It just occurred to me that I have a rare disease. 

I guess it would be more accurate to say that the weight of having a rare disease just hit me. It landed on me like a bucket of green slime from Nickelodeon in the 1990s, with potentially a crowd full of people pointing at me saying “Ew!” I feel heavy, awkward and alone. Maybe that’s why I never let myself feel this way before. There is incredible impact as I accept that I do not have anyone else to share my experience with who actually gets it in their own body. 

Whew. Deep breath.

I was fortunate to give an Ignite! talk at Medicine X at Stanford in September. One of the ePatients there asked to interview me for a storytelling and podcast project she was working on about people with rare disease. I hesitated and said, “I’m not sure how much I know about this topic.” I hadn’t thought about it much. As she asked me questions one by one, it began to sink in. Tightness in my throat. Difficulty breathing. Confusion on my face. All of a sudden this thought bubble passed over my head: Whoa, I actually have a rare disease.

For the first time I started thinking back at my illness experience, and it was like all the puzzle pieces started to fit together.

• Hanging out with pregnant women at parties because they weren’t drinking either … not my group, but as close as I can get to community in this situation.

• Getting glasses of champagne at weddings, and pretending to toast while inside feeling sorry for myself … no one else was struggling like this right?

• Joining a yoga for cancer survivors class … I didn’t have cancer, but at least they included me so I would have someplace to go that was physically at my level and supportive of working through illness. Otherwise, I’d be on my own.

• Being told by a nurse at my liver biopsy that I probably had hepatitis C because she could see I had a tattoo, and people get hepatitis C from dirty needles used in tattooing. I don’t have hepatitis C, but at least those are other people that know what liver disease is like. 

• Watching people hemorrhage from ruptured esophageal varcies while I worked in hospice as a counselor, wondering if I would die like that. I realized there was no one else I knew at age 30 who was thinking about this that I could talk to. 

A series of loss. Of not being seen. Of people not getting it. Of being understood for little parts of my experience, but not all.

I come back to the present moment … she’s saying “some people with rare disease say they feel special.”


I love being special. My family has always told me I’m special, which has its pros and its expectations both. I do not want to be special right now. I yearn to have someone get my experience. To say “me too” and honestly understand what it’s like to have autoimmune hepatitis.

I remember my liver specialist saying to me it’s not good to be interesting to a physician. And that I was very interesting.

Special. Interesting. Translation: alone.

My new awareness of rare disease began in September, and it’s taken me until now to write about it. In fact, I had stopped blogging all together after the first tidal wave hit. But now I think, maybe other people feel the same way.

Sometimes we accept our diseases in layers, so that we can tolerate the gravity without imploding. So that we can survive. And then we grow and learn with our bodies for the rest of our lives.

Hmm, I guess I do have a rare disease. I guess this is what it feels like to have one. And I guess that the rare disease community is my community. A group of medical misfits. Each one alone in our experience. And by being alone, that means we have each other. What a paradox. By not fitting in, I fit in. 

Relief. Through my realization of having a rare disease, I can now seek out other people with rare disease who get my experience. Not of autoimmune hepatitis, but of what I wrote above. Of feeling like the only one. Together a bunch of us who feel like we have no one have a community of each other.

Special. Interesting. New translation: community.      

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.  

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images


I already have a diagnosis of autoimmune hepatitis, but in conjunction I have had (from the beginning) pancytopenia, or low blood count of cells. After a recent liver biopsy, the good news was that my liver damage has not increased, however that left the continued question of what is going on with my blood count if it’s not related to my liver. There is so much conflict in our process of being medical anomalies. I was told by one of my specialist that it is never good to be “interesting” to a doctor, and I, unfortunately have proven to be quite interesting.

Every piece of good news saying I do not have an additional diagnosis immediately leads to an additional question of what, then, can describe my numbers. What’s actually going on in the data? Results are helpful and meaningless all at the same time. Sometimes we defy labels. Rare disease leaves us unlabeled.

