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The Truth About the Healthy-Looking Woman Taking the Elevator to the First Floor

I’m not your typical 24-year-old, but you wouldn’t know that just by looking at me. I work out at the gym like any other girl my age, but it’s not your typical gym and it’s not a typical workout. It’s a fitness center attached to a rehabilitation hospital. Let me give you a brief tour of the place. This fitness center has two floors. The second floor looks like your standard gym, with a variety of workout machines and equipment. The first floor, however, is home to a therapeutic pool where members can partake in a variety of aquatic classes and even aquatic therapy. This pool is where I spend my time when I come to the fitness center. I do exercises in the water and receive a type of therapy called Watsu that is only offered at this rehab hospital.

You see, I have an invisible illness, a rare chronic neurological condition called complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). It is thought to be an autoimmune disease that affects the sympathetic and autonomic nervous system (the one responsible for the “fight or flight” response). CRPS causes constant, unrelenting pain in the affected extremity(s) along with a host of other symptoms for which there is currently no cure. When it comes to seeking treatment, patients are left to a process of trial and error involving different medications, procedures, and therapies. Some of which have the possibility of providing relief, while others prove to be useless, time wasting, and cost consuming.

Pool therapy, specifically Watsu, has been a lifesaver for me and is a vital part of my pain management routine. It is a type of passive aquatic therapy performed by a trained and licensed practitioner or therapist. The therapist leads the patient through a variety of stretches and massages in warm, chest-high water that provides the receiver with a state of deep relaxation, a decrease in pain and muscle spasm, and an increase in range of motion and joint mobility. Not many people are familiar with Watsu, but I consider it a very valuable tool in my arsenal of weapons against CRPS.

Anyway, back to my story at the fitness center. As you can imagine, being located off a rehabilitation hospital, the crowd at the fitness center where I receive therapy consists mostly of elderly folks. Aside from staff, I am usually the youngest person there. One day, at about 1:30 in the afternoon (when I usually came to my therapy sessions), I parked my car in the little makeshift parking garage beneath the building and made my way inside.

The elevators are typically empty with slow traffic, but today there was an elderly woman in front of me who was also waiting for the elevator. I come fairly often so I know most of the regulars, but I had not met this woman before. She didn’t say anything to me, but looked straight ahead waiting for the elevator to come to our level. After a little while, the familiar “ding” sound of the elevator let us know that it was time to board. The woman stepped inside first and I followed closely behind. She pressed the button that would take us to the first floor. Then, without even turning to look at me, she pressed the button for the second floor and said “You’re going to the second floor, right?” Feeling somewhat taken aback by the unexpected comment, I replied, “No ma’am, I am headed to the first floor as well.” I’ll never forget the look of shock and confusion she gave at my response.

Yes, I am a young, healthy appearing woman, and no, I don’t have any visible impairments or use any assistive devices. Does this mean I am healthy and feel like I have the body of a 24-year-old? Does this mean I do not have sleepless nights when the pain keeps me awake? Does this mean I do not occasionally need someone to drive me to my events because the pain is so intense I feel it is not safe to drive? Does this mean I don’t have to change my outfit sometimes based on how much pain I woke up with that day? Maybe I wanted to wear those new jeans but wore my sweatpants instead. Maybe I wanted to wear those fancy high heeled wedges but wore socks and sandals instead. Maybe I wanted to go out that day, but was too physically exhausted to think about doing anything but recovering from the day before.

Yes, I appear to be young and healthy, but no, it doesn’t mean I feel that way. It is very easy to judge a person based off their appearance or how they look during the brief time you meet them. It is often difficult for us to comprehend the fact that poor health can happen to any of us, no matter what our age. Disabling and chronic conditions do not always come with visible evidence such as visual impairments or assistive devices. Just because we cannot visibly see the obstacles a person deals with each day doesn’t mean they do not exist or do not bring challenges. Everyone we come in contact with on a daily basis is fighting a battle we know nothing about, whether it be chronic illness, or anything else.

I guess the moral of my story, and what I want all of us to be more aware of, is never judge a book by its cover. It may sound cliché, but it’s so true and is the perfect metaphor. What you see during the five small minutes when a person crosses your path is merely the surface. At first glance it may be deceiving, but take some time to read the pages and you’ll learn the true story behind the picture. Yes, I am a young, 24-year-old woman who appears healthy, but no, please don’t assume that I am going to the second floor.

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Thinkstock photo by littlehenrabi