The Mysterious Disease Joni Mitchell's Convinced She Has

Joni Mitchell's name is writ large in the annals of popular music. Born in Canada in 1943, named Roberta Joan Anderson, she survived a childhood bout with polio, in part by singing and performing for other patients in the hospital. She taught herself to play guitar, says Biography, and headed off to art college — her long and varied career includes publishing volumes of her art, illustrating her poetry, including 1971's Morning Glory on the Vine, released publicly in 2019, as Rolling Stone reported.

Her first album was released in 1968, produced by none other than David Crosby (though she later referred to him as "incompetent," quotes Rolling Stone), and her second album, Clouds, brought her the first of her eight (so far) Grammy Awards, one of them for Lifetime Achievement in 2002. From her folk roots she branched out into jazz and jazz fusion. Some of her recordings have been hits all in and of themselves, and others have been strong sellers for other artists covering her work — "Clouds" and "Big Yellow Taxi" are just two that have been discovered and rediscovered by generations of artists to the present day, interpreted by everyone from Judy Collins to Harry Styles.

Joni Mitchell is famously outspoken

Collins has always been outspoken, thank goodness — it tends to make for good interviews, like the one she did with Canadian Radio when she claimed Bob Dylan was not only "not very gifted" musically but that he "borrowed" his voice from "old hillbillies" — and none of that's changed. She's candid about the health difficulties she's experienced in her later years, including a brain aneurysm in March 2015, says Rolling Stone. But that's on top of a condition that is at best regarded as indefinite: Morgellons Disease. Billboard quotes her 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, in which she described "this weird, incurable disease that seems like it's from outer space." The Mayo Clinic calls it "uncommon" and "poorly understood."

Sufferers like Mitchell say that the main symptom manifests as fibrous threads, almost like strings, growing from the skin. Mitchell says it strikes areas that were affected by her childhood polio. Further confounding the issue is that Morgellons isn't just a matter of a few tests — unlike her childhood polio diagnosis, Morgellons isn't quite so cut-and-dried in the eyes of the medical community.

Sir Thomas Browne left the first written description of Morgellons

WebMD uses the phrase "unpleasant skin sensations" to describe the symptoms, and so they must be. Indications include "Feeling like bugs are crawling all over the skin," which we can all agree is a nightmare all in and of itself. Patients also report sensations of burning, or stinging, under the actual skin; intense itching on top of the skin; sores on the skin that seem to suddenly and quickly appear, but are slow to heal; and even when the sores finally heal, they leave behind hyperpigmented (bright red) scars. There are also reports of other kinds of attacks conducted by Morgellons, says Live Science , including problems with short-term memory and concentration, joint pain, hair loss, problems with sleep (which makes sense — it's hard to sleep if you're itching constantly), and even tooth loss.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) subtitles its Morgellons article "From delusion to definition." According to them, the first written record of the condition was reported back in 1674 by an English physician, Sir Thomas Browne: "Hairs which have most amused me have not been in the face or head, but on the back, and not in men but children, as I long ago observed in that endemial distemper of little children in Languedock, called the Morgellons, wherein they critically break out with harsh hairs on their backs, which takes off the unquiet symptoms of the disease, and delivers them from coughs and convulsions."

Mitchell says her Morgellons attacks areas where she suffered from childhood polio

The agency says that it was first reported in the United States in 2002. A disease with as many potential symptoms and manifestations is bound to be regarded as suspect, at best, and that's the case with Morgellons Disease (MD): "Because individuals afflicted with the disease may have crawling or stinging sensations and sometimes believe they have an insect or parasite infestation, most medical practitioners consider MD a purely delusional disorder," writes NCBI. On a more positive note, NCBI reports that further studies indicate that in regard to Morgellons, "this skin affliction results from a physiological response to the presence of an infectious agent." It's happening, and something's causing it. There's even been some research indicating that there's a connection between Morgellons and tick-borne disease like Lyme Disease.

Not everyone agrees with Mitchell's diagnosis. The NCBI calls Morgellons "a dermopathy characterized by multicolored filaments that lie under, are embedded in, or project from skin," yet others believe the condition is more a result of mental illness — delusional parasitosis — than a physical condition. As Mayo concluded, "further research is needed."