The Advantages of Disadvantages

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I have three autoimmune diseases. There’s a classification for people like me. What we have is called MAS, Multiple Autoimmune Syndrome. It’s when a person has three or more diagnosed autoimmune diseases. Having one autoimmune disease makes one susceptible to developing others, especially if diagnosis and proper treatment are delayed. Of my three, only one was diagnosed within months of symptom onset, the other two each took well over a decade (common story in autoimmune circles). MAS is like dominos and it should mean that I’m hopelessly sick and getting sicker. It should be a giant weakness.

I’m not sick though and I’m not getting sicker and I don’t live in fear of the next domino falling. My diseases are actually in many ways a source of strength for me. Let me explain . . .

I’ve recognized for a while now that many of the most difficult things I’d ever gone through often turned out to have given me a special edge in some way. I totally could not see it in the moment and certainly never consciously thought, “This [expletive] sucky experience is going to give me an edge somehow.” However, if I could manage to find the positive in a hardship, it would often turn out to be a really valuable strength in facing a current challenge.

When the author Malcolm Gladwell came out with his fifth New York Times Bestseller, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants, I was very interested in scooping it up. It is a book all about this very thing I was noticing, how and why disadvantages can actually be enormous advantages. In it he names that thing I’d been noticing, the “desirable difficulty,” which was a concept created by psychologists Robert and Elizabeth Bjork. I finally read the book recently and Gladwell perfectly articulated this concept, with amazing stories and research.

My diseases are in many ways an advantage and I’d argue that yours are too. If we are able to make the leap and view our supposedly unfavorable situations through another lens, there may be many ways in which they turn out to be favorable. I want to convince you that making a paradigm shift; some necessary changes in your assumptions, is very empowering and could be a huge key to healing. Here are three new ways to view your autoimmune disease:

  1. Unexpected freedom comes with having nothing to lose.  In Gladwell’s book, he talks about the advantage we have when we have nothing left to lose. Distinctly, I felt the power of this advantage when I adopted the Autoimmune Protocol as my principal method for managing my diseases. I was desperate. I was in the ER regularly with increasingly severe medical problems and my mental health was collapsing. Giving AIP a shot was a no-brainer to me at that moment. Giving up all my favorite foods, choosing what seemed to be a very restrictive diet, and eating in a way that was polar opposite of our culture seemed like a comparatively small risk. Having nothing left to lose made it easy for me to become an early adopter of what is now increasingly being recognized as a powerful way for those with autoimmune disease to heal. Maybe you can see the power in having “nothing to lose” and want to become part of the next wave of early adopters who heal themselves?
  2. Terrible and traumatic can equal courage.  Gladwell tells the story in David and Goliath of the British response to the horrific bombings they endured during World War II at the hands of the Nazis. Even though London was practically destroyed and many thousands were killed, injured, or lost their homes, numerous citizens came through the trauma better off. Day after day, as the bombing continued, these people survived “remote misses,” moments where their lives could have ended. Facing the worst-case scenario and surviving relieved their fear and built an indomitable confidence. While I’ve never had to face the bombing of my city, I’ve had plenty of big and small worst-case scenario moments in my live, not least of which came at the hands of my diseases, and I’ll bet you have faced some too. I’ve survived every single one of them and my confidence in my ability to handle whatever comes next is rock solid. While you are evaluating your remote misses, don’t forget to tap the new reserve of courage that came with each one.
  3. Easy doesn’t make for powerful.  Over and over in David and Goliath, Gladwell shares stories of people whose lives were severely handicapped in one way or the other, some of them beginning in childhood. Orphaned, learning disabilities, poverty . . . and yet these people went on to be extremely successful, some of them changing history. An easy life, where all the advantages come to one easily, might not actually be an advantage at all. Learning to cope with setbacks, developing skills out of necessity, having to face our deep fears, might set the stage for far greater things. For instance, I am a much more empathetic person after the experience of almost being swallowed up by an unidentified disease. Completely losing my health helped me, arguably the hard way, develop a very positive trait. What skills have you learned or in what ways have you changed for the better due to your autoimmune experience? Don’t discount the powerful gifts that came from your struggle.

Another author, Stella Payton, said, “Then like dominoes . . . it feels like the world is collapsing around me. But when I yield, when I surrender to the necessary change, I can stand back and look at the beautiful picture created by what seemed to be my world falling apart.” First I had one autoimmune disease, and then I had two, and now I have three, but MAS is not my world falling apart. I made some adjustments in how I view things, surrendered to some necessary changes, and now what I see, instead of weakness, are some very desirable difficulties.

