To anyone who has ever said (usually with a slightly confused-sounding tone), “But you don’t look sick?”
You are right. Sometimes, I don’t look sick. In fact, sometimes I can look quite well. It even confuses me on the days when my face looks healthy, as often it is so far removed from how I actually feel in my body.
What you don’t see are the days and months where actually, I do look incredibly sick. Where there is no way to hide how unwell I feel and no amount of makeup can cover up my glassy eyes and yellowy toned skin.
These words and the ones I am about to write to you don’t come from a place of self-pity, but from a place of reality. A reality, that actually, millions of people are living, most of them behind closed doors. It’s something I think needs to be spoken about more openly to raise awareness of a condition that is so misunderstood.
Think of pain. Any type of pain. You can’t visually see it can you? Sometimes you can see someone wince in pain, or see the pain etched on someones face, but usually, it’s hidden. If you have a headache, it’s not visible is it? Perhaps think of a time you have felt emotional pain. Maybe cast your mind back to a time when you felt deeply hurt, anxious or heartbroken — could people visibly see it? During those times when you had to put on a brave face and step outside the front door, was how you truly felt on show to anyone outside of yourself? Not really.
Many of us are conditioned to hide pain. To hide suffering.
One of the reasons we do this is perhaps that it feels safer somehow, to keep it close to our chests, to retreat, to only let those who are the closest to us enter into this darker side of our world. It is seen by many as a sign of weakness to show suffering, to show pain, to show fear, when in fact, it is part of being human. No one has a life purely filled with light; darkness is as much a part of it all. It just can seem easier to only share the joy. The happy times. The success and achievements and milestones.
To keep ourselves safe and cocooned during tough times and put up a protective invisible guard around ourselves, can in some ways be a survival instinct to many of us. But it can also leave those of us with invisible illnesses open to so much misjudgment, misinterpretation and confused sideways glances due to so much of our reality remaining hidden.
Facebook feeds are filled with smiley faces and snapshots of happy moments, when in fact these photos are only the tip of a mammoth iceberg, underneath which the struggle and larger part of our lives remains unseen.
It confuses people. And understandably so. I would be confused if I was to glance over how my life may sometimes appear to an outsider or an acquaintance.
For months at a time, you won’t see me post on Facebook, and you won’t see me out and about. This is because during those times I’m housebound and encountering suffering on a level I didn’t even know was possible until this illness came into my life. I embrace the better days, just as so many others in a similar position to me do, because I want to lead as much of a normal life as I possibly can. However, just because I look OK on those days, it doesn’t mean than I am.
Seeing me in a shop looking happy and well could be a tiny percentage of that month. I will have had to rest before I left the house, and rest again when I get back home, but people don’t see that. More often than not, symptoms are hidden, and usually when I am out, I am enduring a fatigue so deep that it’s hard to begin to explain how this feels to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Makeup works wonders and the happiness that comes alongside a day where I can get out and about, sometimes after long periods of time at home, is what you may misleadingly see through the sparkle in my eyes.
I hate the judgement and misunderstanding that can come alongside this.
When you are living with a chronic illness and glimpses of better days come along, you just want to try and enjoy what you can and distract your mind from what is going on inside your body. In an attempt to have some sort of normality on those days. Your pale face, is covered up. The spaced-out, exhausted feeling that never leaves you is disguised through experienced practice, and the crushing feeling and urgency to go home and lay down isn’t seen, because it’s not until the last minute when we excuse ourselves and leave the room when this would even be visible to an outsiders eye.
The background feeling of uncertainty and distrust in your body due to the sheer amount of times it has crashed and relapsed and let you down over the years is something people aren’t even aware of. The trepidation you can feel on a day-to-day basis, and the sense of vulnerability that comes from living in a world that often resembles a roller coaster, as well as the isolation and the continuous wondering if life will ever be “normal?” All hidden.
I have done so much work on letting go of what others think, but it doesn’t mean it still doesn’t get to me from time to time. It doesn’t mean I’m not aware that I often look perfectly fine. That my face very often does not actually match up with what is going on inside my body. I write this as much for anyone else in this position as much as I do for myself. People with invisible illnesses, whatever they are, deserve compassion and understanding, be it myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease, depression, multiple sclerosis, cancer (yep, even cancer can be invisible. My dad passed away from cancer last year, and it wasn’t until the very latter stages you would visibly know anything was wrong with him).
Bear in mind, that the days when we do look incredibly sick, and trust me there are plenty of those, are often the days we are at home. Sometimes for months or years at a time.
On closing, one last thing I’d like to say, is that many illnesses, such as ME/CFS, can fluctuate massively. These fluctuations, sometimes happening on a day-to-day basis, sometimes over years, can be confusing. I had a period of time in my mid-20’s where I could work and lead a relatively normal life. Yet I spent the most part of 2010 to 2012 unable to leave my bed, tolerate external stimulus or care for myself.
My intention as I write this is to just gently open the eyes of any of you who are a little confused by my face that sometimes looks quite well. To ask that if you know someone, who is suffering with an invisible illness, show them some love, some kindness and a little understanding. Don’t be so quick to judge. So often, people are fighting battles we know nothing about, and that goes for all of us, not just those who are chronically unwell.
A smile and a flick of mascara, on one of the better days, can cover up a whole world of hidden depths.
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