My Disease Is Shown (Inaccurately) In Every Medical Drama
Ever faked a stomachache? When you're young, that's called "Jimmy Tusco wants to fight you by the flagpole after school." But when you're an adult, it's called Munchausen syndrome. In addition to being a required plot point in every medical drama, it makes life harder for everyone from doctors to people with legitimate mystery illnesses. It's also rough on the people who suffer from Munchausen, because they'll go to insane, unhealthy lengths to fake illnesses. We spoke to Karol, who recovered from Munchausen, and she told us...
You'll Inject Yourself With Feces To Make Yourself Sick
When Karol was 18, she "lucked" into a pilonidal cyst, which is the fancy book-learnin' name for an abscess at the top of your butt crack. Karol said that after her legitimate surgery, "I promptly began making sure it wouldn't heal. That went on for a while, perhaps a few years."
We won't ruin your day with a photo of a pilonidal cyst, but this should
give you some idea of what Karol was willingly doing to herself.
So this is a lot more than going to the doctor to complain about some vague pain just so that someone will listen to you long enough for you to transition into an anecdote about your cats. Karol was repeatedly tearing open her own backside. And when picking at her wounds was no longer sufficient, she began actively creating them.
"I started stealing needles from the hospital. I would inject infectious material into my body."
"Infectious materials" is the fancy book-learnin' name for shit. The kind that comes from a butt.
Like the Trainspotting toilet scene and drug scene combined.
"The process was basically something like this: Collect some shit in a little container. Mix with water to make it watery. Fill a syringe. Use a needle to inject into the area I wanted to cause an abscess in."
Eventually, Karol switched from feces to saliva. Not because injecting feces into your own body can damage your organs or even kill you (it can, and happily will!), but because it smelled bad. That was her sole objection. At this point, "faking it" becomes nebulous -- she was doing it for attention, but it was making her legitimately and incredibly sick.
We were as shocked as you to learn that cramming literal shit into your bloodstream might have ill effects.
"I was poisoning myself, and that's how I gave myself sepsis twice. I was in the hospital for two weeks both times, on massive doses of antibiotics, and it's not pleasant, because your entire body aches. I got the worst migraines. You can't sleep because you're feverish. I was in the hospital every few months, in and out."
She talks about it like it was inconvenient. Sepsis is some of the most serious shit shit can pull. Most cases have a 30 percent fatality rate, while the more serious forms hit 50 percent. So it's probably a good thing that Karol didn't go for the Injecting Yourself With Your Own Shit Triple Crown.
You Do It Because Something Else Is Wrong
So by now, you're probably wondering why -- or, more accurately, "Dear God, why?"
"The thing with factitious disorders is that they don't happen out of the blue. I'm a big believer in the idea that it's a coping mechanism. People who do this, they've got something else -- bipolar, schizophrenia, etc. People do this because they want attention that they're not getting in other ways."
Cards, flowers, and attentive visitors are one tiny little poke from the shit syringe away.
Research suggests a hodgepodge of potential causes: underlying physical or mental issues, personality disorders, childhood neglect, a serious craving for those little cheeses they put in "get well" baskets, etc. In Karol's case, she knew exactly why she was doing it.
"I wasn't getting correct treatment for my bipolar and borderline personality disorder. I've been in treatment since I was 13, I was discharged when I was 18, and I tried calling them up and they said, 'You are not an immediate danger to yourself or others.'"
So Karol did the logical thing (well, the logical thing for someone who is deeply unwell) and made herself an immediate danger to herself.
"I was begging for help, and I wasn't getting the help I needed. When you go to the hospital, you're cared for, you get attention, and when you go home, that goes away."
Doctors Figure You Out, But Don't Want To Help You
When you're in and out of the hospital more than a stretcher, you get to know the staff rather well. And since doctors generally know a thing or two about medicine, it doesn't take them long to figure out why you're coming in like clockwork every fortnight with a shiny new festering hole in your body. And like anyone else forced to do unnecessary work, they're not happy about it.
"Think you can schedule the next abscess without me? I'm missing my kid's game for this."
"They tend to take it as a personal affront, which always confused me. When I was doing my nursing training, there was some discussion between these doctors that this patient may have a factitious disorder, and they were all really offended by it. Why would you be offended?! It's a mental disorder. I had a surgeon who got really angry, because I think he caught on to what I was doing, and they tend to take it really personally. They're like, 'How dare you do this. You're wasting my time,' and I'm like, 'Yeah, but I'm also wasting myself. I could be killing myself.'"
