Even If You See Me Smiling, Please Think Before Saying, 'But You Don't Look Sick...'


“You don’t look ill.”

How many of you have had this said to you? Quite a lot of you I imagine. I know I certainly have. Mainly by people who don’t know me well enough to know how professional I’ve become at painting on a smile and pretending everything is OK.

Invisible illnesses. They are exactly that. Many of us with mental health issues and chronic pain conditions are able to disguise the pain almost professionally. On the days we are able to crawl out of bed and face the big wide world beyond the front door, our colleagues and other “acquaintances” see the version of us that has taken a long time to perfect. The one that looks “normal,” acts “normal” and even cracks a smile and laughs!

Expertly hidden under the surface of this seemingly perfectly fine, polished and healthy-looking outer shell, is the version of us that has been so battered by pain, fatigue and lower than low moods that it almost broke us.

The version of us that has had to develop enormous strength to deal with the daily doses of debilitating pain, extreme tiredness, anxiety, depression and brain fog so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

The version of us that always replies “I’m fine” while smiling when being asked “How are you today?” – when deep down inside it wants to scream, “I’m not OK!”

The version that feels guilty and like a huge burden on family and friends when they tell the truth about how depressed they feel and how much it hurts as they don’t want to come across as miserable and like they are complaining all the time.

It’s because of this that we often feel the need to put on an act, to try and be the person we used to be before the pain, or the person society wants us to be rather that the sad looking one in the corner who always moans about their sleepless nights and how their pain medication isn’t cutting it today or how they felt so depressed they nearly didn’t get dressed today.

I never leave the house without a full face of make-up. Seriously. Yes some days it’s like a form of torture applying it while I’m in agony. But do you know what? It makes me feel good. It makes me feel normal. It makes me feel in control of at least a tiny piece of my own life. It is my mask and it hides the pain, tiredness, anxiety and depression I feel on a daily basis. It may have taken me hours to do it, or some days not so long. Some days I have to sit and rest between eyeliner and mascara. Most days I take several breaks between each item I apply.

So when you see me with my mask on, and I say I’m exhausted, in pain or just feeling low in general, please don’t say “But you don’t look ill” or other words to that effect.

If you saw the pain and exhaustion etched on my face under my layers of foundation and concealer, then you’d wonder how the heck I dragged myself out of bed and ask me if I needed to see a doctor!

I also like to laugh. Love it in fact. Comedy heals the soul. Shock horror. I’m not all misery and tears. And I like to make other people laugh too. So I join in when people are having a giggle and I crack jokes and throw many a sarcastic comment into the mix. And it makes me feel good, normal. That’s what I did before I was ill, so I’m certainly not going to stop laughing now. After all, they say laughter is the best medicine so I get my fix when I can.

It’s because of this that sometimes people don’t realize that you are ill. That you are constantly battling pain in varying degrees. They don’t realize that sometimes you are well enough to go out, have fun, go to work and look totally normal, and other days, you can’t get out of bed because the pain is so intense, and you’ve had two hours’ sleep or you can barely string a sentence together or remember your own name.

This is where the comments come in. People say things like, “You don’t look ill” when you ask to do a lower impact job at work as you can feel the pain getting stronger and you want to avoid a flare-up that carrying on might bring. Or if your anxiety is tapping you on the shoulder, and you ask to do a job behind the scenes that day instead of dealing directly with the public where you could end up having an anxiety attack.

People say things like, ”She looked fine yesterday” when you cancel a lunch date, or call in sick, all because you smiled and laughed the day before.

People comment on that selfie or photo you posted where you are smiling, having a good time. They don’t believe you can post something looking so happy and then claim to have been in bed for three days straight afterwards. We all post the best bits of our lives on social media. We want people to see us as happy, successful, fun, etc. Not many people post pictures of their “real” lives. Just the edited versions where life looks like a fairytale. And people with mental and chronic health problems are exactly the same, so please cut us some slack.

People say, ”I saw her shopping in the supermarket yesterday when she’s meant to be off sick from work!”

Hello? I still need to eat, and buy toilet roll! Being ill doesn’t mean you have to hide in the house not eating or wiping your backside in case Sandra from work sees you so much as smirk in the toilet roll aisle and then gossips about how well you dared to look with her colleagues the next day!

That supermarket visit might have taken me four days to build up the strength to leave the house and to fight the anxiety that people might make hurtful comments like the above.

To those of you not fighting a mental or chronic illness,

Please stop and think before you utter the words, “You don’t look sick.” You have no idea just how damaging they can be. You have no idea what the person behind the fake smile and mask of makeup has gone through just to drag themselves out of bed today. Be nice.

To those of you living like this day in and day out,

Keep smiling. Keep laughing when you can and slap on that lipstick if it makes you feel better! Wax that mustache, style your hair, preen your beard. Do whatever the heck makes you feel good about yourself and look through the ignorance and smile, smile smile.

This story originally appeared on Chronically Seeking Wellness.

Getty Image by NADOFOTOS


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