Mystery illness is none of my business
January 31, 2011 12:25 AM   Subscribe

What is an illness that is non-fatal, but would keep someone out of work for a year, and that they might be embarrassed about?

I'm an evil nosy person and this is none of my business, but I really want to know!

A friend just told me she was quitting her job and taking a leave of absence from her studies, because of a medical condition she was just diagnosed with. She said she is going to have to move back in with her parents (she is in her 30s, so this is kind of a big deal). When I asked what the condition was, she said she was embarrassed to tell me and "kind of in denial". She said it wasn't fatal "or anything", but that it was making her feel pretty lousy, and her doctor had told her it might get better of its own accord if she took a year off work and focused on her health.

The only other clue is that she said she was only just diagnosed and hadn't had time to find out much about the condition yet, which suggests it isn't really common. And she said that she hadn't known until the doctor told her that it could resolve spontaneously without treatment, so I think that rules out psychological or similar conditions.

What could this illness be?

I could pretend I want to know so I can support my friend better, but really it's mainly to assuage my curiosity.
posted by lollusc to Health & Fitness (41 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Hakaisha at 12:28 AM on January 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

posted by The otter lady at 12:29 AM on January 31, 2011 [14 favorites]

It's possible her "embarrassment" is along the lines of just not wanting to share details about her organs, rather than the disease itself being in some way embarrassing. I'm the sort of person who hates getting attention for this kind of thing and I definitely would avoid discussing a condition with any friend who wasn't an MD.

So all you really know is that your friend has a disease that may spontaneously resolve itself if she rests up. That really isn't enough to make an armchair diagnosis.
posted by little light-giver at 12:30 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by whoaali at 12:39 AM on January 31, 2011

Glandular fever;
Ross River virus;
Chronic fatigue syndrome; and

all get significantly worse with overexertion (where over-exertion = normal activity levels),

and can improve somewhat from really, really, really resting.
posted by with the singing green stars as our guide at 12:39 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay, little light-giver, that is possible, but I don't think it means it's not enough to get some ideas about what it could be. You make it sound as though there are too many possibilities to list, but personally I can't think of a SINGLE illness that is serious enough that you would have to take a whole year off work, but that can spontaneously resolve (and that the doctor wouldn't recommend treatment for).

I don't think pregnancy fits the bill here either.
posted by lollusc at 12:42 AM on January 31, 2011

Lupus? Dr House jokes aside, it can be a completely invisible disease. It's not something that might 'get better of its own', but flare-ups can leave someone laid up for months at a stretch and it can be embarrassing for some people to explain that they can't work because they're 'only' in pain. (A female friend used to get crippling PMS cramps and it took her a year to admit to me that the reason she'd skip going to events was because she was embarrassed to say it was because her uterus was killing her.)

Other than that, my complete inexperience with other things says maybe ... shingles? Excema flareup?

IANAD, don't play one on TV either. Just talking out of a dark orifice.
posted by Heretical at 12:46 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Before people really start piling on here, let me defend myself a little bit:

This friend came to find me today specifically to talk to me about her problem. She asked me to go to lunch with her. She told me all of the above stuff without me asking a single question. She started by telling me she had this serious medical condition and was going to take the year off work. I replied, "Oh no! Wow. I'm so sorry! Do you want to talk about what it is?" and when she said no, and that she was embarrassed, I said, "Okay" and changed the topic. We made small talk throughout most of the rest of the meal, but she kept coming back to talking about stuff to do with her illness - hence all the other clues I mention above. I did not ask a single other question about it at the time because I do respect her wishes to not go into the details.

Since then, however, I keep trying to think of what it could be, not because I especially want to know my friend's business - I couldn't care less what she actually has, except in as much as I don't want my friend to be sick - but because it was driving me mad that I couldn't think of ANYTHING that could possibly fit the bill.

Kind of like if someone says they ate a really common fruit yesterday that was yellow and spotted and tastes kind of sour. You keep coming back to think about it because you can't imagine what it could be even though you couldn't really care less about what specific fruit your friend ate.

