There is currently no cure for any of the autoimmune conditions I have.
Healthcare professionals define autoimmune conditions as occurring when the immune system, which normally protects the body from infection by fighting bacteria and viruses, behaves abnormally by attacking the body's own healthy cells.
This causes inflammation in the joints, organs, blood vessels, tendons, skin, and more.
Many people refer to it as having an overactive immune system.
Although some of the symptoms overlap, each of the autoimmune conditions I have are distinct. They exist simultaneously and are therefore comorbid.
None of these conditions are contagious, there is currently no cure for any of them, and their causes are unknown.
We only know that some people's genes predispose them to these conditions, and that environmental factors trigger them.
For example, it is possible that stress, hormonal changes, or a minor infection such as a cold virus triggered mine. Other people may develop autoimmune conditions following pregnancy, trauma, or injury.
Where it all started
It all started for me when I was around 14 or 15 years old, and I started to get dry skin on my scalp, ears, and elbows. I had general aches and pains, which were problematic for me because I represented my school in hockey, tennis, and athletics, while spending most of my free time playing sport, swimming, or riding my bike.
I remember being told that it was probably a combination of "growing pains" and eczema, and that I would grow out of it.
What I actually had was psoriasis, but it would be 10–12 years before I received that diagnosis. I now know that in psoriasis, the immune system causes skin cells to develop too rapidly, and that they can build up into sore, dry patches called plaques. Psoriasis can affect the joints and develop into a form of arthritis, which is what happened to me.
By the time I started university, I was still suffering vague aches and pains, and when I started feeling tired all the time, I visited a drop-in clinic on campus. The doctor told me that a lot of students had glandular fever, that I should rest, and that it would pass.
During that time, I stopped playing sport altogether and found studying and working part-time completely exhausting. Looking back, I think I was probably experiencing autoimmune symptoms, but I didn't really have the energy or the worldliness to pursue a more accurate diagnosis.
In my early 20s, the extreme fatigue returned, and I also had a number of new symptoms: feeling cold all the time, thinning hair, puffiness around my eyes, kidney infections, and intermittent chest pain. I was working full-time and finding it difficult to concentrate or even get up.
"This came to a head when I was on holiday in Paris, when I was so exhausted that I could barely walk and just wanted to sleep."
I remember forcing myself to walk up the all the steps at Notre Dame and feeling that it was a real triumph, when that should've been something a person of my age could easily do — especially someone who loved cross country and used to run 1,500 meters for fun!
After more tests, I received a diagnosis of Hashimoto's thyroiditis, which had developed into hypothyroidism. This occurs when the immune system attacks healthy cells in the thyroid gland.
As an otherwise fit and healthy vegetarian, I was shocked that the underactive thyroid had also caused high cholesterol — hence the chest pain. The doctor explained that I would have to take replacement thyroid hormone tablets (levothyroxine) every day for the rest of my life.
I still need to have my thyroid function tested regularly and have the dosage adjusted from time to time, as mine has never fully balanced. There is quite a complex feedback loop, so for many people (including myself), holding a diagnosis and being prescribed levothyroxine does not mean that all of the symptoms go away.
There are still times when my levels will be outside the normal range, which causes me to feel fatigued and get puffy eyes. My hair also starts falling out when I wash it.
A few years later, I started to get stiffness in my elbow. A doctor told me that it was most likely to be tennis elbow, but it didn't improve; and when I started to get swollen toes, they told me it was probably gout!
'It felt like constantly having flu'
I started trying to research what might be wrong with me. When my hands and knees became hot to the touch, painful, and swollen, my doctor referred me to a rheumatologist, who confirmed that I had psoriatic arthritis (PsA).
Although I was only in my 20s and thought that arthritis was something only older adults got, it was actually a relief to finally receive a diagnosis. I was dealing with an employer who was skeptical that there was anything wrong with me, even making it difficult for me to attend medical appointments.
The rheumatologist prescribed diclofenac, which I couldn't tolerate because it caused side effects such as gastrointestinal problems.