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March 22, 2018

Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month

I’m one of the over 50 million Americans who has an autoimmune disease, and even I didn’t know that March was Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month till someone I follow posted it on Twitter. There are over a hundred autoimmune diseases, and some of them are pretty nasty. I have one of the middling nasty ones, Sjögren’s syndrome, which does make life difficult some days.

An autoimmune disease is the result of the body’s own immune system attacking itself.  The different diseases attack different organs or systems, and that’s the main difference between them. But there is a lot of overlap.

Many people I love are in the same autoimmune boat, with diseases ranging from type 1 diabetes to lupus to psoriasis to Hashimoto’s disease.  We have some different symptoms, but the one thing we all have in common is that our diseases are invisible.

Most of the time we don’t look sick, but believe me, there are days when the pain is close to unbearable. And I’m used to a lot of pain because I had endometriosis for over 30 years. While the endo is not seen as an autoimmune disease, women who have had it are at a higher risk for the autoimmune diseases lupus, Sjögren’s, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

I learned in high school to get up, dress up, show up and live. My friends know that the brighter my lipstick, the worse I feel. Many days during my fertile years, I was tempted to stay in bed, curled into a ball. But how much life would I have missed had I done that? Oh, there were days that I didn’t get out of bed, but not as many as I would have liked.

I also know, though, that I have been blessed with a high pain tolerance and a strong sense of “get on with it.” As I joke, my mom went to the “Attila the Hun School of Mothering.” Seriously, though, we were taught to never complain, never make excuses, never drop the ball. It was difficult, and it wouldn’t pass muster as a parenting ideal today, but it made me who I am.

But that doesn’t mean I raised my son the same way, and it doesn’t mean I am unsympathetic to those who take a day off and stay in bed. In fact, one of the things I’ve had to learn is self-care.

Because many of our diseases are invisible, when you see us out on the street, you probably don’t know we’re sick.

That’s why I love the young celebrities who are talking about what’s wrong with them. When Daisy Ridley announced she had endometriosis, I was so sorry for her (it’s a pretty horrible disease that took me six years to get diagnosed), but happy that she put a face on the illness. Lena Dunham also has endo and has also raised awareness.

Selena Gomez has suffered greatly from her lupus, but being open about it has helped many young people understand more about it. Other public figures who talk about their lupus are Lady Gaga, Toni Braxton, and Seal, Sjögren’s is very close to lupus, so now when I say, “it’s like lupus,” more people know what I’m talking about.

Venus Williams, one of the greatest tennis players ever, is a fellow Sjögren’s patient. I keep telling myself, look at Venus. If she can do it…. Of course, she’s 20 years younger than me with a body that’s a well-honed instrument.

One reason that it’s important to raise awareness is that these are diseases that can take a very long time to diagnose. It takes an average of about three years for a Sjögren’s diagnosis. I was diagnosed in less than a year, only because I had an early lifetime of doctor’s poo-pooing my symptoms. Young people who complain of pain are routinely ignored. Women who complain of pain are routinely ignored.

My doctor did send me for a Hashimoto test because I’m overweight, and my brother has it, but when that test came back negative, as did a diabetes test, he thought I was just depressed. Depression is a symptom of many autoimmune diseases, but I’ve been depressed, and that wasn’t my main problem. I was so tired that I was falling asleep driving. That’s not depression.

I was relentless and kept pushing him. He finally sent me to a psychiatrist (for the depression), who asked me about four questions, and said, “You have Sjögren’s syndrome.” Symptoms my GP had chalked off to other things were immediately spotted by Dr. Atkinson.

He was an older doctor, so more experienced, but he also gets sent many autoimmune disease sufferers when their doctors can’t find a cause and get frustrated.

I don’t actually blame my GP for not spotting what was wrong with me. But he did get annoyed with me, and he did give up on me, and for that I’m a little more unforgiving.

Insurance companies make it difficult to root out autoimmune diseases, as well. Once something comes up positive, they are more than happy to stop looking, even though the cause of the illness isn’t found. It’s easy to say we have depression or exhaustion or or or.

I’m sure you haven’t read this far if you don’t suspect you have an autoimmune disease. If you think that, be relentless with your doctors. Know that it may take years to get a diagnosis. But most important, know that you are not alone.

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