Unexplained Pain and My 19-year Search for Answers
When Desiree Lyon, founder of the American Porphyria Foundation, described to a doctor her first attack of acute intermittent porphyria (AIP) at the age of 17, she likened it to “a thousand flaming swords” embedded into her abdomen. I think of her words often, as I’ve struggled throughout my life to describe to others the excruciating, suffocating, and incapacitating pain I endure.
Tolerating large amounts of pain is not a trait I was born with. It’s a skill I’ve honed after years of practice and disturbing amounts of disassociation. For me, it was a survival tactic.
Here’s the deal: For most of my life, I have been plagued by intermittent bursts of a thousand flaming swords with no explanation or proven medical reason as to why. Sometimes the episodes last hours, while other times they continue for more than a month.
Porphyria attacks vary for each individual, but mine typically progress over a period of days with the following symptoms: constipation, abdominal distension, anxiety, insomnia, muscle weakness, crazy amounts of abdominal pain, leg pain, reddish urine, nausea, vomiting, gastroparesis, paralytic ileus, rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, and in my most severe condition, limb paralysis.
My first porphyria attack happened at age 14, and I spent a weekend in bed with my curtains drawn. A blur of doctors followed, and I was given my very first of many misdiagnoses: fibromyalgia. I went for years without another acute episode. But in my 20s, attacks became more frequent and severe. By 30, I was functioning with high levels of pain, anxiety, and fatigue as a baseline, with a smattering of acute flare-ups. Living with AIP is a lesson in enduring deep uncertainty and living in the moment, as symptoms come and go.
My diagnostic journey was tricky because AIP is known as the “little imitator.” It looks like many more common diseases and can only be diagnosed by a genetic test, so it often gets missed again and again. Imagine having an attack and seeking emergency help, only to feel better in a few days. Follow-up appointments were confusing for me, and I often didn’t properly advocate for myself, entrusting my doctor with discovering what had happened through diagnostic testing. Additionally, my chronic symptoms didn’t seem to correlate with the attacks; these included neuropathy, fatigue, and severe neck and shoulder pain.
In my 19-year search for answers, I saw more than 20 specialists in five states who tested me for hundreds of conditions. Along the way, I picked up a whole bunch of ailments to add to my first misdiagnosis. By my mid-30s, I had amassed quite a collection, many of them related to my mental health and being a woman. Some of my favorites are endometriosis, intestinal infections, intussusception, gall bladder issues, functional abdominal pain, irritable bowel syndrome, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, borderline personality disorder, chronic constipation, and bad period cramps.
In the worst of times, I received these misdiagnoses while immobilized with pain in a hospital bed, and they accompanied not-so-secret comments from my medical team about being a “drug seeker” or “wanting attention.” Sadly, my story is not uncommon in the porphyria community.
I finally received my diagnosis at age 33 from a resident at the Mayo Clinic who was working with my medical team, a group of doctors who never considered my condition could be explained by anything more than excess stool in my colon. When I learned the reason for my pain was an inherited metabolic disorder, I felt a 7,000-pound weight of shame removed from my shoulders. This is because a strange thing had happened after I was told for many years that I was mentally unwell: I eventually believed it.
I cried tears of joy. For the first time in my life, a doctor had given me a real reason for my pain. Out of the way, you dumb, old, fake diagnoses, I have a proven, shiny, proper one now!
Fortunately, AIP is one of the few rare diseases with a treatment. One day, I received a sheet of paper in the mail with an adorable set of numbers and letters printed on it indicating my genetic abnormality. Immediately, I grabbed my phone and snapped a photo of the medical record so I could carry it with me everywhere. Now, no one can deny my pain or tell me it’s in my head.
Facing and processing the trauma of being dismissed by the very people who swore an oath to protect me was an important step in learning to live with porphyria.
In my new column, “One Thousand Flaming Swords,” I will share some of the mindfulness and self-compassion tactics I learned. This space will focus on navigating daily living with AIP and how I accept my body despite its limitations of chronic and acute symptoms. Expect entertaining and meaningful stories of my life as an advocate, symptoms task manager, and hunter of joy amid pain. Thank you for accompanying me on this adventure!
Note: Porphyria News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Porphyria News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to porphyria.