Inside Out

You can’t judge a book by its cover.

You’ve heard that before, right? It’s one of those kind of annoying phrases your mom told you when you were growing up to keep you from passing judgment on people around you. The thing she said when you were trying to avoid sitting with that seemingly weird kid at lunch. The thing she said when trying to get you to try something new that looked a little less than cool. The thing she said to deter you from dating the bad boy in favor of the guy she knew would ultimately be better for your life. Sure, the bad boy looks better on the surface (why are bad boys always so cute?!), but what your mom knew then is that you can’t always judge what’s happening on the inside of a person based on what you can see on the outside.

And while I’m sure I rolled my eyes and quickly dismissed the truth of that statement in my teenage years, I completely and totally grasped it finally at the age of 29. That’s the year I got diagnosed with autoimmune disease.

Last week I saw another autoimmune sufferer post this:

Autoimmune diseases have been dubbed “silent killers” because from the outside you may never know the person is suffering. But our bodies are attacking themselves from within.

And it’s true. I was officially diagnosed in 2014 after suffering from weird symptoms for months. I won’t go into all the details; I’ll just give you the short of it. That year, I suffered an extreme allergic reaction to an antibiotic used over and over again for six months to treat chronic kidney stones and infections in my body. It impacted my muscles, joints, and nervous system (all of which I still deal with today). And the trauma and chemical changes it caused in my body triggered an autoimmune disease that took months to successfully diagnose.

In that time, I lost 30 pounds, my hair fell out, I had to take a leave of absence from my job, and at times, I couldn’t even get out of bed. The physical fatigue, pain, and weakness were overwhelming, and eventually, so was the emotional toll. (PSA: Doctors, please stop telling your patients they’re “just anxious” when you can’t figure out what’s wrong with them. This course of treatment will cause spontaneous crying and yelling in your office. It’s awkward for all involved… trust me.)

These kinds of chronic illnesses are so difficult to diagnose and treat; they’re almost like mystery illnesses. Every single one in every single person is different. What treatments and regimens work for one person won’t work for another. What diet changes help calm the symptoms in one person do nothing for another. And what’s most puzzling for the person with the disease is that your body—the cover of your book—typically looks okay.

In other words, most autoimmune patients look fine on the outside. On most days, I can pass on the outside as a generally healthy 33-year-old girl. Just by looking at me, you’d never no what’s happening inside of my body—the pain, the stiffness, the fatigue, the muscle weakness, the shooting nerves, the fevers, the immune system issues. At just a glance, the cover of my book looks fairly normal.

That’s what makes dealing with a disease like this so isolating sometimes. People don’t know you’re really even suffering, and you certainly don’t want to be the girl that always talks about it. As a result, you spend a lot of time on your own. You have to say no to more things. You take longer to recover from over exerting yourself. You can’t go out on late night after late night. Sometimes, you can’t go out at all. You have to let a little bit of life pass you by in order to stay well. And other than a few dark circles under your eyes, nobody can typically tell why.  

So life goes on. You smile, you get up, you go to work, and many times, nobody knows what’s truly happening inside of your body—behind the cover of your book.

Struggling through and battling autoimmune disease the last few years has taught me a lot of things. Primarily, it’s taught me that I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve met many others fighting a variety of diseases, and their battles are so much harder than mine. Their battles have included surgeries, chemotherapies, drug trials, and even life support at times. Of those who are silently suffering, please know that I rank on the lower end of the spectrum. Saying no to certain things I want to eat or drink, getting sick more often, being in some sort of manageable pain, giving myself weekly shots, and taking on a different exercise and rest routine aren’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. For the most part, that all just amounts to a major inconvenience, and the fact that so many others have it worse is not lost on me.

But having an autoimmune disease has also reinforced that the old saying really is true: You can’t judge a book by its cover.

I was recently working in a Starbucks, huddled in the corner behind my computer. That day I was having a particularly rough autoimmune day, battling some extreme fatigue and a slight fever as a result of a four-day retreat with little sleep and lots of being on the go. My friends bounced back quickly; I struggled for the next week. And that day in particular I was feeling physically and emotionally beaten down because of it.

Unable to concentrate on my work, I put my head in my hands for a second and debated if I should just go home and crawl back in bed. When I lifted my head, an employee at that Starbucks was standing over me with a cup of coffee.

“I just thought you could use another cup of coffee on us. Hope it gives you the boost you need.”

If you know me, then you know it’s a miracle I didn’t burst into tears right then and there. He didn’t know what was happening in my body—what physical and emotional struggles I was battling right then—but he did know he could be kind to me. And so he was.

I sat there and drank that coffee, looking around at the other people sitting nearby. Some working, some talking, some lost on their phones, some reading. And as I scanned the room, I thought to myself, “Gosh, I really have no idea what’s going on inside of any of these people right this very moment.”

But what if I treated them like I did? What if, like that sweet barista who gave a sick and tired girl a free cup of coffee, I treated every person I came into contact with like I had some sort of kindness to offer them in the face of whatever hurts, or struggles, or joys they had inside of them at that very moment? Inside of just assuming I can tell people are “fine” by the way they look or act on the outside, what if I just opted to err on the side of compassion each and every time I interacted with someone? What if I just led with love?

The same week I had this interaction at Starbucks, I saw Beth Moore tweet this out on her Twitter account (Again, PSA: If you’re on Twitter and not following Beth Moore, stop right now and follow her. @BethMooreLPM)

In a day when everybody wants to speak prophetically, the prize will go to those who love prophetically. By that I mean, love people like they’re hiding a broken, bruised or bewildered heart & get to the end of the day having been as right as you’ve ever been in your entire life.

Gosh, this sure is the way I want to live my life! I want to love people like they’re hiding some deep and difficult illness inside of them. Because if you think about it, aren’t we all really doing just that every single day?

I know that the things that have meant the most to me on this little journey of illness have been the times when people did just that for me. When they sent me a text, when they sat with me when I felt bad, when they asked how I was feeling, when they showed up and helped me without even an ask, when they offered me a cup of coffee on a rough day, when they showed me love.

That’s the same kind of love I want to offer the people I know and the people I don’t. It’s the kind of love that’s made my most frustrating sick days a whole lot brighter. And it’s the kind that I think can change most anyone from the inside out.

Sara Shelton