About Angie Alt

Angie Alt is part of the blogging duo behind Autoimmune Wellness. She helps others take charge of their health the same way she took charge of her own after suffering with Celiac and other autoimmune diseases; one creative, nutritious meal at a time. Her special focus is on mixing “data with soul” by looking at the honest heart of the autoimmune journey (which sometimes includes curse words). She’s also a world traveler who has been medically evacuated from two foreign countries. Strategizing worst-case scenarios is now something of a hobby. She is a Certified Health Coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and author of The Alternative Autoimmune Cookbook: Eating for All Phases of the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol. You can also find her on Instagram.

17 comments

  • Martine says

    Great article, Angie! I loved that book so much that I bought a copy and gave it to my dad for Father’s Day. One of my fave quotes from Gladwell’s book — “conventions are made to be challenged.” Booyah. Warrior on, my friend. 🙂

    • Angie Alt says

      Thanks Martine!! My “desirable difficulties” are helping me “warrior up” really nicely. I know you are working them too! Keep on keeping on lady!!

  • Katherine says

    Great article and outlook. Thanks for making me realize I have to better embrace my autoimmune diseases by not being a victim to it but a fighter of it !

    • Angie Alt says

      Thanks so much for reading Katherine! Power to the warriors!! 😉

  • […] The Advantages of Disadvantages […]

  • Zsolt says

    Great, enquarinóging article, thanks Angie! Maybe it helps me staying alive. I just wondering give up since my wife is fed up with my diet (I can understand her) and I become tired to fight and continue; I feel alone. Good to know there are people who can feel great with strange diet as well. Maybe I should find friends who are on similar diet…

    • Angie Alt says

      Zsolt, definitely, finding others will help expand your support network & having more support helps us keep going when things get tough.

  • Evalin says

    Hi Angie!!
    Been to hospital for several tests this week, and it has been an emotional roller coaster! From one to possible two severe diagnosis’ (systemic scleroderma/myosotis).. I will still not know for sure until September due to summer holidays.
    I have started meditation, I have started to stretch destroyed connective tissue in my hand every day, I go for long walks, I eat strictly AIP (have for 3-4 weeks), I see an acupuncturist, and I will start training the rest of my body soon.
    (Feels like I am doing everything right!?)

    But every time I feel an ache in my body, my brain goes into panic mode: What can this be? Is it dangerous, will it eat me up from inside? …and worse…
    I wonder how I will be able to handle my anxiety. Right now I think it is my biggest obstacle.

    • Angie Alt says

      Evalin, it is so tough! I know it! I think it is okay & completely normal to experience that anxiety. But once you’ve given yourself permission to experience, remember how much you’ve already been through & handled well. Tap that strength as you move forward!! <3

    • Sue says

      Evalin, I had those same panicky times that you are describing about a year ago as I was spiraling into autoimmune disease. I found the acupuncture to be a lifeline at that early stage of beginning the aip protocol. I told my acupuncturist I wish I could come for a session every day.

      I have since seen dramatic improvement in my symptoms. I am so thankful to Angie and the other AIP warriors and bloggers out there who have shared their experience, strength and hope. Like Angie, I feel that my experiences with autoimmune disease have made me a more informed patient, and I love how empowered I have been to do something to take charge of my own health without feeling I needed a doctor to magically fix me. I now have started a Take Charge of your Health support group to try to share my experience, strength, and hope with others. Life is not always easy, but it is good. Our times of greatest difficulty offer us opportunities for our greatest growth. You’ve got this!

  • I couldn’t agree more! I’ve experienced the dominoes and lost everything financially….as well as my MCTD and an inoperable herniated disc..and you know, I love my life! I am so grateful! The lessons I’ve learned, the people I’ve met..was a full time RVer as a back up and punt….I’m.glad it’s not just me who has seen the silver lining!

  • Linda says

    Fantastic piece Angie! So true, having auoimmune disorders meant I left a job I hated to work part time for a non profit and volunteer with older adults, both of which are rewarding and fun. Changing my diet and lifestyle has dramatically improved my health in many other ways than just healing my autoimmine issues. I know who I can rely on and my marriage is stronger after 5 months of illness. I can deal with anything that comes my way because every day I am choosing to fight back against autoimmune disease and mostly winning! I cherish every minute of healthy happiness now.

    • Angie Alt says

      Yesss!!! Love your perspective Linda! Thanks for reading!

  • […] article I read about that exact topic recently on Mickey Trescott’s website called “The Advantages of Disadvantages” written by Angie Alt, another prominent figure in the AIP community.  The article mentions […]

  • […] Reframe (and the positive impact on dealing with autoimmune disease) […]

  • Ashlyn says

    Hello, I am curious what autoimmune diseases you have if that is not too personal. I have two known ones but I feel there is something more wrong with me. I am currently researching different ways (nutrition and naturopathy) to help the symptoms and trying to get to the root of my illness. Thank you!

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Hi Ashlyn, you can read both of our stories on the tab up above linked “our story” – good luck!

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