But thanks to the people with suggestions. I am actually quite happy to just see a list of various possibilities without trying to work out exactly which one my friend has.
posted by lollusc at 1:13 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

After reading your description I would have guessed colitis or IBS, which can be terrifyingly embarrassing to the point where someone might not be able to work, and they can be controlled or at least moderated by extreme diet changes but it can take a while to get to that point where you have all the dietary kinks worked out.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:31 AM on January 31, 2011 [6 favorites]

Not a doc (bored at 4:30am) but similar issue: gastric issues, ulcers that bleed, time off helps so much! I am in my 30s. Maybe lymes disease? Maybe an STD.., alcoholism?
Just keep acting interested and youll find out.
posted by femmme at 1:36 AM on January 31, 2011

Basically anything auto-immune related could be the culprit. I'm actually in the middle of a bout of "something" now. The last time this happened in a meaningful way, it took almost a year to recover. I'm otherwise a strong, fit and active person but the "something" just knocks you flat if you don't take the time to recover. I'm not too embarrassed to discuss it in general with people because if you saw me walking, you'd know something was up. But all I normally say is that I'm working with my doctor and physio to get on top of things.

A lot of times these issues and/or diagnoses can so easily be interpreted much more dramatically than necessary that the conversation itself can be tiring.
posted by michswiss at 1:43 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

My co-worker just had to cut her hours by more than half due to an ulcer. If it's an ulcer she could be embarrassed to admit that she's stressed out, especially if a lot of other people think her job is easy.

Also, Crohn's or Celiac which involve a lot of dietary changes and getting used to new foods. Even a case of irritable bowel syndrome can cause you to have embarrassing accidents.
posted by IndigoRain at 1:46 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Crohns/colitis or some other form of IBD were my first thoughts. But really, I'm not sure why this matters to you. Perhaps if you just offer what support you can to your friend without being too intrusive, she might choose to confide in you one day. Of course, that shouldn't be your motivation for helping her.
posted by Ted Maul at 2:56 AM on January 31, 2011

Depression or another serious mental illness. Can be crippling, can be embarrassing, but for some, it can be temporary or treatable.
posted by pecanpies at 4:11 AM on January 31, 2011 [7 favorites]

Another thought: she could have hepatitis, most likely hep C. There are several treatments for hep C, although they tend to have a high relapse rate. It is possible to cure the disease, but the process is lengthy and has serious and often severe side effects (I know, because I've witnessed them firsthand in a close friend). I would certainly think that some of the side effects of the drug would themselves be crippling.
posted by pecanpies at 4:32 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Another possibility could be that the illness itself is not so severe that it really requires taking a year off. It could be merely inconvenient, perhaps something that can be treated with a lot of rest or frequent Dr's appointments. If so, she could be using it as a reason to take the time off - I don't mean as an excuse, but more like an opportunity. In that case she could be embarassed or simply not want to get into details because people can get really weird about others not working, or not working "hard enough" or whatever. It's more acceptable in some circles to be on medical leave than to choose to do something different, or nothing at all, for a while. She might be sort of vague about it because it could be less of a weird mystery condition than something rather common, but which most people wouldn't take time off for. Of course that might not apply to her situation, but it's just what came to mind.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:44 AM on January 31, 2011 [4 favorites]

While Hepatitis C infection can be fatal (though typically on the scale of decades later, not immediately) interferon treatment takes 48 weeks and leaves you feeling like crap - basically like you had the flu for a year. Now, getting better from interferon treatment is not "resolv[ing] spontaneously without treatment", but interferon is actually something your body makes naturally (treatment is injection with a more stable form). Also, if she has Type 1 HCV (if I remember correctly, the most common strain among white Americans, if that describes her) there's only a 50% likelihood of being cured by treatment, so maybe she doesn't want to get her hopes up.

(on preview, what pecanpies said)
posted by fermezporte at 4:47 AM on January 31, 2011

Alopecia areata--has she lost all her hair?
posted by AuntieRuth at 5:00 AM on January 31, 2011

Seconding Rhomboid on colitis or Crohn's - is she really thin?
posted by punchtothehead at 5:13 AM on January 31, 2011

Thirding colitis. I had a three month bout of pseudomembranous colitis thanks to Clostridium difficile, during which I was weak as a kitten, glued to the toilet (embarassing!), and more miserable than ever before in my entire life.
posted by Logic Sheep at 5:14 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

This smacks of attention seeking. Are you sure she's really ill? How close are you? You mention wanting to support her through this, so I'm guess she's more than just an aquaintance. But it seems odd to me, based on my own relationships, that she's choosing to be so cryptic with you. She dangles details while remaining too coy to put a name to the condition. It might well be that straight-forward, but it sounds incredibly neat -- it's a condition that requires no treatment and clears up on its own, but it's serious enough that she can't work (even part time) for a whole year. Maybe there are some conditions that present in exactly this way, but like you I can't think of them. So, for no other reason than you invited our speculation, I am suspicious.
posted by londonmark at 5:18 AM on January 31, 2011

It's not a perfect fit by any means, but an immune deficiency of some stripe would explain why a dr. might recommend that she focus on supporting her natural defenses as much as possible while transitioning into managing the illness. My understanding is that some deficiencies can have milder symptoms than others, depending on the person and the condition.

