Real and inspiring stories voices of the chronic illness community
By Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio
Her illustrations and comics circulate far and wide among the chronic illness community on social media. They’re funny in their relatability — after all, who among us hasn’t wandered frantically through the house in search of our glasses, only to find that they’ve been sitting on our heads all along?
If you haven’t guessed, we’re talking about the talent behind the entertaining blog, Miss Diagnoses. Her name is Vicky Novinsky, and she uses humor to tackle her experiences of living with several chronic illnesses (hence, her blog’s name), including chronic Lyme disease, multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), mast cell activation syndrome, repetitive strain injury, endometriosis, and more.
We caught up with Vicky to learn more about the inspiration behind her drawings, and how she hopes to encourage others struggling with chronic health conditions as they navigate their own misunderstood and misdiagnosed illnesses.
RawlsMD (RMD): You started Miss Diagnoses in December 2013. Why did you decide to begin blogging about your health issues? Was this before you had been diagnosed with Lyme?
Vicki Novinsky: I was in a telephone chronic illness support group, and one of the members had started an illness blog. I was really impressed with her ability to turn her misfortune into stories that helped other people. I decided that I wanted to do something similar, but include drawings. This was right before I was diagnosed with Lyme in 2014.
I started by doing illustrated blog posts. Later on, I found David Skidmore’s Lyme Loonies cartoons. They were so brilliant, and I was inspired to try to do more drawings.
Unfortunately, my repetitive strain injury got in the way (and continues to get in the way). So in 2014, I created a lot of posts with cartoons, and then my arm flared up, and I couldn’t do anything until 2016. Then, I did a lot of cartoon posts through 2017 and part of 2018, and then my arm flared up again. I love making cartoons, but my body doesn’t always let me do it.
RMD: In what ways do you think blogging has helped you cope with multiple chronic illnesses?
Vicky: I saw this quote somewhere: “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer. It is all just material.” I’m not sure who said it, but I’ve seen it attributed to both Garrison Keillor and Philip Roth. It really resonated with me.
Everything could be turned into material: A bad doctor’s appointment, symptoms, the way others treated me because of my illness. It felt great to take my misery and turn it into something creative.
RMD: It only takes about 10 seconds on your blog to see that humor is a big part of the way you handle challenging circumstances. Has humor always been a tool in your toolbox for dealing with life’s difficulties, or is that something that you developed after you became ill?
Vicky: Humor is definitely one of my favorite coping mechanisms. It gives me a break from dealing with painful situations, and it also creates emotional distance from those situations. I like making other people laugh, because then I can give them a break from dealing with their pain.
Also, I’ve always been extremely shy and socially awkward. I’m an only child, and I didn’t have a lot of friends as a kid. I felt like there was a book of social rules that everyone else had gotten, and I never received. I noticed that if I made a lot of jokes, people didn’t notice my social awkwardness as much.
RMD: Are you a self-taught illustrator, or do you have an art background?
Vicky: I am mostly self-taught, as you can probably tell by my drawings! I have a bit of an art background because my BA degree is in art history, and I studied handbag design for a while after finishing college. I took a lot of standard fine-art drawing classes, where I drew objects or people, but I never took a cartooning or illustration class.
I was always a compulsive doodler — my teachers in high school thought I was a very conscientious note-taker because I was bent over my notebook all the time. I was really just doodling constantly. Every envelope and piece of paper in my house has some kind of doodle on it.
I was never good at realistic drawing, so I was not a standout student in my art classes. I love cartooning because it doesn’t have to look “perfect.”
RMD: When you create illustrations or comics, what message do you hope to convey to those who see them?
Vicky: I guess I want to tell people that they’re not alone, and to help them feel a little better by giving them a laugh. Some symptoms are easier to laugh at than others. I think I did so many brain fog cartoons because, while brain fog is horrible, it can also be funny.
I love the idea of using cartoons to connect with other people with chronic illness. I also love the idea of using cartoons to raise awareness among healthy people.
RMD: Have you found it beneficial to connect with others in the Lyme disease community?
Vicky: It has been wonderful connecting with other people in the Lyme disease community, and also the ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome) and MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity) communities. I’ve met some incredible people who I wouldn’t have met if I hadn’t gotten sick.
I only wish all these people lived next door, and I could meet them in person! I would love it if my social life were less virtual. Still, I’m grateful to have met people from all over the world.
RMD: What are a few of the misconceptions about Lyme disease that you see repeatedly stated over and over again?
Vicky: Oh my God, where do I start? Well, the worst one is the idea that Lyme is not as common as it is. Then, there’s the misconception that everyone gets a bull’s-eye rash. Then there’s the whole idea that short-term antibiotics work for everyone. Finally, there’s the lack of belief in chronic Lyme.
I live in a state that is hyperendemic for Lyme, and I have friends and acquaintances who have moved to the very worst areas. I gave them very long, very annoying lectures, but they didn’t listen because they wanted to be close to nature. Nature can be dangerous — I’m fine with being close to concrete. To any of these friends who might be reading this, I hope you’re wearing repellent and doing full-body tick checks!
RMD: What would you say to other Lyme patients who may have a talent such as drawing or writing but are afraid to use it? How would you encourage them to move out of their comfort zone and give their talents a shot?
Vicky: I would say, do it! It feels great to turn pain into creativity. Also, the chronic illness community is really forgiving and not very judgmental. So even if you’ve gotten negative feedback about your art or writing from teachers or anyone else, give it a shot. You might really help someone who finds your work relatable.
RMD: For people who are feeling discouraged by Lyme disease and Lyme symptoms, what advice would you give them?
Vicky: Do everything you can to get better, but research carefully, because there are a lot of scams out there.
Also, don’t think about becoming the person you were before you got sick. I got so depressed doing that. Now, I just think in terms of improving my current symptoms and also addressing other issues that might be interfering with my recovery. Once you start dealing with Lyme, you begin thinking about other problems such as mast cell activation syndrome, mold, and dental issues.
Another thing I like to keep in mind is that not every ache and pain is caused by Lyme or coinfections. My years of dealing with a repetitive strain injury have taught me that a lot of pain is caused by tight muscles, bad posture, sleeping in a weird position, and other mechanical problems.
I think my main advice is: never give up fighting, but always be kind to yourself and treat yourself with compassion. Find other sick people you can talk to, because healthy people can be judgmental.
You will find people who think that having a chronic illness is a character flaw, and you just have to dismiss their ignorance and support yourself. Learning to be supportive of myself is something I struggle with, but it’s incredibly important.