I was told a bone marrow biopsy would be suggested, to see if “something else was going on.” I wrote this piece in response to this recent procedure. I feel better than I have in years, yet my numbers said I needed another biopsy. It is confusing to know where the truth lives, in my experience or in a diagnostic report. There are many versions of pain and relief.



The fatty network of connective tissue that fills the cavities of bones.


The most essential or most vital part of some idea or experience.

Bone marrow biopsy
Bore out my vitality in a thread
Cherry red on the petri dish
The pain is excruciating
I don’t want you to see my most essential part
Taking a microscope to look at my essence

One more “first”
Anticipation of pain
A needle to my center
Sucks the heart
Leaves an absence
Deep aching left in the wake

It is a violation.
Perhaps the cavities of my bones will reveal
my pith to be altered
Maybe you will see
That I’m not at my core who you think I am
All pretenses and projections will be blown

The truth will be revealed
Perhaps it will be a relief, I don’t have to act any longer
You’ll see I’m broken, less-than, deformed, mutated, or otherwise not normal
And I’ll have to stop pretending.
Perhaps it will be my next greatest challenge, and I’ll have to show up even more
You’ll see I’m clear, resilient, scaffolded, filled with super-cells ready for action
And I’ll have to stop pretending.

Relief has many forms.
The line between positive and negative degrades to truth
This is more complex than results on paper
Because it is comprised of experience

The results will mean nothing and everything
They tell me and everyone else who I am
Yet say nothing about my hopes, desires and capacity to love.
A life lived anchored in marrow.

I often wonder if I am strong enough for what I want to accomplish in this life.

And now some of that strength will be removed
And then it will grow back fiercer
With renewed vigor
Intensely recommitted to being vital
To living out it’s impact and purpose
Perhaps I should say thank you
Thank you for removing a burdened cross-section
So that resolved vitality can replace it

With one more part of me removed… who am I now?

Today I want to celebrate. And the truth is, I’m too exhausted. Too tired to celebrate or feel satisfied.

I have crawled across some make-believe finish line of the past month, which has left me tattered and torn, strewn on the ground reaching for a cup of water.

In the fantasy of my mind I thought I’d be standing on a podium of my own achievement, medal in hand, adoring crowd, with everyone aware of what I’ve accomplished and done. Oh, doesn’t that feel good? I can feel the perfect beam of sunlight landing on my face now, lighting me up and I’m able to take it all in. (In this scenario I think my skin is even sparkling a bit, like one of those vampires, and also I have a dress made out of fire, like in “Hunger Games.”) So magnificent.

My glory moment of surviving the last month with autoimmune hepatitis.

It’s what I deserve, to be seen.

But unfortunately, there’s no podium, no medal, no crowd.

I feel like I just pulled back the curtain to see the wizard is actually just human. I’m just human. And no one seems to notice. In the scenario of what feels like a reality, I’m standing on 5th avenue in NYC asking for food, and everyone passes me by without looking. Cold, grey, uncaring.

Let me make this clear — this is not the glory moment I wanted. I’ve been trained for awards and applause, sparkles and fire. And instead it feels like I’m getting a broken wizard and grey blah.

In truth, today, my glory moment is unexpectedly quiet. I’m being offered time alone to celebrate, quietly, with myself.

I’m the only one who really knows what I’ve survived this past month.

And I’m the only one who can truly see it.


Two times in the hospital.

Medical bills that make my head spin.

One job I work to have health insurance, which destroys my soul a little each time I go there.

A doctor appointment with great news.

And foreshadowing of more challenging procedures to come.

Three presentations at major conferences, one at a university.

Talking about things I hold so dearly to my heart.


More hours spent with my person than I could’ve hoped possible.

Quality time with family and friends.

A brave decision to give myself more space and time by lowering a commitment.

Feeling broken, filled back up, broken, full, broken, full.

The brilliance of a fleeting moment being in the present.

And yet, it’s not enough.

I want more.

I want someone to see me!

Don’t you? I want the crowd!

I want people to really know what I’ve gone through, as if they were somehow me. People who really get it. To tell me they’re proud of me. Oh, I feel how I crave it.

But the truth is, it does not matter who sees me if I can’t see myself.

