Miss California USA Allyshia Gupta Reveals She's Had Lyme Disease for 24 Years: 'I Was Fearful'
Gupta, who was crowned Miss California USA in January, tells PEOPLE that she first learned she had Lyme when she was 2-years-old, but never shared her story publicly for fear of "being seen as less than."
"It was something that I wanted to withhold. I didn't want my employer to think, 'Oh, I'm not going to hire her because she might potentially be disabled or unable to do this,'" she explains. "I was advised by people to not share this because 'you don't want it to give you a bad rep.'"
"It's so complicated and not really something that people know like the way they do with cancer or diabetes," she adds.
But with only a few days to go before the Miss USA competition, Gupta, 26, finally feels ready to share her story — and hopes that by doing so, she can help others along the way.
"I think I've done myself and Lyme disease a disservice by not owning fully what I'm going through," she says. "Now that I've proven myself and done something as big as winning Miss California, there's never been a more appropriate time."
"I feel like I'm at the place where I'm just so comfortable in who I am and my capabilities," continues Gupta, who is now partnering with the Bay Area Lyme Foundation. "It's the perfect storm."
Following her diagnosis as a toddler — which came after her mom discovered a rash on her forehead — Gupta says she received all the proper treatments, including antibiotics and a spinal tap.
However, the vector-borne illness was so aggressive that it ultimately caused her to suffer paralysis in her face and be put in a medically-induced coma for a day to curb inflammation. Later, the disease returned when she was 8-years-old as post-treatment Lyme.
"That was my normal, that's all I ever knew," she says of living with the disease, which presented itself in the form of fatigue and achiness as she grew older.
"The biggest thing that I hated to hear is, 'You don't look sick,' because people with Lyme don't necessarily show it on the outside," Gupta explains. "But they don't see the downside. They don't see the mornings where you're so achy that it's physically disabling to step out of bed."
After her brother suddenly passed away in an accident when she was 16, Gupta started to notice how "the same kind of patterns of stress or big events" would trigger peaks of symptoms and so she consulted doctors.
They brushed off her symptoms, insisting that she was depressed from her brother's passing and should take anti-depressants, but Gupta knew there was more to it.
"I said, 'Okay, we can chalk up being depressed to a loss. But what about the aching? What about the fatigue? What about the brain fog? What about the cramps, the shakes?" Gupta recalls. "There were so many things that just weren't explained by a simple diagnosis of being depressed and taking antidepressants."
It was then that Gupta says she began to take control of her life and actively manage what she could to prevent her symptoms from worsening.
"I try to eat clean. I really monitor what I'm doing with my body and avoid any triggers," she says. "In college, I didn't have the experience that most people do because I can't stay up late or have late nights. If I do, I run the risk of waking up the next day and kind of feeling like a truck has hit me."
"It has taken years to accept that, and also be cognizant and aware of when those peaks and valleys occur for me," the Los Angeles resident continues. "And there are still times where I can be in bed for days straight after doing everything right."
Because Gupta never publicly disclosed her disease, she says she frequently had to make excuses when she was unable to attend commitments — an exhausting task that she is looking forward to no longer having to do.
"There's been so many times that, rightly or wrongly, I've had to use an excuse and I wasn't able to fully explain," she explains. "It felt like I had walked on eggshells for so long and now I don't have to hide something that I was worried would make people perceive me as unprepared or not capable of doing something."
"I wish I would have done it earlier, but I also think that the weight is going to be massively lifted off my shoulders moving forward," she says. "I don't have to justify myself or my disease, because I've proven that I've done it with the disease and I still can do it."
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As she prepares for the upcoming competition in Memphis on Monday, Gupta is leaning into that new-found confidence to drive her — and her mission to spread Lyme disease awareness — forward.
"Life deals you a hand of cards, and you don't get to choose what cards are dealt to you, but you do get to choose how you play them," she shares. "You can learn from it and grow from it, and that's what I choose to do. I'm a huge believer and advocate of turning pain into power."
"With Miss USA, you have to do it for more than just a crown and a sash. For me, my reason is to help educate the public about Lyme disease," she adds. "And if sharing my story will help just one person, then I feel like I've won regardless of the outcome on November 9th."
Miss USA will air live on FYI Monday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. ET.
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