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When People Don't Realize They're Seeing the Symptoms of My Illness

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Our town used to be a small town but somewhere in the 18 years we’ve lived here (in which our town population went from 1,400 to 12,000), we’ve become a suburb instead. Recently, after a doctor’s appointment, I was waiting to be picked up and found myself sitting on the steps of the corner of the business area in the higher-end, newer part of town, doing some people watching. I kept thinking it was weird that no one was making eye contact with me.

At first I thought it was because, even though people moved to our area for the small town feel, they weren’t actually what I think of as “small town people” — and I do think that was a big part of it — but then I thought about what people were seeing while I was sitting there: an older, overweight lady with no makeup, wearing a T-shirt and jeans in an area that has women dressing up even for a trip to the grocery store.

I greeted them with my broken-toothed smile, as my teeth are crumbling due to long-term use of some of the medications I’m on. I was at the doctor about the vertigo I’ve been experiencing so I’ve been swaying a lot, too, when sitting still or having to steady myself while walking. Oh, and it gets worse. I wore my coat because even though I was enjoying the sun, I get an allergic-like reaction to it so in an effort to try to keep my skin covered, I was really warm and all sweaty. Sitting on concrete steps is really hard on my body, so I kept getting up and walking awkwardly around and then sitting back down.

I kept thinking about the post I’d read by actor Wentworth Miller about people judging a meme which featured a photo of his past weight gain instead of understanding that he was struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts at that time. They were judging him based on wrong information about a struggle they couldn’t see.

I also thought about how often I use the term “invisible disability” to describe my illness when really it isn’t all the invisible anymore: the weight gain and the broken teeth caused by my illness and medications they used to treat it; the scars on my skin from frequent rashes and inflammation; the limping gait I have due to my deteriorating joints; the sway even when I’m sitting still due to inner ear inflammation; the tremor and the twitching from neurological aspects of my disease… the list could go on and on. My illness is not invisible; it just isn’t what many people recognize as a disability. People don’t understand what they’re seeing. They’re judging my book by its cover, not realizing that the story inside is in a different genre than what it looks like from the outside.

I guess I’m writing all this down to remind people that you don’t know another person’s story and judging someone based on appearance alone might cause you to jump to incorrect conclusions. That invisible illnesses are not always completely invisible. And that I’m guilty of all this, too. I hope to do better in the future. I hope you will, too.

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Lead photo by Thinkstock Images

Originally published: January 9, 2017
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