It’s a commonly used term in medicine. The analogy goes like this: If you hear hoofbeats, you assume there’s a horse, and you turn around prepared to encounter a horse. But once in a while, it isn’t a horse. It’s a zebra (http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Zebra_(medicine)).
In my case, the corollary is this: A fat person walks into a medical office. The doctor sees a fat person. He or she assumes the problem is obesity, and prepares to deliver whatever treatment is standard for encouraging the patient to lose weight. (Never mind that science has not yet figured out how to reliably make fat people thinner, or even whether that’s always the best idea.)
But if you have lipedema, you’re a zebra. And you can’t lose the weight, because there’s something wrong with your body that prevents it from shedding fat, especially below the waist.
This is why I tell people about my condition every chance I get, especially people in the medical field. It’s not because I’m angling for attention (I love attention, but there are far better ways to get it) or trying to make excuses for myself. I want to let people know about lipedema because my mother went to her grave thinking it was her fault she couldn’t lose the weight in her legs. I don’t want anyone else to have to blame herself for having this condition.
I learned about the zebra analogy today from my friend Lucia, who has medical professionals in her family. Lucia and I have known each other since our early 20s, when we both worked at a newspaper outside of Boston, making very little money and managing to derive quite a bit of amusement out of life. We have both been through a lot since then (she in particular has pursued her career in such places as London, Kabul and Hong Kong) and she is still one of my most valued friends. I talked with her about my increasing disability, about having to cancel fun plans last weekend because I needed to take care of my still-healing leg, about having to use a walker.
She reminded me of a time many years ago when she was living in London and I came to visit her. I am the sort of person who likes to plan trips, I mean really PLAN them, with spreadsheets and directions and maps and guidebooks. So despite the fact that she actually lived there, when we got together I was determined that I knew how to get where we were going, and deployed all my information resources to see as much as possible during my time in the city. Fortunately, Lucia is a very nice person and thought this was kind of cute, rather than being justifiably irritated with me, and she reminded me of it today. The person who charges ahead and makes things happen — that’s the person I am at heart, not the person who needs help or has to go slowly or needs a rest. Unfortunately, my body is no longer on board with my personality.
But there are worse things than being a zebra.