As the lead singer of Grammy-winning supergroup TLC, Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins has seen phenomenal fame, success, and critical acclaim. But backstage, she has lived a dual life. In addition to the balancing act of juggling an all-consuming music career and her family, Tionne has struggled her whole life with sickle-cell disease—a debilitating and incurable condition that can render her unable to perform, walk, or even breathe.
A Sick Life chronicles Tionne’s journey from a sickly young girl in Des Moines who was told she wouldn’t live to see 30 through her teen years in Atlanta to how she broke into the music scene and became the superstar musician and sickle-cell disease advocate she is today. Through Tionne’s tough, funny, tell-it-like-it-is voice, she shares how she found the inner strength, grit, and determination to live her dream, despite her often unpredictable and debilitating health issues. She dives deep into never-before-told TLC stories, including accounts of her friendship with Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes and her tragic death. Tionne’s unvarnished discussion of her remarkable life, disease, unending strength, and ability to power through the odds offers a story like no other.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I believe everything in life happens for a reason. You are meant to be wherever you end up and whoever you become. I was meant to be Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, a singer, dancer, philanthropist, creator, writer, daughter, mother, sister, and friend. I’ve spent much of my life in TLC, the world’s biggestselling American girl group of all time. I hear our songs, like “Waterfalls” and “Creep,” playing all the time. They’re songs that people refer to as timeless and iconic, which is an amazing feeling. Together with Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, I created a legacy with TLC. We broke new ground and took down old barriers. We sold millions of albums and inspired millions of fans.
TLC has been an essential aspect of my life, but it’s only one part of it. Behind the scenes I’ve experienced so much. I’ve dealt with a lifelong illness, sickle cell disease, and I’ve had dozens of health scares over the years. I gave birth to my daughter, Chase, against medical odds, and recently adopted my son named Chance. Both of them came into my life at very different times and they both felt like miracles—which you’ll hear all about later. I’m raising them as a single mother, just like my own mom. I’ve suffered tragedies and encountered the death of loved ones. I’ve become a strong, independent woman who refuses to back down.
Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s an upside to everything. You might think your story is the worst and that no one can relate, but there’s always someone who’s going through the same thing as you—if not worse. My story belongs to me, but I hope it can help those who read it. I hope that my ups and downs and my struggles will make you feel like you’re not alone. If I can survive, I know others can, too.
I feel like all my hardships and all my pain have happened for a reason, whatever that reason is. Living with a scary disease has made me a fighter. It’s taught me to push forward and look for the positive things in life. Maybe I’ve gone through all of this and learned these lessons so I could share them and make a difference. Maybe, as you read this, my story can help you.
Two Stories, One Life
When you perform, there’s something that happens right before you go onstage. It’s almost magical, like becoming an entirely other person. Before you step out in front of the crowd, you transform into someone else. So, for much of my life, I’ve been two people. I have been myself, Tionne Watkins, a girl from Atlanta by way of Des Moines, with big dreams and a lifelong illness I’ve refused to let define me.
But I’ve also been T-Boz, one third of TLC, the world’s biggest girl group. I’ve had dual stories, but they’ve both been part of the same life. I have a routine I do when I transform into T-Boz. It’s always the same. I look down, rock, pace the floor, and then get really quiet and tune everything out. When I look up, I’m T-Boz. It’s an important centering process because music and dance are where I best express myself. It’s where my ideas about the world and society and myself can be brought together to create something bigger. For me, music is everything—it makes you feel good, through the positive experiences and the negative ones, and TLC’s tracks have always been songs everyone can relate to in some way.
When TLC formed in 1990, we had no idea our music would become so massive. Our second album, CrazySexyCool, is one of only a few diamond-certified albums ever in the US, selling over 10 million copies, and it was included on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. We won five Grammys, out of 17 total nominations, and we earned four No. 1 singles and ten Top 10 singles. We saw the sort of musical, commercial, and critical success that is rare for artists now, and I still marvel at how that was possible.