Given that she said it was embarrassing, though, I'm inclined to nth Crohn's/colitis/a gastric condition.
posted by superfluousm at 5:29 AM on January 31, 2011

I also thought either major depression, with a year to adjust her lifestyle and get back on an even keel, or a digestive issue. I've known people who had to take a year off of college to get a digestive problem (IBS, colitis, celiac problems, etc.) under solid control and get their health back to pretty stable. (And I've known people who took three YEARS to get a diagnosis on that digestive stuff, which is a long time to be feeling bad and having your health run downhill.)

I knew one gentleman with IBS who simply had to stop work completely because he couldn't get to a place where it was controlled enough to work 9 to 5. He ended up working part time, but only after a few years off from working to get himself under control.

Also, as someone who is easily "embarrassed" by medical conditions, it may not be anything inherently embarrassing; it may just be that your friend is embarrassed by the normal process of sickness. I'm embarrassed when anyone sees me sick, or if I have to talk specifically about it, EVEN WITH DOCTORS. This effect is intensified when I feel sick and I'm both physically and emotionally stressed; I get less rational and more easily upset. When I had mono I had those icky things in my throat and I remember trying to refuse to let the doctor look at them on the grounds they were "gross." I was SO embarrassed about it. In retrospect this was ridiculous but I was stressed from being ill and a little out of it. I always feel a little bit embarrassed calling my doctor when I have a sinus infection and having to explain that there's mucus in my head. Ack! So embarrassing! (I recognize this as totally ridiculous and OTHER people's illness doesn't bother me a bit, I'm a very calm and non-gross-out-able caregiver, but I persist in the reaction when it's ME.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:33 AM on January 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

@with the singing green stars as our guide I had Ross River Virus and left fulltime work, and I was delighted to tell people what I had once I knew. 'you get it from a mosquito... I'm not crazy damnit!' Before that I thought I was having some kind of breakdown.

But I vote mental illness, or something bowely or parasitic, but either way good for her. If we gave each other less grief about taking time off work to regain health, or even imagined ourselves less grief about what people thought, we'd be some happy, healthy dudes and dudettes.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 6:04 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mental illness. I refer to days missed due to trying to get my brain in gear as being "out sick", but politely evade any effort to explain that the symptoms were jittering, stressing and feeling yucky about myself.
posted by Phalene at 6:31 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Clinical depression.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 6:40 AM on January 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

posted by jedrek at 6:43 AM on January 31, 2011

Pregnancy with prescribed bedrest.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:48 AM on January 31, 2011

My mind immediately went to Crohn's or colitis. I had to quit my job while being diganosed and initally treated for Crohn's disease -- not only is the illness itself disruptive (50 or more visits to the restroom every day was not unusual), but the first medication they tried (Nobody's ever had bad side effects from this stuff!) I was terribly allergic to, and it made me break out in rashes and suffer incredible fatigue. There was no way I could work, and it actually did take about a year before I was in sufficient remission to be able to resume my life.

Plus, most people are really embarrased to talk about it, because it's all about poop.

It's interesting that your friend's doctor said that the mystery illness could resolve itself in time without treatment. A lot of the autoimmune diseases can be controlled through diet and stress management, but I've yet to meet a doctor who would propose that right off the bat, without trying a battery of medications first.
posted by themissy at 7:21 AM on January 31, 2011

Best answer: I have some embarrassing symptoms (which I'm not going to discuss) that might make me do something like this, depending. It's not fully diagnosed yet, but I can tell you that none of the candidates have been mentioned in this thread, and most people are lucky enough not to have heard of any of them. I hadn't either, before it became my life. So, sorry, you can't just puzzle out what this is. It could be a million things.