I’m the only one who will really know what it’s like to be me. If I can’t breathe, take in the joy and the pain of surviving another month in this body, in this lifetime, no one else is going to be able to make me feel that. I get to do this for myself. 

So I accept what is right before me. A day of personal silence and quiet, to tell myself I’ve done so well. To sleep in, meditate, write… do some movement, eat my favorite foods. To tuck in with a cup of tea and say, dear one, I’m so proud of you.

And as I do this, I realize all the people that have actually told me this over the past month. But I couldn’t hear it yet, because I hadn’t told myself. I needed to believe it first. If I didn’t believe in myself first, no one else is going to be able to say it in a way that I could believe it.

We need to see ourselves first before we can take the “good stuff” in from anyone else.

Don’t worry, I totally get it. Seeing ourselves for our accomplishments can be the hardest thing.

So today, would you be willing to try to say: hey self, good job! To see yourself, just about one little thing? I know you did something worth being seen for. Getting out of bed, organizing a closet. Maybe it feels funny, or fake, but I’ll try it with you. We can tell ourselves together, OK?

Because when we see ourselves, we can let in more from everyone else too.

I reach into my purse and pull out a piece of paper. It’s a remnant from my doctor’s appointment yesterday, my most recent check-up. White, crisp data. Simple numbers distributed on a page in an orderly fashion. It is so clear to me these numbers and letters don’t possess feelings. My name is at the top, my birthdate and age: 34 years. Thirty-four years. I feel like I’ve lived several lifetimes in these years ­— in the last five alone. It’s dizzying. I notice sorrow creep into my belly. I sigh.

It’s just a piece of inked paper, but for me it is a constellation of cycles of diagnosis and recovery. What’s in a diagnosis? How is a diagnosis acted upon by time, by five years of time?

It’s about to be solstice, the day with the least amount of sunlight, and most darkness. I’ve allowed in both the darkness and the light, because it’s all true. To try to deny any part would be futile. I believe it’s all part of me, stardust, the universe, trying to experience itself in this unique embodied form, in this lifetime, in this human body —this seemingly broken body that I’ve painstakingly put back together again, one tear and laugh at a time. The white paper says: today’s clinical visit summary.

It’s about to be the new year. A new year, as if things change in a day. I guess sometimes they do. On New Years five years ago I was flying to India, intuitively knowing I had to go to shift my life. I was seeking and finding no answers here. So what do privileged people from Boulder do when that happens? Go to India. Go somewhere else to find yourself, to find the part of yourself you already know to be true, but you’re terrified about accepting, so you give yourself a glamorous and culturally-appropriated intervention. Thus, I went to India, because I had an intuitive hit from my future self that I needed help to shift. And I sat in temples and meditated and frivolously stated that I was open to whatever help I would receive. “I’m open.” Just help. Guess I should have been more specific. I started feeling ill two weeks later on the flight home. The white paper says: trip to India is seemingly unrelated.

Now, it’s about to be my birthday — 35. I feel like a crone. I’m not trying to be funny here; archetypically I feel like a crone. Metaphorically, I’ve spent the last five years contracted in winter, and am just now crawling out to feel the rays of sunshine pierce my inner seed. I’ve been under a blanket of snow while my purpose has been working on me. On the outside it looks like I’ve been sparkling, like I’m the model patient, like I’ve triumphed over incredible illness. True. In my past life as an actress I painted on the face; as a patient, I added the smile.

Underneath the surface I went from professional seeker of the silver lining to professional griever. 

I’ve grieved, and grieved, and grieved. I’ve lost, and let go: of my past I didn’t want, of my past I didn’t get, of my future that can’t be my future anymore, of my future that will be, but I’m scared to own. The white paper says: next check-up in three months.

So on this upcoming birthday, as with every birthday, I will have gratitude to be taking another breath, because it is precious. And I will have fear, as with every birthday, of what I will become in this year. Both the potential for another shattering, and the potential for stepping more fully into my expansion. I feel exhausted by the freedom of choice and responsibility that comes with being authentically human. And my specific version of human is to burn brightly, but not burn out, or more accurately, to not burn out again. So what will I become this year as I continue to step into my purpose?