During those decades, as TLC formed and grew and exploded into the world, I stayed T-Boz as much as possible when I was in the public eye. I never fully drew back the curtain or revealed what happened behind the scenes, especially on TV or in magazine interviews. I didn’t want the press to know everything or to uncover too much of my personal life. I’ve always been genuine and open with our fans, of course, but I needed to keep some things to myself.
If you see who I am on both sides of the coin, both as Tionne and as T-Boz, you’ll understand who I am and how I became a strong, independent woman who refuses to believe anything is impossible. Although T-Boz is an important part of me, I’m clear that I was born Tionne and I’ll die Tionne. T-Boz is someone I created, like an alter ego, and I know how to leave her onstage when I go home—unlike some celebs.
On April 26, 1970, I was born Tionne Tenese Watkins to James and Gayle Watkins in Des Moines, Iowa. I came into the world with sickle cell disease, a genetic blood disorder, although my parents didn’t know exactly what it was until later. I was sick from the moment I arrived, crying from pain and unable to voice what was ailing me. My dad left me and my mama when I was 3. He was a singer and a trumpet player, and wanted to pursue his musical career in Florida, so my parents separated. I always wanted my father’s love and attention, and for those first 3 years we were really close. He took me to Smitty’s Donuts and his nickname for me was “Little Vietnam” because I used to run around like I was crazy. Once I got into his band’s beer, drank some of it out of the can, ran around in circles, and then passed out. I always thought my dad was in Earth, Wind & Fire because his band would play in our basement and sing “Keep Your Head to the Sky.”
My mama raised me on her own, working as many jobs as necessary to give me the best life possible. She always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, and she always stood by me when I was in pain. Both of my parents could sing, so I think music was in my blood from the beginning. Before they separated, they made an album together, but the record label ran off with the money. My mama’s song was “I Don’t Care No More” and my daddy’s was “Baby Think It Over.” Boy, could they sing. And, as it turned out, I could, too.
What I wanted to be, as you’ll come to see, was a performer. I was meant for the stage. Singing and dancing came naturally to me, and I loved the feeling of giving something back to an audience. Music can make you feel safe and connected, and it can give you a reason to keep going through any struggle or hardship. Every time I sing and dance, I know I am helping someone. I help them feel less alone. I know this because I have felt alone. I have been consumed with the sense that I’m struggling solo, that no one else seems to understand the pain or challenges I’ve faced. But the truth is that we all go through bad times, just as we all go through good ones. None of us are alone in that. While my fans may not share my exact struggles and some may not deal with a serious illness like sickle cell disease, I believe there’s something everyone can take away from my story. There are different levels of pain, but pain is pain, even though we all handle it differently. It can hurt no matter where it comes from. But if you have a positive attitude and you embrace your own strength, it can help you get past that pain or learn how to cope with it.
My life story is very much linked to sickle cell disease, an incurable blood disorder. The disease, sometimes known as SCD, is hereditary, passed from parents to children in their genes. If a child is born with sickle cell, it means that they’ve inherited two abnormal hemoglobin genes, one from each parent. It’s not something you can catch or develop later in life; it’s with you from the moment you come into existence. Sickle cell disease changes the shape of your red blood cells. Instead of being round, like normal red blood cells, SCD cells are curved into a crescent shape (hence the term sickle) and can’t hold on to oxygen the right way. Because of this, the cells can’t get where they need to go, so you can have a stroke, suffer organ failure, or die. It’s the sort of thing some people have heard about, but no one ever really seems to know quite what it is.
Although you may not be that familiar with it, sickle cell disease is not uncommon. In fact, it is the most common genetic disorder in the US. About 100,000 Americans are thought to be living with sickle cell disease, and each year another 1,000 babies are born with it. The majority of patients are black (about 60 to 80 percent in total), but it can affect other races, including people of Indian and Middle Eastern descent.
There are three main types of sickle cell disease: sickle cell anemia, SC, and SS. Each of these can also be mixed with other blood disorders, such as beta-thalassemia, which creates variations on each. The one people usually have heard of is sickle cell anemia. Mine is a very specific type called sicklethal with arthritis, which is sickle cell type SC mixed with arthritis and beta-thalassemia, a blood disorder that reduces the production of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. I didn’t receive a correct diagnosis until I was 28 years old, which has always caused problems because doctors have never known how to help me.