Also, yes, it would be strange for a disabling illness to just resolve itself in a year. But if your friend didn't want you to know what she has, she might not have wanted to go into the details of treatment. Surgery - on what? Injections - where? Physical therapy - what kind? She may have wanted to reassure you that she could hope to recover, without telling you anything that might aid you in a pursuit like this one.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 7:54 AM on January 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Something like multiple sclerosis won't go away in a year, but a flare-up could require a long time off of work in order to avoid deepening into something even more serious. A friend who has it had to quit several jobs because the stress was exacerbating her symptoms, and her doctors told her that additional stress could leave her with irreversible paralysis or blindness. A year's rest could put a condition like that into remission, allowing the person to return to a higher state of functioning.

And yes, posters above are correct that the fact that she's embarrassed doesn't mean it's something dirty or disgusting. It could just mean that her incapacity is upsetting to her and she doesn't want to talk about it. "Embarrassed" could also mean "I don't want to tell you what I have because I know you're the sort of person who hears about other people's illnesses and then goes all internet detective, and I don't want to deal with that crap on top of everything else I'm already dealing with, so I'd rather you not know what I have so that you can't bug me about it."
posted by decathecting at 8:41 AM on January 31, 2011

I also thought of Hepatitis C until you said that the doctor hadn't suggested treatment (although that might be a white lie on her part). It could be considered embarrassing because people sometimes assume it was sexually transmitted (although in reality there are other ways to get it). The treatments are pretty brutal and, like others have noted, last close to a year.
posted by kate blank at 9:00 AM on January 31, 2011

Just to throw it out there...I don't know why migraines would be considered embarrassing, but I do have a colleague who has battled them for years and is now on long-term disability. There is an element of disbelief with it, people saying stuff like "she's missed work for 4 years because of a little headache?" but I am sure that fellow sufferers here can tell you that it's no picnic. I suppose if people were mean to you about it you might choose not to tell anyone.
posted by cabingirl at 9:19 AM on January 31, 2011

Crohn's or Colitis was my first guess. Uncontrollable pooping can be extremely embarrassing, and I certainly had a phase where I was in denial about having to take medication for my entire life from that point on.
posted by MsMolly at 9:43 AM on January 31, 2011

Hmm. I know of people who've taken a year or several years off work due to complications of neurocardiogenic syncope (which is a lot more complicated than it sounds if you go look it up). It's something that seems to get worse and better on its own, no matter how you (attempt to) treat it. Sometimes it's seriously crippling. And it's hard to talk about to people who don't have it, because it's really weird and people don't often understand how it works, particularly since there's no externally visible handicap.

NCS is obscure and not too common. But I'm sure it's not the only disorder out there that has similar issues: not yet well understood, gets better and worse no matter the treatment, and people don't really understand how it's a major problem even when it's explained in detail.

If you want to know more about disorders that might be similar, try reading up on "invisible handicaps." There's only about a million different kinds :)
posted by galadriel at 10:10 AM on January 31, 2011

My first thoughts were depression/anxiety or digestive issues. But I guess it could be almost anything that a year off of school and work would help (relieveing stress can do wonders for things) - maybe she just really wants a break and is embarrassed to say that so she is saying it's a medical leave?
posted by mrs. taters at 10:19 AM on January 31, 2011

Best answer: personally I can't think of a SINGLE illness that is serious enough that you would have to take a whole year off work, but that can spontaneously resolve (and that the doctor wouldn't recommend treatment for)

With all kindness, let me suggest that this approach may be why your friend doesn't want to share details of her medical issues with you.

I, on the other hand, am Ms. Too Much Information here on MeFi, so let me share with you that I had to close my business several years ago because of a serious chronic illness that is probably a virus of some kind, and one of the recommendations made to me by a specialist in functional medicine was taking as much time as possible off from work.

(This proved not to be so feasible for me because even after I closed the business I had a number of projects going, and then caregiving for my in-laws and my dad, and basically I am enough of a workaholic that I haven't been able to do a year's rest or even a month's rest; what I do is mostly go until I crash and then crash for a while and then go again. Much to the chagrin of my doctor, let me tell you.)

You know how when you have a cold or flu or mono all they can do for you is to tell you to rest and drink lots of fluids? Well, serious chronic viruses have roughly the same treatment plan at the moment. And it's a little embarrassing to tell someone that you've had something like mono for years. At least I can leave my house most days, unlike Laura Hillenbrand.