Let’s not forget this piece of paper with scattered data in my hand. This paper tells the tale, of diagnosis, of feeling fragmented, of it not being fair, of slow improvement yet continual destruction over time. It says autoimmune hepatitis, pancytopenia, enlarged spleen. It says to continue Prograf. I feel my doctor’s thoughts pour through the page as he typed the numbers, “You haven’t let your liver disease define you. That’s as rare as your disorder.” There’s the prescription he stapled to the back for a new blood test to see the level of my liver damage. The word “cirrhosis” bleeds from the page and takes flight in the air, and my liver increases its weight in my abdomen.

In the unspoken white of this paper are five years of heartache, pain, not being seen, acceptance, grasping, identity, new identity, discovery, joy. I don’t want to be sick. But I don’t know how to be healthy.

And who am I now? 

Of solstices, New Years and birthdays, of that which dies away and creates new space. Of slowing down, feeling the anxious beating of my heart in my chest at night, because I don’t have time to waste. I could die at any moment. And then there’s another breath. Follow it.

I wonder, how does the seed know about gravity, or how to find the sun, or which way is up? How does it know where to put down roots and where to grow, or where to hold true or expand?

And I wonder, how do I write about this experience, own my experience, and continue to live my experience in a way that can inspire others who are in their own crisis?

I don’t know. I guess I just continue to be.

So I neatly fold the prescription and the piece of paper, and place it delicately in my purse, with reverence, because it holds the last five years of my history. And I find my hand on my heart sensing for my next breath. My cells, my family, my liver, my relationships, the earth beneath my feet, the stars over my head, the seed of my purpose — it all holds my history.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Follow this journey on Zina Mercil

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

“What do you do?” A simple question that I find extremely complicated to answer these days. I can tell you what I have done: traveled by raft down wilderness rivers, rock climbed, backpacked through the Rockies, and mountain biked down ski slopes. I can explain my undergraduate and my master’s degrees, tell you about traveling to all 50 states and 21 countries. If you want to know about my career, I can tell you I was a naturalist, a rainforest ecologist, a paleontologist and a science teacher.

It doesn’t take long for the listener to notice that the verbs and titles I use are all in past tense. Why? What I do in the present tense makes a poor conversation starter, especially if you don’t know what I was. Right now, what I do is take care of my body, manage my health well enough to lovingly care for and nurture my two 9-year-old sons. I’m learning to care for my body as if it is my third child that must get to bed on time or she will fall asleep at the restaurant, or be unable to walk to the car from the furthest corner of the zoo if I ignore when she cries “My feet hurt, can we please stop walking!” I take my body to the pool to ensure it gets exercise to preserve my strength and range of motion of body parts. Also, a great deal of my time is spent preparing nutritious food I can tolerate, that don’t exacerbate inflammation, and that taste great, since eating is already a chore due to chronic abdominal pain and lack of an appetite. Like feeding a picky toddler, I have to delicately coax myself to get in enough calories to live.  

Why? They are probably wondering why a 38-year-old athletic-looking woman who did so many amazing things spends most of her time taking care of herself as if she is a child? Because starting around the time I was 14, I would find myself using every Ace bandage I could find to wrap my aching legs and arms, figuring I was sore from track practice. At 15, my mom found me sobbing in my upstairs bedroom with my pants around my ankles before school, unable to bend down and pull them up because the inflammation in my hips was so severe. At 16, I would wake up with fevers of 103 degrees Fahrenheit screaming in hallucinatory agony as my shoulder would be shoved out of its socket, causing the joint to be hot, bruised, useless and excruciating, then the next day completely fine. A few weeks later, the same thing would happen to the other shoulder, then a knee, a wrist, an ankle… 

Finally, two weeks before leaving for college and turning 18, a specialist gave my suffering a name:  rheumatoid arthritis. What I remember was feeling silly for being in so much pain from “arthritis.” I would soon learn to hate that arthritis was part of the name of my disease, because it allowed others to be dismissive of my suffering because they too had arthritis in their thumb, or think I was too young to have arthritis, confusing rheumatoid with osteoarthritis that is caused from aging.  