When you have sickle cell, your red blood cells get stuck on their way around your veins, causing blockages and stopping the oxygen from getting to your vital organs. Where there’s a lack of oxygen, you can go into a crisis, an attack of severe pain, sometimes located only in a certain spot and sometimes all over your body. Often, it’s hard to breathe or walk or even do something as basic as holding a pen. A crisis can happen without any warning. Just, bam! You’re in the hospital again. If you go swimming, get on a plane, get caught in the rain, or experience a change in climate, you could fall ill. Even if I get really emotional or stressed out, a crisis can come on. Drinking alcohol thins your blood, as does flying on a plane, so that’s a no-no, too. You don’t always have to go to the hospital for a crisis, but if you can’t get it under control at home right away, it usually lands you in a hospital bed. And, of course, I picked a career that is a real no-no for sickle cell patients because I’m always active, always traveling, and always on planes and in different climates.
Sickle cell disease currently does not have a cure, although they have found ways of curing unborn children and, in some rare cases, patients under the age of 40. That’s the general cutoff because trying to cure someone as they get older, in most cases, can do more harm than good. That means there’s no cure for me—at least right now. It’s a lifelong disease and you have to manage it every single day. It’s a learning process, too. What can your body handle? What’s the breaking point? Each new experience, each new day, gives you a little more data on how to better survive. You figure out what works and what doesn’t, and then you move forward from there. And you’re always trying to figure out more because your body changes over time, and you’d be surprised how much doctors don’t know and don’t help. And honestly, some just don’t care.
You’d think I’d have it all figured out by now. But, if I’m telling the truth, it’s incredibly hard to live with this disease. It’s incredibly hard to live with any disease. With sickle cell, you don’t always know when a crisis is coming. One can arise at any time, in any place, totally debilitating you. Some days I wake up consumed by pain, which seems to manifest itself slightly differently every time. It’s like knives stabbing me over and over again in my joints. The invisible knives leave no place untouched except my fingers and toes. It’s impossible to function like that. Sometimes I can’t even hold a glass of water. Usually, when I’m in a lot of pain, I can’t walk. It hurts to lie down, but it hurts to sit up. Every breath I take throbs and each gasp of air comes in with a sharp twinge. I used to hate for my mom to carry me to the bathroom when I was sick as a kid, so I’d crawl there on all fours, no matter how much it hurt or how long it took. I was stubborn that way.
When you’re strong and have a high tolerance for pain like me and you don’t always act sick, you can go to the hospital in a crisis and sometimes the nurses will say, “Well, it doesn’t look like anything’s wrong.” They don’t always want to help you if you’re not screaming and crying and acting a fool. But my mom taught me to calm down. When you scream or move around or get agitated, the pain gets worse. So if you mentally try to stabilize yourself, it can help. Sometimes people think I have a hard exterior or that I’m putting on a face, but it’s not like that. When you have something so debilitating and so painful, you train yourself to stand strong and not complain and not look for any pity.
Maybe you can’t fathom what it’s like to feel the things I’ve felt—and that’s been true of people around me a lot—but I bet you can imagine why strength through anything tough is so important. It’s especially important if you have kids and they’re in the hospital with you. You don’t want your kids to know you think you might die. And there were some instances where I really could have died. I don’t want my daughter or my son to feel my pain. I’ve felt like I’m dying inside and I’ve had to keep a normal face on. It’s a double-edged sword, because I am afraid and I do need support, but I also understand that my own strength is essential, both for me and for those around me.
It can be especially scary because, as I’ve learned, a lot of doctors don’t know much about it. That’s true about most doctors when it comes to a lot of things, but they don’t want to admit it because it’s their job to know. Medicine is technically a science, but I’ve found much of it is actually just guesswork. They’ll stick a needle in you or give you a drug even if they’re not sure what it’s going to do. They treat the symptoms, not the cause. I’ve been very mistreated in hospitals over the years. A good doctor looks at the whole person, not just the disease. They learn your name, and they ask how you’re doing and find out your medical history. Good nurses do the same. They show kindness and they treat you like a person, not an object.