It's understandable. Doctors are very busy, there are a lot of patients to treat, and they don't want to waste their time on Ol' Poo-Blood when some kid in the next room has cancer. But someone with infectious landmines all over their body needs help regardless of how they got there. Luckily, some doctors had a better response.
Such as the controversial stance of "Treat self-imposed sepsis like it might indicate a serious fucking problem."
"When I moved on to doing the breast abscess, I had a really understanding surgeon. He figured it out pretty quickly. He pulled me aside and asked, 'Are you doing this to yourself?' and I said, 'Yep! I can't stop! I've tried!' He said, 'Well, I'll keep operating on you because I don't want you to be hurt, but you should really get help.' At that point, I was not ready to get help."
It Can Destroy You Financially
People often mistake Munchausen's, which is making up disorders for attention, with malingering, which is faking to get a benefit like welfare payments, escape from military service, time off work, or pity-likes on a Facebook post. But while attention is a sort of benefit, it's not really a tangible one, unless your friends make damn good sympathy brownies. Instead, you can just end up with a lot of hospital bills.
And, very occasionally, quite a bit more.
Karol lives in one of those commie countries where they give citizens free healthcare and borscht in exchange for turning over all their guns and bald eagles, so she didn't rack up expenses. But time spent injecting poop into yourself and then suffering the consequences is time spent away from the office, and that has its own financial consequences.
"There'd be weeks when I couldn't work. I'm lucky; since I was 18, I've been on the disability support pension. I was working back then, but if I didn't have the pension to fall back on, I would have ended up back at home with my parents or on the street."
For those asking, "What could be worse than spending all that time in a hospital?!" here's your answer.
Now imagine you live in the land of the free (to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of hospital bills). Remarkably few debt collectors accept payment via Hallmark cards with sad cartoon bears on them. No, not even if they say "I'm beary sorry you're not feeling well."
Here's a case of a man whose doctors cut him off of treatment because he couldn't keep paying his bills. Here's a woman who accumulated over a million dollars seeking facetious treatments for her toddler. And here's a video of baby sloths to make up for those first two links.
You Can Get Help From Unlikely Sources, But The Damage Is Permanent
Any illness can have long-term consequences, including the ones you inflict on yourself. Karol can't feel anything on a huge part of her butt, which tends to happen when you spend years digging pieces out of it. While that does let you wow your friends with your superhuman ability to withstand spankings, there are downsides.
"I'm missing so much muscle there now, I can't lay down on my back on padded surfaces. I studied beauty therapy, and whenever we had to do facials, I had to be able to sit down to do them, because I couldn't stand up and bend over someone for an hour. It was too painful."
No one wants to explain that they need a stool because of stool.
It also makes it difficult for her to visit the hospital, even if it's for a legitimate purpose. Kind of like how recovering meth addicts can't simply swing by the Walmart without getting those old temptations. Luckily, Karol's disorder also led her to a new career path.
"I was always really into nursing and medicine, so I did a lot of research before I started making myself sick. It actually had a good outcome, because I ended up specializing in wound care. I had to see a wound care nurse just about every day for a year and a half, I kind of empathize with people who have chronic wounds."
Plus, it's a lot easier to keep people from picking at their stitches when you can break out the butt numbness story.
So what finally inspired Karol to seek help? Did she make herself so sick that she finally realized she had a problem? Did one inspirational doctor finally give her the help she needed, and in doing so kick off an unusually disgusting Nicolas Sparks story? Or did she realize that no one was feeding her cat? Yeah, it's the last one.
"I decided I had to stop making myself sick because I couldn't look after him and be sick."
You can't get/give nuzzles from the ER.
She then had a psychotic break. "I started believing God was talking to me, and all of that sort of stuff, and because God disapproved of all of this stuff and me hurting myself, I had to stop. I went to a doctor and got a proper diagnosis." Her treatment addressed her underlying mental disorders, allowing her to finally work on her real problem and move on with her life. Which is great and all, but it's worrying that help had to come from a cat and the voice of God instead of, you know, a doctor. Maybe the cat can get a medical degree.
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