“I wish I looked as good as you do when I’m sick.”
Every time I park my car in a handicap parking spot I feel people’s eyes on me as I walk into the store without so much as a limp. At 34 years old, I look far too young and healthy to have a handicap placard hanging from my rearview mirror. I must be using it illegally, or am I? I am one of the millions of people who suffer every day with invisible illnesses. Those few feet walking from the car to the entrance of the store can often be agonizing depending on how a person’s condition is affecting them that day. “But you don’t look sick!” Have you heard those words from someone close to you, when you have been physically feeling like you won’t be able to make it through the day? Thousands of people silently suffer everyday with various medical conditions that do not have any symptoms that can be observed from the outside. These conditions can vary from autoimmune disorders, various types of arthritis, MS, chronic pain, cancer, mental illness, heart conditions, infertility, migraine headaches, and gastrointestinal issues, to name a few. The severity of these symptoms can vary from a person being able to function well throughout their day to feeling completely debilitated. These individuals often go unnoticed and do not receive adequate support from friends and family because no one thinks anything is wrong with them. People with invisible illnesses can often feel guilty about asking for help or excusing themselves from social activities. There is always a worry that someone will think they are exaggerating or making things up.
Invisible illnesses can greatly affect relationships at home, with friends and even in the workplace
Invisible illnesses can greatly affect relationships at home, with friends and even in the workplace. Spouses may grow tired of taking on extra responsibilities when their partner looks like they’re perfectly ‘fine’. Friends may start to resent someone who constantly cancels on plans because they don’t feel well. Bosses may become suspicious of the extent of time taken off work by someone who looks healthier than they do. Not only do people have to struggle with physical discomfort, they also have to deal with people’s judgments and having to constantly explain themselves and justify their needs. There are many situations in life in which we should not judge by appearances and this is one of them. These are some ways that we can become more supportive of those who suffer with invisible illnesses:
- Don’t tell anyone that their illness is ‘all in your head’.
- Don’t assume you know what they are experiencing
- Don’t give advice about what they should be eating, drinking, doing
- Ask how you can be supportive or helpful
- Check in with that person every once in a while to remind them you are there if they need you
- Encourage them to communicate their needs so they know you are comfortable with talking about this issue
- Treat them like the same person you knew before you learned about their illness
Also, if you are the person with an invisible illness, be active in educating your family and friends about your condition, Let them know how they can be helpful if you’re having a difficult time and what they can do to support you. Agree on some non verbal signs that you can place around the house so your family knows that today is a bad day. Explain to children the limitations of what you can and cannot do with them. The illness is something that you live with, but it does not define who you are. You do not have to suffer in silence. Together with the support of family and friends you can come up with a list of coping strategies and people to call on when you are having a particularly difficult time. It’s important to remember that everyone is struggling with something. We all have to find ways to deal with our own challenges and should never assume that we know what others are going through. “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” Plato.