The Harsh Reality of Living with an Autoimmune Disease

As defined by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, an autoimmune disease is “an illness that causes the immune system to produce antibodies that attack normal body tissues. Autoimmune is when your body attacks itself. It sees a part of your body or a process as a disease and tries to combat it.” Today, about 50 million Americans suffer from an autoimmune disease and that number continues to rise. Autoimmune diseases are a major health concern that often go unnoticed and untreated; they are one of the top 10 leading causes of death for female children and women in all age groups up to 64. As the prevalence of these chronic, often invisible illnesses continues to rise, I believe it’s important that those of us that suffer from an AD share our stories. This is my harsh reality of living with an autoimmune disease. 

I’ve always had a terrible immune system. I was that kid in school who would end up missing half of the school days in winter because every time a classmate got sick, I would catch it. My family had always just assumed I had a poor immune system and that I was just incredibly unfortunate, but we never questioned it. That all changed when I began college and I became increasingly sick. Not only was my immune system at its worst, but I was constantly cold with blue fingers and toes and suffering from severe depression and fatigue. It was a struggle on a daily basis to get out of bed, both mentally and physically. 

After struggling through my freshman year of college, I finally went to see a specialist and was diagnosed with Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, and as a result, hypothyroidism. Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the thyroid gland, which can lead to a number of symptoms ranging from mild to life-threatening if left untreated. About 14 million Americans have Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, making it the most common thyroid disease. All of my symptoms were finally explained with this diagnosis and I began treatment for Hashimotos and my high thyroid levels. Within weeks, I felt so much better. My energy levels returned, I was no longer shivering and shaking in 70-degree weather and I even noticed my mental health improve. 

While it was great to finally have answers and begin to feel better, the medication could only help control my symptoms. Hashimotos is treatable but incurable. Although the medication and a gluten-free, dairy-free diet help to control the side effects associated with a dysfunctional thyroid gland, I still struggle on a daily basis. It’s difficult having to conform my life to the limitations brought forth from my illness, but in order to stay healthy, I have to take certain precautions when it comes to my diet, exercise and overall lifestyle. 

Living with an autoimmune disease isn’t easy. It’s waking up after sleeping for 17 hours straight and still being exhausted. It’s wearing sweatshirts and jackets in the summer because you are too cold but getting nauseous and dizzy when you get overheated. It’s not getting out of bed for days on end because not only are you depressed beyond belief but your body physically doesn’t have the strength to make it through a day of classes. It’s the fear of not being able to have children someday because Hashimoto's can lead to fertility problems. It’s knowing that you will be on medication for the rest of your life. 

Autoimmune diseases are a lifelong struggle. More than seven percent of the population suffers from an autoimmune disease, yet they remain one of the least understood and underfunded areas of study in the world of medicine. Those of us that suffer from an autoimmune disease know that it is an everyday battle that others can’t truly understand. Hopefully, with time, individuals living with autoimmune diseases will feel more comfortable sharing their stories. I share my story with the hope that further discussion of autoimmune diseases will eventually lead to increased research and possibly prevent or cure these diseases in the future.