By Wendy Lyman
Comorbidities: Ignorance Isn’t Bliss
What is comorbidity? I will admit that during my earlier adult years, I didn’t know what it meant. I had read it in medical contexts, but when I saw the word, I fixated on the morbid part. Assuming comorbidity referred to illnesses that led to death, I felt no need for any more knowledge on the subject. Ignorance is bliss, right?
Over the next 20+ years, I would become well-versed in the different languages of various illnesses and conditions while raising my son, Noah, but I wasn’t completely fluent. The word comorbidity kept popping up in medical conversations about these health issues, so I decided to expand my vocabulary. The day I learned that comorbidity refers to a second (or third) disease or condition that accompanies an existing illness, many things became clearer to me.
And while they say a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, I argue that sometimes a little knowledge can be remarkably empowering. As soon as I understood that inflammatory bowel disease and psychiatric disorders could be comorbidities of autism spectrum disorder, I realized that my son had the trifecta of all three. We had hit the mother lode!
I went out that day and bought a Lotto ticket. (I did not win.)
The Serenity Prayer
Although I was none the richer financially, I realized that I had gained a newfound understanding of Noah’s medical situation. I thought back to when he was a preschooler and believed that if I had understood the concept of comorbidity from the start, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so much guilt when I had ignored my better judgment and let the psychiatrists put my child on mood stabilizing medication. Or when I believed I had somehow caused my son’s ulcerative colitis through my unfortunate genes. If someone had explained the term comorbidity to me when Noah was diagnosed at two and a half years old with autism spectrum disorder, perhaps I would have been better prepared.
I often turn back to the Serenity Prayer at questioning moments like these:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
My understanding of the possibilities of these comorbidities has helped me along this journey. The more I’ve learned about autism spectrum disorder, ulcerative colitis, and the mental health issues that my son battles every day of his life, the more tools I’ve gained for managing expectations more reasonably. And this protects my serenity.
For example, Noah’s lack of executive functioning makes him unable to self-manage his gastrointestinal health and self-care completely on his own. This was critical for his father and me to understand when our son was faced with learning how to live with an ostomy bag. The patience and support that he required were more than a neurotypical young man with relatively sound mental health would probably need.
With said patience and time, Noah has learned to manage the bag on his own… most of the time. And it is that last phrase which could drive less aware parents to lose some serenity if they cannot accept the reality of concurring conditions. But if they do accept what they can do to learn more about the situation and better support their child, they will parent with the wisdom and serenity that comes from this recognition.
The truth is that we can win through our knowledge of how to handle these comorbidities, and the chances of success are much greater than the chances of winning the lottery. Trust me on that one.
Wendy Lyman is the mother of two children: an adult son with a slew of acronym diagnoses, including ASD, OCD, GAD, and UC (ulcerative colitis), as well as a neurotypical adult daughter who grew up in the shadow of her older brother. Wendy is also an ESL professor and writer of six published novels (as Wendy Ramer). A Floridian by birth and upbringing, Wendy now lives in Virginia. You can find more out more about her on LinkedIn and Amazon.