The Mighty Logo

17 Things to Know About Someone Who 'Doesn't Look Sick’

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

There’s an experience so many people who live with chronic, invisible conditions have in common: that moment when someone looks at you and, upon hearing you have an illness, exclaims, “But you don’t look sick!”

This phrase can be taken multiple ways. Some choose to take it as a compliment; others feel it undermines the (very real) symptoms they feel and questions the validity of their diagnosis. In any case, the phrase often reveals that the person who said it doesn’t understand how appearances and a smile don’t necessarily indicate how you feel when you have a chronic illness. So we asked our Mighty community with chronic illness to give their response to those who say, “You don’t look sick.” Share this so others realize the next time they see you smiling and “looking well,” you may actually be fighting a battle they can’t see — and a different, supportive comment may be more helpful.

Here’s what our community told us:

1. “Hair, makeup, clothing choice and attitude all aid me and help to make me a good actress; it doesn’t mean I’m not sick. The pain underneath the surface is only ever a few bad moments away from breaking through.”

2. “Even on a ‘good’ day where I manage to get stuff done, I’m still in pain — it’s just less pain than when I’m stuck in bed. I literally am in pain 24/7, the only variable is the severity.”

3. “Most of us should win an Oscar for our acting skills. Putting on a smile, even putting effort into our appearance so we look decent, is usually just a mask to hide how we really feel. Get educated about invisible illnesses. The more awareness there is for things like multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, etc., the less judgment there will [hopefully] be for us living with these invisible illnesses.”

4. “I have pain 24/7. There is no minute where I am not in discomfort. Some days are worse, some are bearable. But I am never pain-free. You don’t see it because I’m strong. I avoid company on my bad days, so you have no idea what pain looks like when it’s written on my face and I’m ready to give up.”

5. “It’s rude to point out if someone doesn’t ‘look sick!’ It’s such an incredibly private thing to share and if I don’t know you, I’m not going to have a heart-to-heart with you about the guilt that plagues me because I’m not the mother to my kids I’ve always wanted to be, nor the wife I feel I should be. I feel a deep sadness from feeling more than twice my age and feeling as if there is never a break in my pain. If I haven’t shared this with you yet, I probably won’t! Be kind, just because you can’t see my pain doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

6. “An ER doc once told me, ‘Wow, you’re my healthiest looking patient here tonight.’ After my scan, we learned I had another intestinal blockage from my Crohn’s. He then said, ‘Wow, I guess looks really can be deceiving.’ So while I may not fit someone’s definition of ‘looking sick,’ I always remind them I am a great faker… great faker of being well!”

7. “I do, actually, look sick. Under these sweatpants and hoodies I use to hide it are IV lines, sub-cue injection lines, pain patches, surgical scars, protruding bones from malnourishment. Under this makeup are sunken eyes with dark circles, sunken cheeks. This hair is in a top knot to cover where it’s falling out and dull and unhealthy.”

8. “Being sick doesn’t mean you have to look a particular way. It’s easier to wear makeup (if you’re on a good day and have enough energy), wear a smile and hide how you feel than to be told you don’t look good.”

9. “If people could see the internal battle, the daily fight, they would probably be shocked. The lack of a visible impairment makes it difficult for others to comprehend, especially if they have never experienced a chronic illness. Others not having knowledge and awareness is the biggest detriment to someone struggling silently. Everyone deserves to feel supported in what ails them, visible or not.”

10. “My smile, cheerful positive personality and a good face full of makeup can hide a million aches, pains, struggles and negative thoughts. The outside world only judges what they see in front of them at that moment in time — a healthy, fit and well young woman. Oh, if they knew!”

11. “Just because I’m laughing and cracking jokes now does not prove that just an hour ago I wasn’t bawling my eyes out as I was getting out of bed to get ready for work because I’m so worn out… People think because you can smile and laugh and walk around, ‘you’re fine.’”

12.I’ve just stopped responding to comments like that. The people closest to me know how I’m feeling by the look in my eyes. They just hug me, love me and tell me how great I look… they know. The others with their ignorant, uninformed opinions really don’t matter at the end of the day.”

13. “Every day I’m fighting through pain to get out of bed, to get dressed, to even make it into work. And on days when I can’t leave the house it’s because the pain plus the frequent bathroom breaks have won that day. I hate when people say, ‘Well you don’t look sick,’ because they have no idea that my insides always feel like they’re on fire.”

14. “I put on makeup to cover up the bags under my eyes, my pale skin… I got three hours of sleep because the pain was so unbearable last night. It’s so easy to put a smile on my face and pretend I’m OK just so people won’t think I’m searching for attention. This is my reality every day. I may not ‘look it,’ but I most certainly feel sick.”

15. “I think there are two ways to take that ‘you don’t look sick’ thing. You can take it as people think you are overreacting or want some additional attention. The other way is to take it as a compliment, that your fake smile looks real and that you did an awesome work with your makeup. I take it the second way!”

16. “How is ‘sick’ supposed to look? I put on makeup, which hides a lot. There’s a lot of pain behind the smile. And I don’t go out on my worst days. You’re not seeing the whole picture.”

17. “When I look my best and laugh the loudest is probably when I feel I need to hide a health issue. I secretly wish someone would see through me and tell me it’s OK.”

Originally published: March 29, 2017
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home