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But You Don’t Look Sick

By Tamra Stroud

Do you know anyone with an invisible illness? A friend, a coworker, a family member maybe? Do they look sick to you? Can you tell they are sick by looking at them? An invisible illness is just that. It’s invisible to see without an x-ray, some blood tests, an MRI or some other medical diagnosis that can show us that there is indeed an illness.

What does it look like to be sick, and if there is not a specific look to it, how do you know if someone is truly sick? Can you tell someone is sick without being told they are sick?

When people have an injury or sickness that is visible physically, it is easy to see it. You can typically ask the following questions and correctly assume they are truly sick or injured. Do they walk with a limp? Do they have visible sores on their body? Are they losing their hair? You can typically look at a person and watch as they limp, or use crutches, or are in a wheelchair, to see, with your own eyes, they are sick or have some sort of illness. For someone with an invisible illness, this is hardly ever the case.

Having an invisible illness is alone a horrific, lifelong sentence to unknown pain, countless doctors’ appointments, and a huge blow to your social and physical life. Having people doubt you are truly sick because you “don’t look sick” is even worse than all those issues combined. When you are doubted by co-workers, friends, and, least of all your own family about your being sick, it truly hurts. Not in an “ouch my ankle, I sprained it” kind of way, but in a deep-rooted, the people I love and care for whom I thought loved and cared for me believe me to be a liar kind of way. The emotional pain that causes you is immeasurable. Physical pain is one thing, but emotional pain can make your physical pain worse.

Psychologists believe that depression can cause physical pain in the body. Having an invisible illness, specifically one that causes physical pain in the body such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Degenerative Disc Disease, or Fibromyalgia, already have their physical pain components to them. Add to this your tribe of people who don’t believe you to be sick because “you don’t look sick” and you have a recipe for disaster. Having people doubt your sickness because they can’t see it with their eyes only adds to the emotional pain that can stem from depression, which most Invisible Illness Warriors are riddled with. Add the depression and the pain that stems from that with the already ongoing physical pain from an invisible illness like those stated above and ca-ching, cash in your chips, you’ve hit the jackpot for both emotional and physical pain that torments your physical and emotional well-being.

A friend of a friend who was riddled with chronic Migraines and Chronic Pain Syndrome was having a hard time being social because of their invisible illness. They tried so hard to be social. Went to brunch with the girls. Showed up to graduation and surprise parties as much as she could all the while being on pain medication and feeling quite out of it. She eventually got in such a cycle of pain, she couldn’t go 12 hours without being in so much pain she couldn’t leave her bed.

One day the woman’s friend had messaged her about coming over to her house to take a peek at some clothing she was giving away but wanted to see if she wanted any of them because she knew her friend had gained some weight due to her medication and wanted to see if she liked anything she had before she gave anything to the Salvation Army. The woman responded that that would be great and she looked forward to taking a look at the clothing that weekend. The weekend came and of course our Invisible Illness Warrior was down with a Migraine and fire-like pain in all of her joints. She had completely forgotten about going to her friend’s house to take a look at the clothes and in her medicated daze hadn’t written herself a reminder or note or put it on the calendar. Her friend wrote her an extremely nasty text stating she could no longer be her friend because she didn’t value her friend’s time and there and then ended the friendship, via text.

Alarmed, our Illness Warrior texted back right away apologizing profusely and explaining what happened. Her friend did not want to hear it. The friend was not moved by the apology. She was undoubtedly hurt and felt like our warrior hadn’t cared enough to take her friend’s time into consideration. The text exchange got a bit heated between the two and apparently spilled over onto Facebook of all places. The friend had written a long synopsis of the event and the warrior was left feeling even more hurt and misunderstood. Needless to say, as is often the case in these types of scenarios, some people took the warrior’s side, but most took the friend’s side. You see, unfortunately, those who can’t see your sickness, can’t quite seem to acknowledge it and feel empathy for you.

Our warrior had many more instances of this in her struggle to live life as an Invisible Illness Survivor. Some days are good, but more often than not, the illness takes over and she is left to struggle through it as best she can and ends up being limited on what she can and cannot do socially and emotionally. Our warrior still wants to be invited to do thing with friends and family, go have drinks after work with co-workers, and all the fun things everyday normal adults get to do with their free time. However, for this warrior, life is not like that. Her brain wants to go, but her body will not cooperate. It’s as if her body is a weight around her that cannot be moved or lifted. Sometimes it will budge just enough for a few lighthearted hours, and other times, she can barely get out of the house.

There is a saying about not knowing what someone else is going through. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

Just because you cannot see that someone is sick physically, doesn’t mean they aren’t. Take care when you are dealing with your loved ones and those that you care for. Listen to them when they tell you they are sick. There is no real consequence to not believing someone when they tell you they are sick. But, there will be a real “kick yourself in the pants” moment when you don’t and they are no longer able to hear and feel your belief in them.

If you or someone you know is suffering from Depression or other mental health issues and need help, please contact the following resources:

Emergency: 9-1-1
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 9-8-8 (English & Spanish)
National Hopeline Network: 1-800-SUICIDE (800-784-2433)
Crisis Text Line: Text “DESERVE” TO 741-741
Lifeline Crisis Chat: Live Online Messaging
Self-Harm Hotline: 1-800-DONT CUT (1-800-366-8288)
Veterans Crisis Line: https://www.veteranscrisisline.net

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