I’m buying a slice of pizza at a luncheonette across from Boston Medical Center before I drive back home from an appointment. As I fumble with my wallet, the middle-aged man behind the counter notices my five bandaged fingers.
“What did you do to yourself?” he asks.
“Oh, I get ulcers,” I say, giving my standard explanation.
“Does that hurt?”
“Sometimes, if they get infected.”
He nods and hands me my change.
I’m taking my first Saori class to learn this fascinating Japanese weaving method that encourages free-form creativity and uses looms that accommodate people with disabilities. The young son of one of my new classmates comes up to greet me. He loves to run around and say a loud Hi to everyone when he’s not weaving wonderful fabric. I shake his hand, and he pulls back. Later, I offer him my hand again. My Raynaud’s has kicked in, and my palm is a mix of indigo and fuchsia from haphazard blood flow. He stares and says No, frowning and shaking his head as he steps away. I believe I’ve frightened him.
* * *
June is national Scleroderma Awareness Month. It’s the month for walkathons to raise money for research, ramped-up efforts to publicize scleroderma’s devastating impact and continued lobbying for NIH funding of scleroderma research to find a cure.
All of this is important, focused work. But I wonder. How do you really get anyone to care about one more way that our bodies fail us, unless they have a vested interest? This time of year, there’s a race or walkathon or bike-athon for some disease every weekend, every cause has its own colored ribbon symbol or rubbery message bracelet, and Congress is still gridlocked over cuts in domestic spending. Not to mention that nobody pays attention to anything in front of them any more, just the alternate reality of their smartphone universe.
As part of its awareness campaign this year, the Scleroderma Foundation has developed a social media strategy to encourage patients to share personal stories about scleroderma and to create a video story collage that they plan to send to Washington lawmakers in the fall. I hope it works. For me, the art of storytelling remains the most viable means of building awareness, a primal way we connect as humans. But it requires a willingness to speak up and a willingness to listen. Neither are easy to come by for a disease like scleroderma.
Before I started writing this blog in January, I had a very hard time talking about my disease. In fact, I’ve been silent about it, for the most part, except when sharing with very close friends and family, for the better part of three decades.
When asked that all-too-common question by curious cashiers (the people most likely to ask, it seems)—What did you do to your hands?—or its variants—Did you cut yourself while cooking? Did you prick your fingers with a sewing needle? Did you stick your hand in a lawnmower?—I used to demure and just say I have sores. Now I say I have ulcers, and if I think the person is genuinely interested, I’ll explain I have scleroderma.
Responses range from compassionate concern to flickering interest in freakishness—the latter, I think, veiling the true reaction so powerfully expressed by the young boy I met in my weaving class: my hands look really strange and scary.
This is the hard truth of scleroderma. It’s rare, it defies easy explanations and it’s disfiguring in a way that others find threatening to their own body image and sense of well being.
It’s hard to talk about. It’s hard to draw attention to yourself, or more attention to yourself, and say, hey, I have this weird disease that makes my hands look like claws and my face like a mask and has screwed up my lungs and digestion and God knows what else.
Honestly, I just want to be known for who I am, not for this disease I live with.
But what I’ve come to understand and am coming to embrace is that scleroderma is a part of who I am. There’s no getting around it. I have this fucking disease, and I’m stuck with it for life. Which is why I’ve begun, finally, to write about it, tell my stories and try to make some sense of it all.
I have no awareness agenda. I am aware, however, that it’s important to get past the shame and embarrassment of living with a disfiguring chronic illness and share this journey with others who want to understand. This blog is my medium for that message. And maybe the next time a stranger asks what I did to my hands, I’ll tell them my real story.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.