Natalie is a very goal-oriented, adventure-seeking, well poised young woman. She also has that laid-back but tough vibe. An invisible illness is an illness that is not apparent or obvious. Looking at Natalie, you would see many other qualities about her and never jump to an illness. However, she has Lupus.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that causes fevers, joint pain, fatigue, rashes, mouth ulcers, hair loss, sensitivity to the sun, pain and a wide range of various symptoms caused by your immune system attacking your healthy cells. Lupus comes in flares. It also must be managed and under control or it can be very scary and complicated, especially if your flare consists of a vital organ.
As you can imagine, Lupus is hard to diagnose with so many symptoms. When you are not currently experiencing a flare, your blood work levels can look normal at that time. Getting in with specialists can take a long time as well. This also makes it complicated for diagnosis. There are twelve million misdiagnosis per year. Natalie shares her story in hopes of raising awareness and helping others in the same boat.
What is your official diagnosis and when were you diagnosed?
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). I was diagnosed about 2 ½ years ago with Discoid Lupus, but my doctor warned me that SLE was still a possibility. About a year after that, a flare up landed me in the ICU; after seeing several different doctors, I was diagnosed with SLE.
Looking back, how long where you having symptoms before you got diagnosed?
At least a year or two. I had skin legions on my head and every doctor I saw diagnosed it as a fungus. After being on serious systemic fungal medications and seeing no change, I finally found a dermatologist who biopsied and diagnosed my legions. I always dismissed the joint pain as a side effect of being in the service industry for so long, but it turns out that my immune system was attacking my joints. I thought it was normal for people to be exhausted all the time, turns out it’s a symptom called “chronic fatigue.”
What do you do to keep your symptoms managed?
The most important thing that I had to learn was stress management. I quit the job that I hated. I’ve ended several relationships that caused me more stress than happiness. I learned how to either avoid stressful situations or take them in stride, rather than let them consume me. I wear sunscreen every day and do my best to cover up when I’m in the sun. One of the symptoms of lupus is being extremely photosensitive. Not only do I burn very easily, but it contributes to my other symptoms. A day in the sun usually means a few days of chronic fatigue and worse than usual joint pain. I try to get appropriate rest. Sometimes I have to bail on something I really wanted to do so I don’t push myself too hard and end up sick. It’s all about knowing your body and understanding your flare ups.
What advice could you offer to someone who is currently struggling with the same illness?
Keep a diary of symptoms so you can understand what leads to flare ups in order to try to prevent them. Don’t push yourself when you’re not feeling well, and certainly don’t let anyone make you feel bad for taking care of yourself first. Don’t let it hold you back though. I still enjoy all my outdoor hobbies, I just cover up and wear sunscreen. I’m still a career woman in a stressful field, I just manage my stress well. Most importantly, I would say not to waste time with people who are dismissive of your disease.
What is the scariest moment you have experienced because of your illness?
The time I ended up in the ICU. I woke up with a sore throat, and 10 hours later I couldn’t swallow, and was having trouble breathing. I had a simple cold but my immune system attacked my lymph nodes. I spent 3 days in the hospital on a high dose of steroids. I couldn’t eat or drink for a few days, and still had trouble for a while after that. While in the hospital I saw multiple hospitalists, my personal physician, an ENT doctor, a rheumatologist, and even an infectious disease doctor. They ran every test imaginable and just came back with the response, “looks like it was lupus”. It was by far the most painful and frightening experience of my life. Every time I get sick I worry if I’ll end up in that same situation again, or worse.
How do people react when they discover you have an invisible illness and how does that make you feel?
Most people don’t know what Lupus is, or they have some hazy image in their mind from episodes of House. For the most part, people are dismissive or just don’t understand. I think because you look happy, healthy, and young, they just assume that it’s not a big deal or not real. People often tell me that they’re “sorry.” I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. My life is pretty great, I just have an autoimmune disease that I have to live with. It’s really disappointing when people are dismissive of my symptoms. I don’t like or need anyone’s sympathy, but sometimes I would like to be able to rant about how terrible I feel without feeling judged or trivialized. I don’t like being held back by anything, so I get rather upset when a flare up causes me to call out of work, or bail on something that I want to do. It helps to be able to talk about it sometimes.
What way can others show support to someone with an invisible illness?
Just listen to us and try to be understanding. We know how to take care of ourselves, but sometimes it’s frustrating and overwhelming and we need a shoulder to cry on. If you’re in a relationship with someone who struggles with an invisible illness you should read up about it and be there for them as best you can. Don’t downplay or ignore their symptoms. Personally, I feel like laughter is the best medicine. My friends will make jokes about me being a vampire or how I need to start carrying a parasol. I much prefer that over someone telling me how sorry they are or being treated like I’m fragile.
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. -Hunter S. Thompson
Three things you can’t live without:
Great food, great friends, and my dog.
What are your goals? Where do you see yourself in five years?
Haha, I have a ton of goals! Anyone that knows me would describe me as very goal oriented. My goals are a little different than most because I’m not going to have children. In five years, I want to own my own home somewhere close to the water. Preferably on a creek somewhere in Melbourne. I plan on being very successful in my career. I’m working on getting in shape, so in five years I plan to be on a great work-out routine and to be healthy and fit. I just recently completed my dive certification which was one of my goals. Now I want to have all the certifications I need to be able to dive wrecks and caves. I plan to be travelling a lot and exploring beautiful new places as much as work will allow.
*Photos taken at Traditionals Cuts, Shaves and Brews in Eau Gallie Arts District (Melbourne, Florida) by Misti Blu