do something that I’m so terrified of right now, things that I’d been terrified of doing, because they would always make it flare up so much.
I went to the gym, and I did all these things, and I did get that pain. But afterwards, for the first time ever, I noticed that I also felt better afterwards. Part of the secret to recovering is that you have to 100 percent believe that you’re actually not hurting your arms. If you’re skeptical and you’re still worried that this could actually be something physical and not mental, then you won’t get better.
I believed I was going to get better. And then from there, it was a two-month recovery process, and then I could start using my hands again. It was still always sore and achy, like it was definitely a gradual recovery to being totally pain-free. But I could sense something had changed just after reading that book.
That’s incredible. It also sounds like your work life has gotten a lot healthier overall.
Yeah, absolutely. I feel like my work itself has made my way of working healthier, even the type of work I do now. I’m not as much of a production designer as I was initially in my career where I was just churning out a lot of illustration.
I’m no longer working in architecture software programs, which initially caused my tendonitis, because they’re very, very repetitive. You’re doing so much like repetitive scrolling. It can’t be good for anyone. I’m not an architect anymore. I kind of transitioned into just purely design or digital wave illustration, that kind of stuff. So that does help.
I’m doing a broader variety of things now, so I’m not always in front of the computer. I get natural breaks, and that is all you need. It’s kind of silly, but just taking a 10-minute break after every hour makes such a big difference.
And overall, I’ve learned that it’s kind of crazy how powerful your mind can be.