But when you spend as much time as I have in a hospital bed, you learn that some doctors and some nurses are not caring at all. When I was a child, during one particular hospital stay, I remember feeling really sick and not wanting to eat. My mama left to go to the lobby for 10 minutes and the nurse took it upon herself to force-feed me. She stood over me, a bite of liver in her hand.
“No,” I shook my head. “No, thank you.” Instead of listening to me, she pressed my mouth open and shoved the food into my throat. When my mom returned, she was furious. The nurse was fired for it, and to this day, I can’t stand liver.
I was turned from a patient into a guinea pig, especially when I was young. Doctors gave me all sorts of conflicting drugs, and I’ve been given drugs that constipate me and then drugs that act as a laxative. They’ve given me drugs that have made me break out, throw up, scratch my skin uncontrollably, and hallucinate; some almost stopped my heart. They loaded me with really powerful painkillers, which has been a nightmare. It’s put my body through so much. Sometimes I feel like the medication has done more harm than good.
There are three types of medication that work best for sickle cell to contain the pain. The strongest are Demerol, Dilaudid, and morphine. They administer them through a pump in your IV, usually every 15 minutes in little spurts, or through your actual IV every 4 to 6 hours. I itch on all three of them, because my body rejects pain medicine. Dilaudid has made me puke so hard that one of my ribs cracked, and it has almost stopped my heart and almost killed me, so it’s not an option. I’m allergic to morphine, which makes it pretty miserable. I see rats every time I take it, so they switched me over to Demerol. But after Michael Jackson died, that was taken off the market. It’s a really dangerous drug. It’s given people seizures and halted their heart from beating. So now I’m back on morphine when I’m in the hospital, and I have to deal with all the crazy side effects. The doctors give me Benadryl and something for my stomach so I won’t puke before taking the morphine. It’s a rock and a hard place—the pain from the disease or the misery of the drugs that are supposed to help you.
Because I’ve been given so many drugs in the hospital and had so many IVs, my veins are pretty burned out. The worst part is when they take you off the medication because you go through withdrawal. It’s important to wind down slowly, so they lower the dosage gradually. You have to deal with hot and cold flashes, shaking, crazy dreams, bad nerves—it’s the worst. Your body has to sweat out all the super-strong drugs you didn’t even want in the first place. It can be really traumatic, even though you get used to the process.
I have all this knowledge now, but no one knew anything in the ’70s when I was growing up—or in the ’80s or ’90s, for that matter. When I was a baby I cried all the time. No one could figure out why, and there wasn’t a lot of research available on genetic disorders like sickle cell back then. But my mom knew something wasn’t right. My early years were spent packing and unpacking a suitcase to go to the hospital in Des Moines. Even though we didn’t understand what my disease was yet, we got to know the signs of the sickness coming on. The pain would weave through my limbs and I’d cry and cry. Sometimes I’d get delirious and not know where I was. Other times my face would swell up really badly and I’d get super pale with pink lips and dark circles under my eyes.
My mom was there by my side the whole time, comforting me and holding my hand. She used to sing a melody using my name to calm me down. “I know a girl, a pretty lil’ girl, oh, Tionne, oh, Tionne Tenese,” my mama would croon. And it helped. She took me to get a special treat on the way to the hospital every time. Sometimes we went for sugar biscuits at Mustard’s, or to Smitty’s Donuts, or to Tasty Tacos. The food would make me forget about the pain and the fear, and for a few moments, the tears would ebb.
There were a lot of things that could bring on a crisis when I was a kid. By trial and error my mom figured out some of them: too much heat dehydrated me, and too much cold made me achy and my bones hold on to the low temperature. Swimming in a chilly pool or the ocean, drinking milk, playing in the snow, or getting something out of the freezer could all trigger a crisis. Stress, exhaustion, and fighting all messed me up, too. It felt like anything and everything could be a trigger.
