Paper short abstract:
Prevailing metaphors of autoimmunity describe it as the body attacking itself, mistaking self for non-self, flesh for foe. This paper explores how women with autoimmune diseases in regional Australia navigate meaning, illness, and life when their immune systems target their own flesh.
Paper long abstract:
Autoimmune diseases (ADs) affect approximately 1 in 20 people in Australia. In many ADs the body alters its own flesh in ways that can be painful, life-changing, and life-ending; with prevailing metaphors of autoimmunity describing it as the body attacking itself, mistaking self for non-self, flesh for foe. This is often the default lay-explanation of autoimmunity provided to the newly diagnosed and is frequently used by people with ADs to explain their illnesses to others. These metaphors have prompted theorising on what the phenomenon of autoimmunity means for the relationship between the body and self, questioning the usefulness or otherwise of metaphors that draw on the self attacking itself (e.g. Cohen 2004; 2017). Despite the persistence and prominence of these metaphors, little is understood about how people with ADs live with this paradox. Drawing on my current PhD research project that investigates the illness and support experiences of women with ADs in regional Australia, this paper explores how women navigate meaning, illness, and life when their immune systems target their own flesh. It questions the place of metaphors of autoimmunity in the everyday lives of women with life-long and life-ending illnesses in a culture where health and illness are considered matters of personal responsibility. In this cultural context, I seek to understand how women might reconcile the expectation that they take personal responsibility for maintaining or improving their health, with the notion that autoimmunity is violence perpetrated on the self, by the self.
Flesh in an age of death