Best known for the hilarious skits on “The Carol Burnett Show”, Emmy-winning actress Vicki Lawrence is getting serious in a real-life role as an advocate for those living with chronic hives – a condition that she was diagnosed with more than four years ago.
It all started when Lawrence woke up with a relentless itch on the palms of her hands. The itch returned the next day and by that afternoon, hives had spread to her abdomen as well.
Days passed but the itch persisted, she recalled in an interview with Allergic Living.
“You know what Mama would say: ‘What the heck is goin’ on here?’” she says in the voice of her classic character from the 80s sitcom “Mama’s Family”.
Searching for answers, Lawrence visited an allergist and, after six weeks of unresolved hives, she was diagnosed with chronic idiopathic urticaria (CIU) – a condition that affects nearly 1.5 million Americans.
Lawrence explains the condition by breaking it down: chronic meaning a long-lasting condition, idiopathic meaning that there is no known cause, and urticaria or “the fancy doctor word for hives.” This disease is twice as common in women, usually between the ages of 20 and 40, and symptoms can show up anywhere on the body.
For Lawrence, the first sign was bumps that quickly puffed up and took over her skin. “Little islands would turn into continents,” she says. “You look at your own skin and you think there’s no way it’s ever going to look normal again because you look like an alligator.”
The more she scratched, the more she wanted to scratch. Lawrence says she would “claw” herself and the cold was the only way to relieve her burning, itchy body. She recalls putting her hands into ice water, and when the hives spread, she shivered through a frigid shower followed by applying menthol lotion all over her body to ease the itch. After her diagnosis, her allergist prescribed medications that have brought her true relief – she is successfully keeping the chronic hives under control.
But regaining an itch-free epidermis is only part of the battle, says Lawrence. According to the California native, the most difficult aspect of this whole experience is accepting that you may never know what is causing the hives.
“Anytime you have hives or any sort of reaction like this, you’re assuming that it’s something you’ve done wrong,” says Lawrence. One of her doctors suspected the culprit to be the new vitamin regimen she was trying, her daughter told her to see a holistic healer to try a new diet, and a friend advised her to stop drinking red wine. When her allergist diagnosed her with CIU, Lawrence recalled that he joked that the root of the word “idiopathic” is “idiot” – because there is just no known rhyme or reason to it.
With her condition now under control, the famed comedic actress has joined forces with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) to spread the word about CIU.
“I just want people to know that they’re not alone,” says Lawrence. “You’re not the only one that’s dealing with it. It’s real. You haven’t made it up and you’re not losing your marbles.”
The CIU & You campaign provides detailed information about the condition as well as support for patients, allowing them to track symptoms, and encouraging them to speak with their doctor about potential treatment options – resources that Lawrence says were previously unavailable.
When she initially went online to find out more about her diagnosis, all she found were blogs and forums asking the same questions she was asking. “I didn’t find any place where you could get good information that made a lot of sense,” she says, adding that the CIU & You project offers that and helps patients trying to make sense of their symptoms. “It will give people hope – and answers,” says Lawrence.
As for the television icon and comedienne, who has also appeared on Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, dealing with CIU is just part of the next chapter in her life. “Planning and scripting will only take you so far,” she says. “The fact is that life is full of improv moments and working through my CIU is one of those.”