Invisibility Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be
As a kid, I thought it would be awesome to be invisible.
Like any superpower, it had its theoretical perks. I could spy on my parents while they wrapped Christmas presents. I could sneak into R-rated movies. I could stay up past my bedtime and watch “Law & Order.”
As an adult, ironically, I have an invisible illness–– and the invisibility thing isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. “Invisible” refers to diseases and disabilities that can’t easily be seen or noticed from the outside. They’re illnesses that ravage your insides but leave you looking just “normal” enough for everyone else’s standards that it’s sometimes hard for people to believe you’re really sick.
I don’t have a walker to denote that I’m in ill health. I don’t have an oxygen tank or a big scar. Some days the circles under my eyes may be a bit more pronounced, or my prednisone may be making my hands shake, but for the most part, I look like your run-of-the-mill 24-year-old girl. For this, I am blessed. I don’t need a walking aid or something to help me breathe. I haven’t lost a worrisome amount of weight. But that’s where things get tricky–– because I am still sick, appearances be damned. And sometimes when you don’t look as sick as you are, people have higher expectations of what you can and can’t do.
Even though you can’t see it with your eyeballs, on a bad day, I may be too weak to carry some bags up to my apartment without becoming super winded. Standing for long periods of time may be difficult for me. My stomach may be in so much pain it’s hard to focus. But because you can’t physically see it, I tend to keep it under wraps as much as I can –– which sometimes means pushing myself to do too much because I want to feel as healthy as I look, and I’m bitter that I don’t.
The biggest problem in all of this is that it’s often hard for people to believe that patients with invisible illnesses are actually sick. It’s easy to be skeptical of something you can’t readily see, even if it is real (like GHOSTS, guys. Or aliens.) This leads to stress for the sick party. What if your work gets fed up that you, a seemingly healthy person, has to keep missing shifts because you’re sick or have yet another doctor’s appointment? What if a friend is upset that you missed out on an important event because of your illness when you look perfectly fine? What do you say to the acquaintance who drops the classic line “but you don’t look sick?”
Yesterday was a really bad pain day for me–– one of my safe foods backfired on me and I was feeling dehydrated, shaky, and in immense abdominal pain. Luckily when I got on the bus to go home, there were a few seats left, so I snagged one. Being able to sit on my commute home made a huge difference, helping me feel not quite so faint. But a middle-aged woman did heavily sigh when she saw me seated while others were standing. I understand where she’s coming from–– I look like a kid, aren’t I healthy enough to stand and let a 40-year-old woman take my seat? But the problem with those kinds of assumptions is that they aren’t always true. You know what they say about assuming? It makes an ass of you and me. And my ass is the one that’s gonna go on that bus seat, lady.
So in honor of all those struggling on through the invisible illness game, try practicing some judgment-free empathy in your own life and hopefully, over time, that good karma will come back your way. If you see someone who you assume is healthy using a handicap spot or taking the last seat on the bus, don’t let your mind automatically go to a place of assumptions. If you have a co-worker or friend who’s always flaking because of illness, try not to question their motives or look for “signs” that they’re really sick. “Sick people” come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and ability levels. They look just like you–– they just also happen to have a slightly overrated superpower.