In 1977, after years of illness and uncertainty, my mom took me back to Mercy Hospital in Des Moines. An Indian doctor, whose name I don’t remember, did a few tests. They’d been testing me since I was born, trying to figure out why I was always getting sick, but this time the doctor claimed to have found the reason.
“She has sickle cell anemia and allegetic arthritis,” he told my mom while I sat on the table. “It’s serious.”
“What does that mean?” my mom asked. I leaned forward. I wanted to know, too. Maybe he could get rid of all my pain.
“She won’t live past 30,” he explained, bluntly. “She can’t ever have children. She’s going to be disabled her entire life.”
I was only 7 years old, but I wasn’t too young to understand what he was saying. I looked around the room, staring at my mama and this doctor. Who was he talking about? This wasn’t my story. I was going to be a famous performer. He was clearly mistaken.
My mom saw my confusion. She put her hand on my arm and lowered herself to look into my eyes. “Don’t worry, honey,” she said confidently. “God has the last say-so in your life.”
That guy was the first doctor to be totally wrong, but certainly not the last. I knew better than to believe him, though. I was meant for something much bigger and much greater. I wasn’t going to be the victim of a disease he didn’t seem to know much about. I was going to be a star and no illness was going to get in my way.
Having this disease doesn’t have to be a death sentence, although you can die from it. It doesn’t mean your life can’t be well-lived and happy. I’m proof of that. Ever since I came clean to the public that I have sickle cell disease in the mid- ’90s, I’ve worked really hard to be an outspoken advocate for other sick people, especially kids. Doctors and medicine have come a long way since I was born, but there are still misconceptions about sickle cell. It’s not always an easy life, although some people on the outside might think so because I have a strong persona. But it’s possible to face those hard times head-on and survive.
This takes me to the other half of my story, which involves a very different version of the word sick. In TLC, I saw things and went places that most people can only dream of. TLC has released four albums since we formed in Atlanta, and we spent 2016 and 2017 making our fifth. We’ve had major successes and major struggles. There’s been birth, death, bankruptcy, feuds, and, most important, relatable songs and timeless music. So many times I’ve heard our song “Waterfalls” being played in a store or on a TV show or from a car window while I’m driving down the street or standing in an elevator. As I was suffering from the pain of sickle cell disease and as I was grappling to figure out how to live with it, I didn’t feel like I had to be defined by my illness. I’m a performer first, and I just happen to have a lifelong problem to deal with. Some of the most important moments of my life have arrived because of TLC.
Here are some examples of that. The two people who had the most musical influence on me were Michael Jackson and Prince. Throughout our career, I met both, which was seriously insane. I can still barely believe it. I even got to work with Michael Jackson when TLC performed at two of his Heal the World benefit shows, which was a dream come true. In 2000, TLC performed at Madison Square Garden, the holy grail of venues. It was sold out, which is a really big deal. During the show, we launched into our single “No Scrubs.” Suddenly, through the speakers came the twang of a guitar. It wasn’t one of our band’s guitars, but something about it sounded familiar. I turned around and it was Prince. I’d met him before that night, but I never imagined that he’d come up onstage with us. The reverberation of his guitar strings echoed around me and out into the crowd, urging a cheer from the audience, who were just as surprised as we were.
In that moment, I almost stopped singing. All I could think was, “This is not happening to me.” I forgot, for a moment, that I was T-Boz. I temporarily lost the knowledge that I was supposed to be a celebrity, too. I went into fan mode. I wasn’t Tionne on this stage, so I couldn’t get star-struck. I had to consciously breathe and remind myself to keep singing. I had to silently tell myself to get it together. And even though he was onstage with all of us, I felt like he was there with just me. At the end of the song, Prince just vanished. We kept performing. We didn’t even get a chance to speak to him after the show—he arrived and then disappeared, like a magician fading in and out of the room.
As you’ll see, the journey of TLC is an incredible one. I believe everything happens for a reason, and it seems like a lot of things lined up for us to become what we became. There are stories of rebellion, of delight, of triumph. We set out to be trendsetters and we did just that. We’ve toured the world, playing on massive stages in huge rooms to crowds of thousands. We’ve won awards and become a household name. Our fans from the ’90s have had children and have brought those children to our recent shows, making us a band for multiple generations. We were able to do it because we worked hard, cared a lot, and believed it was possible.
