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What I Wish People Would Say Instead of 'You Don't Look Sick'

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I have had a lot of total strangers tell me lately that I don’t “look sick,” so I must not actually be sick. I’m “too pretty” to be sick enough to qualify as disabled, and rely on a service dog for any kind of independence. I encounter this situation more often than not. Random strangers will stop and ask me, “What’s wrong with you?… Why do you need that dog?” or sometimes they don’t ask, they demand I tell them.

When someone tries to distract my service dog and I politely ask the person to stop, I get responses like:

“You aren’t really sick.”

“You don’t need a service dog.”

“You look fine.”

“You’re just taking your dog everywhere.”

“You’re just training it so why does it matter?”

But not all of my interactions are negative, most of the time people are respectful. Sometimes someone will stop me and ask polite, respectful, and noninvasive questions; I always force myself to make the time to stop and educate that person. I’m always glad and eager to spread awareness for service dogs and my illnesses, but it never fails…at some point in the conversation the person will say:

“You look perfectly fine/normal/healthy.”

“You don’t look like you need a service dog.”

“I would never know you were sick if I didn’t see your service dog.”

“I would never guess that you are so sick if you didn’t me.”

“I honestly thought you were training the dog for someone else, you don’t look like you need a service dog.”

When I’m out with my dad I usually get something along the lines of:

“I can’t believe it’s actually for you, I thought you were just handling the dog for him.”

“Oh she’s for you? I thought it was his *pointing at my dad* service dog.”

This even happens when my dad is over 30 feet away! All of these people genuinely mean the “you don’t look sick” comments as compliments.

But all of this got me thinking — if total strangers truly believe that it will make me feel better to know that while I am legally disabled at the age of 22, I still look good then my loved ones probably do too.

a young woman is looking at her service dog in the woods

Guys I can’t speak for everyone, and I wouldn’t dare try, but I’m speaking from my experience and what I have been told from others in similar situations.

When someone tells me that I don’t “look sick” I feel as though they don’t believe me. It makes me feel as though I am being called a liar and told I am faking my illnesses. Of course I’m certain no one has ever meant it that way. However, that doesn’t change how it makes me feel questioned or insecure about my illness.

I struggle a lot with accepting my life the way it is now. I had to give up lifelong dreams and accept the fact that my body is not capable of doing the things I love to do. I have had to learn how to navigate the world as a disabled individual with a service dog and that has been hard on me. No one wants to be considered disabled at 22. I struggle with accepting the lack of control I have over my body and its functions. I struggle even more to accept that a service dog is responsible for my safety and well-being.

As someone who experiences multiple invisible illnesses I also know how hard it is to get people to take it seriously. I have been passing out and experiencing dizzy spells since I was 8 years old. I am 22 now and doctors still won’t take them seriously. Even though I have fallen and gotten head injuries and injured other parts of myself falling from the dizziness and fainting, all doctors insist I’m fine.

Besides, what does sick even look like?! Sick doesn’t look any certain way. Sick means unhealthy, that doesn’t mean you can see it, after all you can’t see your internal organs (I hope).

It doesn’t make me any less sick, simply because you can’t see it. I work hard to make sure I look nice, or at least decent when I’m going somewhere and definitely when I’m going to post photos of myself. No one, not even a sick and disabled person like myself, wants to hear that we look sick or look bad.

So instead of telling someone they don’t look sick, try telling them:

“You look nice today” (something you would say to anyone).

“You look like you’re taking care of yourself.”

“You are strong for fighting your illness(es).”

“You are strong/amazing/inspiring for not letting your illness/anything hold you back.”

Those statements will probably be much more well received, and they don’t invalidate what the person is going through.

Again, while I can’t and won’t guarantee that everyone with an invisible illness or disability will agree with what I’ve said or the alternative compliments I suggested, I can say that I will take them well and would much rather hear any one of those compliments rather than hearing that I “don’t look sick,” and “look fine.” I know it is meant well, but I want to know that my loved ones aren’t making out my health struggles to be smaller problems than what they actually are.

Thank you for taking this and for being a part of my life.

Photo submitted by contributor.

Originally published: January 25, 2020
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