Over the next 20 years, I grew confident and skilled in my profession as a teacher, I got married, I adopted two sons, and the disease continued its ruthless attacks and destruction of my body. Each additional joint that succumbed to the rheumatoid forced me to make tough choices and sacrifices in order to have any hope of peace between me and my body. Then, it finally happened: I had used every single bargaining tool I was willing to sacrifice and I was still losing the war.

My rheumatologist and I were trying everything possible to slow down my free fall, yet rheumatoid continued to gain new territory despite our efforts. Defeated, I went to my principal and explained that I only knew how to teach 100 percent, but felt like I only had five percent to give, and I needed her to find someone to take care of my students for the rest of the year. The next day I had an appointment with my rheumatologist, who decided I need to be admitted to the hospital, where I spent eight days. It was from my hospital bed that I made the phone call to Social Security and asked to apply for disability. A word, a label, a concept that I had fought against valiantly for more than 20 years.  

I never got to go back in my classroom, and since then I have had to give up most of the verbs associated with who I was. I no longer climb, run, mountain bike, kayak or backpack. I no longer work as a naturalist, paleontologist or science teacher. I also am no longer a wife or a gardener, and I shy away from answering the question “What do you do? “

I am still a teacher, learning to teach through writing, and I am still fascinated by the science all around me. I am still a mother to two amazing sons, a sister, a daughter and a patient. What I do, now, is stay alive by making the maintenance of my body and management of my disease as much of a priority as the care of my sons. What I do is survive first, then find a way to be alive so the world can see that what I am and who am I is not depended on what I can or can no longer do.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us one thing your loved ones might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. What would you say to teach them? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

*Sign up for our Chronic Illness Newsletter*

Dear future partner,

We haven’t met yet, or maybe we have and time wasn’t ready. We need to talk. Now. Before I fall in love with you, before you fall in love with me.

Because I don’t want my disease, ankylosing spondylitis, to cause you to leave me.

Too often I see sad posts in online support communities for severe disease groups. Like this one:

“My spouse just asked for a divorce after 25 years of marriage. She said she could no longer handle being married to my condition. I work full time, I do chores, I am a great partner and parent. I just can’t hide when I’m having such bad pain. I feel so alone. Can someone share how they got through this? How can I be in another relationship if I know my disease could cause someone to leave?”

These posts wrench my stomach. I cry, “Another one?” And I have two reactions: hope and fear.

Hope. Hope that I’ll be one of the fortunate ones; that I’ll beat the odds and my marriage vows won’t turn into, “‘Til disability do we part.”

Fear. Fear that I will not find a partner to embrace me, disease included, for the rest of our lives. Fear that I’ll fall head over heels in love with someone who will look at me one day with eyes that can’t see past my disabilities, and give up on me.

Who will want me when I’ve been dumped? When my health will be worse and my market value has plummeted beyond repair?

Dear future partner,

I will push you away before I allow myself to trust that when you say “in sickness and in health,” you truly mean it. I am filled with self-doubt because I have no way to prove that you won’t leave me. Evidence shows that it is harder to maintain a relationship when one of us is sick with a lifelong disease or disability.

There is also evidence of miraculous love stories of two people overcoming impossible obstacles to be together. These stories deserve every praise that exists — but they are rare.

I want to be rare.

I am not like other people. I know I am amazing in a lot of ways, one being that I am a survivor. While I have no choice but to fight to survive (the essence of which defines my amazingness), it gives me the strength to believe that one day I will find someone who will fiercely and tenderly hold me from day one through infinity.

I’m fiercely independent. I’ve always taken pride in being self sufficient. I am stubborn to a fault. I’ve had to be — it’s a survival mechanism. You will tell me not to do things, but time and time again I will do them anyway, even when I agree with you that I shouldn’t. You will say, “I want to protect and preserve you so I have you for as long as possible.” Thank you for being selfish, in advance, because it could save my life one day — that is, if I listen to you.