The music industry can be hard, too. TLC learned that early on. We lost a lot of money. The music business is exactly that—a business. You get to make meaningful art, but at the end of the day it’s about the bottom line. I signed my name to a contract at 19 years old that I was stuck to for years against my will. I was subservient to what other people thought was best for me and for TLC. People in this industry want to exploit you and exploit your talent, and you have to learn not to let them. I almost threw in the towel on music more than once. TLC had great successes, but we also had some failures, too. And worst of all, we lost one of our own, a tragedy that lingers with me to this day.
I’m a person who is afflicted with disease. Sickle cell hasn’t been the only health scare I’ve dealt with. But the slang version of the word sick means something else, “awesome” or “excellent.” My life, as hard as some of it has been, has been incredible. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. So to say I’ve had a sick life is twofold: I’ve been in and out of the hospitals, but my life has also been awesome. I have these two stories converging into one, where sometimes I’m Tionne and sometimes I’m T-Boz.
But the truth is that both of these women are the same person. We’re both mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, artists, and survivors. We both know that it takes hard work to succeed and that giving up is never an option. We also both know that after the darkness there is always light. It can be hard to see in the moment when you feel trapped and blinded, but it’s there, waiting to shine in. You have to have faith that the light will come. When I’m sick, I always take myself to a peaceful place. I love water, so I imagine a cave of three waterfalls and a stream that takes you to a beautiful beach. It’s calm and quiet, and it helps me remember that everything will be okay.
I was given a death sentence of 30 years old. I lived past it. I was given another death sentence, by another doctor, of 45 years old. I lived past that one, too. I was never supposed to have children, and my daughter Chase is now a teenager. I recently adopted a son from birth named Chance. I was told I’d be disabled my entire life, but I still get onstage and perform my heart out every month. So no one can tell you what you’re going to be. Only you and God know your path, and like my mama said, he has the last say-so.
What makes you keep going when your body continually fails you? Why do you stand up again and again and keep trying to survive? For myself, it’s for many reasons: for love, for my daughter, for my son, for my family, for music, for the fans. I’ve always kept standing back up, no matter what obstacle was placed in front of me, because that’s the only thing you can do. And if I can do that, after all these years, anyone can. The truth is that anything you really want in life is never easy—but it’s worth it.
When I was first starting out as a performer, before TLC blew up, I was working on my dance moves with my friend Devyne Stephens, who is a choreographer.
“Tionne,” he asked, “do you know what a true choreographer is?”
“No,” I said. “What is it?”
“It’s not a person who learns a dance and teaches it to another,” he told me. “It’s a person who creates the dance and makes the world follow.”
“Well, that’s what I’m going to be,” I confirmed. And I thought about it. I wanted to be a true choreographer. Someone who could create and make the world follow. When you’re an artist, you want to be a trendsetter. Or, at least, the best artists do. I wanted to be successful like Michael Jackson or Prince, but still be known for being myself. I always want to reach for the top in everything I do, whether it’s writing new music or creating a music video or even writing a book. I embraced that idea throughout TLC’s career. I created the dances for some of our biggest hits, like “Waterfalls,” “What about Your Friends,” and “Creep.” They became iconic. And like Devyne said, I got to watch the world do those dances. He really helped me with my confidence as a performer and as a dancer, and I saw the proof of my work linger with our fans.
When I was born, anything was possible. The world was limitless. But I struck out on my own path and chose my own way. I was wholly myself throughout all of it. I may not have always shared my stories with the public or opened the curtain completely, but I’ve never deviated from who I am as both Tionne and as T-Boz. That is the key. You should always be who you are. Just because none of the girls are wearing baggy pants and dancing with the guys doesn’t mean you can’t. Just because the music industry expects women to sex themselves up to sell music doesn’t mean you have to. Just because the doctors tell you that you’ll die doesn’t mean you will. You get to choreograph your own life. And if you do that, if you make the moves your way, the world will follow.