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To the Stranger on the Train Who Asked If I Had 'Lost My Smile'

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It happened again today. As I was packed into a 6 train that was stalled in the station, a man looked up at me from his seat and said “Excuse me, you lost your smile.” Obviously satisfied with a line he must have said a thousand times (and no, it wasn’t a pick-up line as he was seated next to his wife), he repeated himself when I failed to acknowledge him. I made brief eye contact and gave him a half-hearted “Yea,” before looking down again.

It’s happened before. Sometimes when I’m rushing to or from wherever I need to be, a construction worker or a passing stranger will holler something to the effect of “Where’s your smile?” or “It wouldn’t hurt to smile.” These people may think they are cheering me up, or they might just be ribbing me for looking like a sourpuss.

But what they don’t know is that I’m not smiling because I’m in pain. While I may look fine, I’m suffering from an invisible illness. For the past year, and on this particular day when I “lost my smile,” I’ve seen doctor after doctor and taken medication after medication (21 pills a day now to be exact) for something called neuropathy (nerve damage) of the trigeminal or mental nerve. On a daily basis, the pain in my lower jaw/chin area ranges from a deep aching to a tingling, burning, sharp, stabbing pain — sometimes all at once. The pain usually escalates as the day goes on, sometimes ending at an 11 on the pain scale by the time my husband and I get home from work and begin the herculean task of getting our 2-year-old to bed. I regularly burst into tears at night after trying to conceal my pain at work or in social situations.

I cry not just because of the pain, but also because of the effects it has had on my life, including the potential inability to have another child because of all the medications I take.

I know there are a lot of people like me out there — people who look “normal” but are suffering from intense pain — whether physical or emotional. So before you make a sarcastic comment to a stranger on the subway, just remember that you never know what they’re going through, and by highlighting their unhappiness, you might be exacerbating something they’re trying desperately to hide.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: May 27, 2016
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