Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On Invisible Illness

This week is Invisible Awareness Week, and my post about it is a day later than I wanted it to be, which is right on par with the way things are going right now.

In fact, I wasn’t planning on just posting about it; I was scheduled to present a virtual seminar this week and due to intense schedule conflicts, and with great regret, I had to cancel. (I’m already percolating ideas for next year, so we will see…)

I’d originally planned this post to be a continuation of the conversation about illness versus disability I’ve had here on A Chronic Dose. To wit, I recently sat through an HR orientation and was pleasantly surprised by the time and attention the speaker gave to “invisible” conditions.

But that post didn’t work out as planned, either, though I do promise to return to it.

Instead, though it’s a day later than what I wanted and not neatly focused like I’d planned, all I can do is write about where I am right now.

Overwhelmed. Exhausted. Exhilarated. Optimistic. Anxious. Trying to plan for the unpredictable, willing my body to cooperate for me and not let me down, and trying to squash the voice that’s whispering Haven’t you learned anything yet?

I’m adjusting to some new work changes and client load and embracing the opportunities with gratitude. It is a precarious balance, though, and while I loathe cliché, it does seem like all it will take is one slip and everything could tumble down like a house of cards.

I mean, all I have to do is stay as healthy as possible, right? (Insert cynical tone here.)

But I cannot indulge the what-if’s and the doubts. It does me no good, and it flies in the face of my reason thoughts on hope.

And really, in the middle of a lot of changes and decisions and pressure, what this tension is about is identity. It’s an ongoing evolution; just when I think I’ve established a groove, I need to re-calibrate.

I’m a writer. I’m also a consultant, an editor, a professor, and a patient. Sometimes those roles overlap, like when I was asked to teach a course using my first book as a core text. (Talk about the personal and the professional colliding. I might have more to say about that later.) Often, the roles aren’t as blatantly converged, like when I sign on new freelance editorial clients, or when I stand in front of other classrooms and hand out syllabi and the only way anyone might know about my patient experiences would be if they Googled me. (Hello, potential Googlers!)

Clearly it’s no secret, but this part of life is something I leave outside the classroom and client conversations. This division is frenetic, but necessary.

I thought about how I wanted to be identified by others (which of course is much more about how I want to see myself), and the whole notion of public versus private while I waited for my new physical therapist to arrive last night.

My normal therapist is away, and I haven’t had anyone besides him for six years. (Yes, I am spoiled.) Having a health care provider visit your house is such a different experience than going to a hospital for treatment. A complete stranger comes into your living room, performs a rather physical treatment on sensitive body parts, and is witness to all minutiae and vulnerabilities of private life: the mail on the front table, the barking dogs, what you’re making for dinner, and often, what you look like in pre-dawn hours when your glasses are still on and your pajamas don’t match and you reach for the spit cup.

“So how was your day?” she asked when we were settled into position, as if we were picking up from an earlier conversation. Because you know, that's what you do when someone you've known for about 90 seconds is thumping your chest and it's dinner time and your dogs are slamming their bones on the hardwood floor, begging for attention.

“Long but productive,” I said. And from there we talked about where she lived and how I worked near there. We talked about writing and teaching and graduate school, and we talked about rescue dogs and traffic and commuting.

And even though she was there because I have PCD and bronchiectasis and I was literally choking in phlegm before she arrived, it didn’t really come up.

It wasn’t that my illnesses were invisible (um, hello hacking cough and vigorous clapping) but they were not defining.

The point of Invisible Illness Week is to spread awareness to others. This week, I think I was the one who needed to appreciate that sometimes the push and pull, the tension between being a patient and being a person, the re-calibrating of roles—it all settles out.

One day at a time.


Gho Cheng said...

Great post

Diane J Standiford said...

Oh shoot, Gho beat me to my comment---great post, you covered it very well. I often think, "HOW can I be invisible?" Did I already tell you I'm highlighting your blog on mine tomorrow? In honor of the week.

Laurie said...

Thanks so much, Diane! I appreciate your comment, as well as the mention of your blog.

Amy G. said...

Right there with you, Laurie -- both on being open about an "invisible" illness, and on the beauty of not being defined by it. As always, I'm amazed and moved by your eloquence.

Anonymous said...

As always, this is definitely a great post. I'm feeling that tension between hope that this fall and school year will be better/different with what I'm learning, and the fear that it will be my failure of last year again. And that was a big big thing. I find it's hard to look forward and hope that things will be different for me.

On another topic, I can only imagine the feelings of teaching on your own book as a central text of a course. Personally, I'm still at the stage where I find it unbelievable when people like my book. So imagining what it must feel like at your level of success is pretty amazing!

I wish you the best this fall!

Andrea said...

Thanks so much for this post. It is great to have an advocate out there for those who suffer from invisible illnesses. Diseases like arthritis can change people's lives and often the people around them don't understand the gravity of the disease because everything happens inside your body. They don't understand about things like constant fatigue or flare-ups. It is so important to learn about invisible diseases and to learn how to be sensitive to those that have them.

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