“What’s Wrong With Me?” On Autoimmune Disease c/o the New Yorker

Because I had read that autoimmune conditions could be triggered by chemical exposure and by diet—some thyroid patients are sensitive to gluten, which can exacerbate their symptoms—I became hyperconscious of what I ate and what I exposed myself to. On more than one coffee date, walking through the leafy streets of Fort Greene, my friend Gina and I talked about the mysteries of chronic illness. “How are you doing?” she asked one morning. “I don’t know if I can take this anymore,” I told her. “I just want to get better. I want to go for a day without thinking about my body.”

A common symptom of autoimmune diseases is debilitating fatigue. Complaining of fatigue sounds like moral weakness; in New York City, tired is normal. But autoimmune fatigue is different from a sleep-deprived person’s exhaustion. The worst part of my fatigue, the one I couldn’t explain to anyone—I knew I’d seem crazy—was the loss of an intact sense of self.

It wasn’t just that I suffered brain fog (a usual autoimmune symptom); and it wasn’t just the “loss of self” that sociologists talk about in connection with chronic illness, where everything you know about yourself disappears, and you have to build a different life. It was that I no longer had the sense that I was a distinct person. Taking the subway to N.Y.U., where I taught, I felt like a mechanism that moved arduously through the world, simply trying to complete its tasks. Sitting upright at my father’s birthday dinner required a huge act of will. Normally, absorption in a task—an immersive flow—can lead you to forget that you feel sick, but my fatigue made such a state impossible. I might, at the nadir of my illness, have been able to write one of these sentences, but I would not have been able to make paragraphs of them.

To be sick in this way is to have the unpleasant feeling that you are impersonating yourself. When you’re sick, the act of living is more act than living. Healthy people, as you’re painfully aware, have the luxury of forgetting that our existence depends on a cascade of precise cellular interactions. Not you…

… And so the person suffering from chronic illness faces a difficult balancing act. You have to be an advocate for yourself in the face of medical ignorance, indifference, arrogance, and a lack of training. (A 2004 Johns Hopkins study found that nearly two-thirds of doctors surveyed felt inadequately trained in the care of the chronically ill.) You can’t be deterred when you know something’s wrong. But you’ve also got to be willing to ask how much is in your head—and whether an obsessive attention to your symptoms is going to lead you to better health. The chronically ill patient has to hold in mind two contradictory modes: insistence on the reality of her disease, and resistance to her own catastrophic fears.

Full article here.

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