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When the Only 'Signs' of Your Illness Are Stop Signs

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Most of us have heard the phrase “signs and symptoms” bandied about the doctor’s office, if nowhere else. What many people don’t know is that there is a fundamental difference between the two. This becomes an important differentiation for those of us with “invisible illnesses.”

In the medical field, a “sign” is something that can be seen, measured or objectified. Such things as fever, irregular heartbeat, respiratory distress and seizures are things that can be seen, measured and counted by doctors and other people. Markers of illness. So are tremors, rashes, swelling, bruising and even hair loss.

A “symptom,” on the other hand, is something experienced by a person that can’t always be seen by others. Medical personnel rely on a patient’s description of something that is wrong in order to more completely evaluate his or her condition. For instance, while a nurse could see if a patient is in respiratory distress – by the obvious struggle to move air in and out of his lungs – another patient may have only a subjective feeling of not having enough air.


People with invisible illnesses often have a number of symptoms, such as lightheadedness, severe ringing in the ears, anxiety, extreme fatigue, migraines or other severe pain. Other people can’t see these things, and those of us struggling with debilitating symptoms of an invisible illness usually work very hard to hide how truly terrible we feel. This supports the “you don’t look sick” response we fear, and deepens the divide we feel.

For so many of us, feeling misunderstood or judged by others leads to the one sign that might define our lives — if we let it:

The stop sign.

We can’t be burdened by the need to explain ourselves to everyone who doesn’t already understand, but we can keep moving forward, turning a blind eye to that sign. For me, this means holding my head up, and walking past someone who seems to be looking at me askance as I get out of my car in a disabled parking spot, or who wonders why I’ve brought my dog into the grocery store – even though he is clearly marked as a service dog, and bravely canceling appointments and activities I simply don’t feel I can do on any given day.

Although we cannot take part in every activity, it does not mean we cannot take part in any activities. The people who know us understand – at least to some extent – and the other people’s opinions simply don’t matter.

I’m for making our own signs… Walking through each day in any way we can. Starting off in the fast lane…merging into the slow lane – it’s all moving forward, which is the right direction.

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Originally published: June 15, 2017
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