“You look really well” those four words again, the cynicism builds within me.
‘Do they think I’m making this up or something? I may look okay but I certainly don’t feel it or maybe they are just being nice”.
In society, there is a mainstream idea of what illness should look like, how long it should last for and expectations of recovery, when you will suddenly become ‘well’ again. Unfortunately, for those living with chronic illnesses we will never meet those expectations, we may fluctuate within them, learn new ways of managing our conditions, go into ‘remission’, our symptoms may wax and wane but we will not get ‘well’.
Many chronic illnesses whether it be EDS, depression, anxiety, lupus or Crohns disease, to name but a few can be invisible either on the most part, on days, weeks or even months. This invisibility can make it extremely difficult for even those close to us to be able to relate, acknowledge, understand and empathise with our individual daily battles with illness. It can be hard for people to relate when something isn’t always apparent or visual. However just because you are unable to see it does not mean it is not there, it’s very real.
It is estimated that 69% of those with invisible illnesses were told their symptoms were down to anxiety or not even believed, before eventual diagnosis. Many people with invisible illnesses have spent years being disbelieved, poor treatment and care so you can see how the words of others can have such a significant impact on their wellbeing.
Over the years, I became somewhat a master of hiding behind my pain. I did not have a name for all the symptoms I was enduring, I could tell at times certain people doubted the validity of my symptoms and suffering. It was somewhat easier to hide behind a smile than attempt to explain just how unwell I was feeling when overall physically, I looked fine. I even took this stance often with certain doctors or consultants as I felt their willingness to help was not there, they could not find the cause of my problems therefore to them they did not exist or exist in the capacity I presented to them.
Since my diagnosis’s my attitude has changed to a certain extent, I am much more open about how I feel both physically and emotionally, I no longer actively hide my symptoms behind a smile, I choose too at times. Validation of a diagnosis can help enormously in the ‘believing’ stakes but not necessarily in the ‘understanding’ stakes. Living with a chronic illness is unpredictable, literally not knowing what is coming hour by hour, even minute by minute. It is a hard task constantly adjusting to this unpredictability. What we can do one day we may not be able to do the next day or even again that same day which those without illness can, not always, but can find hard to comprehend. If we have one activity that day (usually hospital) everything pivots around that. We could be seen out ‘looking well’ but it’s not seen that to enable us to make that outing we had to stay in bed until it was time to leave, we couldn’t possibly wash our hair too and afterwards when we get to our homes we crumble with pain and symptoms, all behind closed doors. When you’re seen out, it’s just a snippet, a snap shot, a moment, not your actual reality.
In life, we only see what we want to see and only let people see what you want them to see. We often live our lives through many different faces and smiles that may not necessarily reflect how we are feeling. That good old British stiff upper lip!!!
I am ‘a smiler’ it’s my way of coping, almost like my default mode. I don’t want the conditions to define me, I want to hold onto as much of ‘Ali’ as I can. I will often feel terrible but put my make-up on and some nice clothes just to sit in my house for a feeling of normality and to break up the horrendous ‘my heads falling off hobo look’ of late!! I may take a ‘selfie’, I may post on social media, you may see me smiling however don’t be fooled by the smile, it does not mean I am healthy and miraculously cured. It means I am happy in that moment or I am trying my best.
It’s strange that we all, myself included on the most part relate more to the visuals in life. Some days my condition can be very visual, will I let you see that? On the most part, no. I’m not ashamed of my illnesses but I still feel uncomfortable allowing people to see me look so sick, on these days, moments, weeks, I will stay in. I could be in numerous braces to steady my joints after dislocating, my neck brace on, using my walking stick or wheel chair, underneath the make-up looking like I’ve done 12 rounds with Mike Tyson with black eyes from brainstem compression, black and blue with bruises, resembling a real-life mummy wrapped in KT tape and on those days, I find I don’t actively talk about my symptoms as much because they are VISIBLE, often speaking for themselves. Does this mean the days I am not in a wrist brace, means I am pain free? If only, the pains in my wrist are constant it just means on the day I’ve worn the brace the bones have disconnected and its dislocated so I need to rest to it.
I would say for anyone living with chronic illness, whether invisible or not to go easy on yourselves. Do not feel you need to justify your pain or your symptoms. What you are experiencing is real. People will never fully understand, even people with the same conditions as you, as we all experience pain differently, we all have different symptoms and coping mechanisms. Our lives are already filled with challenges, we may also be in pain from a life un-lived or lived how we had not imagined so be kind to yourselves always.
It may at times be invisible but that does not mean it’s not there. See into the invisibility and help make our invisible, visible.