I’m happy to participate in Invisible Illness Week as a guest blogger and seminar presenter this year, and have been thinking a lot about the term “invisible” a lot lately. (What can I say? I am a semantics dork. But you already knew that.)
After all, it’s the word “invisible” that sets this whole movement apart, that makes an enormous difference to the many, many patients who live with diseases they feel but others cannot see.
Though the absence of outward physical manifestation of illness in no way negates the existence of illness, the world doesn’t always work like that, and that’s where the stories so universal to the invisible illness experience originate: the stares and comments when a “healthy-looking” person uses a handicapped placard; the judgments and whispers in stores or other public places when people do not move as quickly or efficiently as they look like they should be able to; the insinuations patients are lazy or malingering because they are not cured and “don’t look sick.”
This is the part of invisible illness that is challenging, these preconceived benchmarks of what healthy and sick look like that are impossible to meet, these public expectations that are harder to reach when many physical complications stand in the way. I know I’ve felt uncomfortable when I’ve had to walk slowly because of adrenal fatigue or when I’ve had to take the elevator up one floor when I’ve had a respiratory infection and haven’t been able to move enough air to climb stairs. I don’t want people to think I am simply out of shape, or too lazy to walk up a flight of stairs.
(And yet I assume they are noticing or caring, so really, whose problem is it?)
I wish it didn’t matter so much what the average stranger, however misguided or misinformed or plain old misanthropic, thinks or assumes, but it does. Who wants to be judged, criticized, or somehow invalidated?
But there’s more this invisible illness phenomenon, something I touched on in last year’s post on Seeing the Scope of Invisible Illness--the cloak of invisibility has its benefits. It gives us a space to identify ourselves as something other than patients, a space where we don’t have to discuss, defend, or define conditions. We can be just like everyone else, if even for a brief spell. We can keep our problems and complications private.
I guess the timing of this post on invisible illness is particularly compelling for me because I’m caught in between the seen and unseen. I’m temporarily wearing monitors and devices that are very much visible, that lay bare to everyone around me what’s going on inside of me whether I like it or not—and it’s a definite “not.”
(And yet I am assuming they are noticing or caring, so really, whose problem is it?)
It’s the same feeling I’ve had when being wheeled onto an ambulance in front of a college dorm or being pushed through an airport in a wheelchair. Feeling that vulnerable and exposed is, in my experience, just as uncomfortable as feeling criticized or judged for not “looking” sick enough.
So in the end, parsing out the implications of invisible illness leads me to another, equally powerful word:
It’s what we need from others when our reality doesn’t match their assumptions, and it’s what we need to remember to extend even when in short supply because, as we know too well, you never know the truth of someone’s situation from a sidelong glance.