Stand-Up Comic Ayanna Dookie Stands Up For Lupus Awareness

Photo Credit: Mindy Tucker
Photo Credit: Mindy Tucker

People who live with a chronic illness have to ultimately find a way to manage their symptoms. For 34-year-old Ayanna Dookie, one of the ways she manages having lupus is through stand-up comedy.

Dookie has been performing for over a decade and has achieved several noteworthy accolades, including being selected as a semi-finalist in NBC’s Stand-Up for Diversity and a finalist in the New York Underground Comedy Festival Emerging Comics Competition. She’s also appeared on FOX’s Laughs and Comcast-on-Demand. Some of Dookie’s most well-received jokes on stage involve her sharing her story about having lupus.

“Pretty much all of my stand-up is about me, so lupus is just another aspect of that,” she said. “Stand-up helps me a lot in general, though, because your brain doesn’t give you the chance to think about being in pain. There are so many moving parts to performing stand-up that all of your energy just shifts towards that.”

Dookie was first diagnosed in November 2012, shortly after her 31st birthday. She had ongoing pain in her wrist, but initially thought her desk job had caused carpal tunnel syndrome. A cortisone shot from her doctor briefly helped reduce the pain, but she knew the issue was more serious when she woke up one morning and couldn’t straighten her hands.

“They were curled up like a claw and I couldn’t even open my bedroom door. I got in a hot shower and they both relaxed, but then it happened again the next morning,” she explained. “I went to the doctor and did blood work and they told me I tested positive for lupus, so they sent me to a rheumatologist.”

Dookie’s only knowledge of lupus at the time was that singer Toni Braxton was also diagnosed with it. She began using the Internet to learn all she could about the illness, but found true support when a fellow comic introduced her to one of his college friends, Sharon Harris, who also had lupus. Harris created and runs a non-profit in the Detroit, Mich. area called Lupus Detroit.

“She’s been a wealth of knowledge and the person that I always call when I have a question that I don’t necessarily want to ask my doctor, or if I’m just frustrated,” said Dookie. Because I don’t look like I’m sick, people don’t realize that I sometimes struggle with depression over being limited in what I can do. Talking with someone who hasn’t experienced that isn’t the same because they can provide empathy, but they don’t truly know how it feels.”

Having to manage a full-time job during the day and performing at night would be challenging enough for most people, but can prove to be even more of a balancing act for someone with a chronic illness. She’s only had to cancel a handful of shows over the years due to lupus symptoms flaring up, but that’s also because she’s figured a routine of self-care over the years.

“If I book a show every night of the week, I’m setting myself up for failure. I need at least one night a week to veg out and not do anything,” said Dookie. “I try to exercise even if I’m tired because I know it provides a lot of energy. Once I get into a good routine, then it becomes a lot easier. I try not to beat myself up if I can’t do something because I’m tired, which is what I used to do when I was first diagnosed. I also make sure the people who are closest to me know how I feel because when the symptoms get painful, my patience can get short and I can sometimes snap on people even if I don’t intend to.”

But perhaps the biggest challenge Dookie faces is from people who don’t understand how she can be so active while still having a chronic illness.  Because she doesn’t outwardly show any symptoms, Dookie said that some people over the years have felt she’s exaggerating the pain she might be feeling.

“Lupus is considered an invisible disease because it’s internal, so you can’t necessarily look at someone and tell what they’re going through. People will tell me I look great and I think, “Am I supposed to look raggedy?” she laughed. “Because lupus isn’t a mainstream disease, people tend to disregard it or think you’re being a hypochondriac. I think the most important thing is to be an advocate for yourself and take care of yourself, even if others don’t understand what you’re going through.”