But one of the most important things is for me to be selfish, too. While you are thinking I shouldn’t do this thing, I am thinking the reverse. What will life be in five, 10, 30 years if I look back and realize every decision was an effort to protect me from myself? I don’t want to simply survive, I want to live! What will carry me forward if I have taken no risks, if I haven’t pushed beyond the bubble of safety? Caged chickens deserve a glimpse outside their walls even if their legs are too weak to go far.

I’m sorry, partner, that after I do what I shouldn’t and I am in bed crying in pain, I will expect you to hold me. You won’t understand, but you’ll bite your tongue instead of saying, “Tsk, tsk, you should have listened to me.” You’ll let me cry until the neighbors think someone died. You’ll let my snot run all over your chest and you’ll tell me I am beautiful even if my eyes are so puffy I can’t see your face. You won’t understand, but love doesn’t require understanding to be unconditional.

I will need you more than you will be prepared to give. Our relationship will look different than our dreams. It may sometimes seem that you live alone, except then there’s me in the recliner while you wash dishes. You’ll feel more like a nurse or doctor sometimes, giving me shots, bathing me when I can’t do it myself, staying up all night when I’m afraid I will die if you’re not there to monitor me. I’ll often be sad or angry and you’ll have to figure out what to do to make me laugh again.

I will be needy. I won’t want to go to my doctor appointments alone. There will be nights I spend nine hours trying to fall asleep; you’ll wake up for work and I’ll be there looking at you, waiting to be held. When you come home you’ll find me crying on the kitchen floor because I dropped my favorite glass just trying to put it away.

Sex will involve more than making each other feel good. Our intimacy will include stretching my hips after intercourse and holding me when my back spasms. I can still feel really good, but we have to work harder at self-care and be more cautious than perhaps we’d like.

I will push myself to pursue activities with you even when they hurt me. I will encourage you to go for it, even when it is something I can’t do anymore and it hurts to watch from the sidelines. I will participate in your life to a fault and encourage you to go far, hoping that the freedom I give will substitute for the downfalls I can’t control. The reality is that a lot of my decisions will be navigated with a veil of hope covering my fear that you will leave me. I need you to understand this so you can stop me from pushing myself so hard, so you can tell me that you don’t need or want me to be anything more than I am.

All of this and more will overwhelm you. I will watch your poker face evolve over the years as you hide how hard it is to be in your shoes. I’ll see through it every time. I’ll know.

And I’ll wish I could take everything back: my needs, my desires, my sickness, and the fact that I am in love with you. I will feel I am ruining your life. I will feel I am burdening you with more than you can handle. Don’t let me. Please, tell me how much of a burden I am not. I will need your help reminding me that relationships aren’t about who gives more, but about why and how we give to each other.

Dear future partner,

The reason my disease is good for us is that it will force us to have a deeper relationship. We will have to communicate better to keep our relationship healthy — because of me. I’ll take credit for our need to be relationship perfectionists; I need to be able to take credit for something.

If you become my forever partner, it means I have no doubt whatsoever in your love for me. It means I can be all the parts of me with you all the time — the good, sad, goofy, angry, and painful parts — all of them. It means I have realized I am worthy of the fullness of life-giving love that makes a relationship whole.

Those of us who struggle the most know how much there is to lose, so we do a good job of holding on to what we have. We make the best partners, if only for that reason. When I allow myself to fall in love with you, I will be facing my biggest fear that you’ll get tired of taking care of me and realize you could have a better, more active, more fulfilling life without me. I only hope I am able to show you how much I love and appreciate you so you won’t forget how little I take you for granted.

Dearest future love of mine, don’t leave before we even begin. I have great things to offer despite this disease that tries to take my identity away, this disease that tries so hard to come between us. Help me defeat at least a small part of my handicap — my fear — by proving love can exist and survive beyond all that threatens to undo us. Find me, love me, be with me — until death parts us.

Follow this journey on Being Charis.

The Mighty is asking the following: What do you want your past, current or future partner to know about being with someone with your disability, disease or mental illness? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Real People. Real Stories.

150 Million

We face disability, disease and mental illness together.