The other thing when you have a chronic viral illness is that people argue with you about it, tell you it's all in your head, etc. Choosing not to disclose is a self-protective measure for many people.

Could also be Crohn's, which is seriously exacerbated by stress (though there are medications for it, an extended period of rest and recuperation and time to experiment with dietary changes would be a huge help), or depression and/or anxiety (a year off, adjusting to medication and doing therapy, would be a magnificent gift to many people, and if your friend has the luxury of being cared for by her parents, how lucky for her).

So, yeah, there are lots of things your friend could have going on which she chooses not to share with you. Taking time off from work for illness--even relatively well-understood acute illnesses like cancer, let alone poorly understood chronic illnesses--is not a choice (or necessity) that everyone is on board with, and people with life-changing illness learn who to trust and who not to trust to confide in.

Perhaps your friend will confide further in you later on. Perhaps she won't. I know you well enough from here to be sure that you will respect her boundaries despite your curiosity; and I hope that some of the stories folks are sharing here offer some potential explanations. Still, only she can tell you what's going on in her specific case, and it's up to her to choose whether to do that or not.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:28 PM on January 31, 2011

My first guess was Crohn's as well - nthing.
posted by naoko at 8:33 PM on January 31, 2011

Here's a possibility: a serious enough thyroid condition. There are different conditions related to the thyroid, some more serious than others. If it's the thyroid, there are, not only varying conditions, but also varying severities (some require serious surgery, some life-long medical treatment, and others seem to be well-controlled through diet and more natural means).

For instance, I have a completely inactive thyroid. While I never needed any kind of surgery (not so far anyway.. I suppose something could develop down the line..), the first couple of years were a nightmare. I was diagnosed right as I was about to go away to college, and because of the symptoms and side effects for the med I was on, I couldn't... function... I completely failed at college, not only academically, but also in the job I had on campus... I squandered all my savings to pay for a tuition and have no degree to show for it. And, it took so much longer to find the right dosage for my medication because I only was able to have all the requisite tests when I'd be home during breaks. Come to think of it, I may have never found the right dosage. I felt so horrible physically and mentally while I was in school and before I got closer to the right dosage, and I WISH that I would have known what a hard time I was going to have. I should have taken a year off. I never would have believed that something that seemed so minor when I was diagnosed with it could have made such a negative impact on my life to this day.

Also, I never talked to any of my friends about the problems I was having. On the one hand, it felt kind of too personal, though I did wish I could tell people that I was having a hard time and it wasn't merely because I was too lazy to go to class or that I was too stupid to be in college. I assumed that everyone who knew I wasn't doing well academically just assumed those two traits. So, while I wanted help and wanted someone to talk to, I didn't think that anyone would take me seriously and I didn't feel comfortable talking about my screwed up endocrine system with people who I didn't think would understand or be able to relate. That MIGHT be what your friend was expressing when she told you that she had an illness but was too embarrassed to discuss it further.. but then kept bringing it up. Just an idea. Even if I'm way off about a thyroid condition, my last paragraph here might be what she is thinking when she SORT OF shares her health info with you but remains vague but continuously brings it up.
posted by Mael Oui at 11:40 PM on January 31, 2011

My wild guess: MS
posted by sero_venientibus_ossa at 1:34 PM on February 1, 2011

Response by poster: Cool, thanks everyone. That number of plausible possibilities does indeed scratch the itch of trying to think of the "spotted yellow sour fruit" (which in retrospect was not an especially good analogy, because that would probably have been a lemon) :)

I marked a few best answers because they did fit all the clues in the original post, or they were particularly creative about other possibilities. But there were a lot more good answers there too.

I will now go back to respecting my friend's boundaries and not asking questions.

Just to reassure anyone still worrying: if she does confide in me, I'm not going to tell anyone else, or tell her it's all in her head, or express incredulity that she would take a year off "for that" - in my opinion, people's medical issues are for them to deal with in whatever way they can and I know that it's not possible for an outsider to understand how debilitating an illness can be, even when they have experienced it for themselves, since these things express themselves differently in different people. And finally - we really are very close friends and have been for a long time, so I DO believe what she is telling me - Londonmark is off the mark a little, I think (hah!). I don't at all think it is attention seeking, but rather honest indecision about how much to share coupled with the need to talk to someone.
posted by lollusc at 4:40 PM on February 2, 2011

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