woman crouching against bed in pain or agony

The most recent issue of Washingtonian magazine includes an article called “The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness,” by Sarah Ramey. The article is an excerpt from her memoir (which will be released next month, and has the same title) about her persistent, unexplained health troubles. In the article, Ramey explains that she used to feel that she was the only one with a mysterious, debilitating illness that affected multiple parts of her body. Then she discovered that there were many others, as she writes, “in the club.”

Moreover, she observes that these club members all seem to be female. Here’s what she writes about these women, herself included:

“You most likely know one of us already—a coworker, an aunt, a sister—some beleaguered old girl endlessly dealing with her health issues. . . . She’ll be reluctant to talk about the particulars but noticeably lacking in a solid diagnosis. Most people privately agree she actually suffers from an acute case of hypochondria.”

My mysterious illness is different than Ramey’s, but, like her, I can’t help but notice that something is out of whack in my body. And it’s affecting my ability to function—to do my job and live my life. I have two nonmysterious illnesses—a concussion I’m still healing from, and a long-ago repetitive strain injury in both arms and hands that has long since healed—but then I have this mysterious, undiagnosed thing I get while I’m sleeping. I wake up, and I can’t use the computer, or I can’t walk, because I have tensed my muscles, unconsciously, overnight, to the point of injury.

I have gone to two doctor appointments every day this week. Many of them are holistic providers who are trained in helping people overcome the anxiety (read: fear) that’s wreaking havoc on their bodies. Many of them are also trained in helping with the actual injuries I sustained in my head and arms/hands.

These providers are helping me immensely. What’s also helping me immensely is looking back on the years I have been suffering from this mysterious illness, and thinking about what works and what doesn’t.

So what works? Working my ass off trying to solve my own problem: by reading books and articles, not being afraid to visit multiple providers for second and third opinions, and being open to trying techniques that scare me or have a reputation of being hokum. Being relentless in asking (different) friends to hang out with me every day. Walking around with confidence, trusting in the universe. And praying to a god that I’m not sure I believe in.

I listened to a podcast recently that featured an expert on fear. She explained that fear can be (1) fear of losing control, or (2) fear of not being good enough. The techniques I listed above seem to hit these items. Taking control of my health by visiting as many providers as possible, and reading up as much as I can on my condition. Being good enough by surrounding myself with friends who love me and forcing myself to be confident and trusting that a higher power is there to help me.

And this brings me back to Ramey’s article. Is there something about being female that can be toxic to one’s health? From girlhood, we are taught to cede control to others, and to seek unattainable perfection in ourselves. If those are the qualities that lead to anxiety (read: fear), is it any wonder that it tends to be women who are affected with mysterious illnesses?

And if this is true, it’s a guidebook for healing. Women, take control of your life. And find ways of convincing yourself that you are good enough. That’s what I’m trying to do. And it seems to be working! Stay tuned. And please leave a comment, and let me know what you think of all of this. Love you all. Thanks for reading.

(Oh, and I obviously don’t mean to imply that no man can have a mysterious illness, or that all women do. There do, however, seem to be societal trends.)

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