The Mighty Logo

The 'Elevator Dilemma' That Comes With Invisible Illness

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

To take the elevator or to take the stairs? This is a question that goes through my head each day.

My decision between machinery and exercise does not lie at the crossroads between a desire for laziness or fitness. Instead, it lies between a desire for health or for social acceptance.

I struggle with a neurological condition called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). This syndrome affects a small population of people, mainly young women, with unknown causes. It is characterized by low blood pressure and high heart rate which, when combined, can lead to dizziness or fully passing out. For me, a 20-year-old college student, walking or biking the half mile to class is already a struggle. The reasons for my shortness of breath and the sweat cropping up on my brow as I try to maintain a steady pace without stopping might be lost on most people. I am young; I am of average weight; I look healthy.

Yet herein lies the paradox of invisible illness: it only shows itself when it wants to, and not usually in the ways people expect.

By the time I reach the building my class is in, the heart rate monitor in my watch will alert me that my pulse is between 115 and 125 beats per minute, a rate way too high for a normal walk. However, then I have to make a decision: do I take the elevator to my second-floor sociology class or do I walk up the one flight of stairs and risk my heart rate breaching the 130s or 140s?

You might think the answer to that question is simple: take the elevator, of course.

However, my social anxiety and general awkwardness set in.

That, and some unfortunate past experiences. Let me recount:

My boyfriend and I were going to a musical show and we were both excited. We walked the distance from the train station to the theater — a few blocks — at a moderate pace, trying to get out of the cold. We stood in line for a bit, waiting to enter. We showed our tickets and by that time, my body was getting tired. I was worried about my blood pressure dropping from standing on my feet so long; the blood was likely pooling in my feet.

The usher told us that our seats were up the first set of stairs, just one flight. My boyfriend looked at me and said: “Let’s take the elevator,” knowing that stairs were not my best friend.

We got on the elevator, primarily reserved for people with difficulty walking, and I was reaching that point of need. Inside was a man whose job was to press the elevator buttons and help people get to their seats. A girl with a cast on her foot was there with her mother and an older gentleman with a cane came in after me. The man at the buttons asked us each where our seats were. To the girl with the boot, he explained that she could use a special needs women’s bathroom to beat the lines at intermission. To the older man, he explained the best route he could take to his seat along with additional instructions for a bathroom where he would not have to stand in line to get to. He looked at me and my boyfriend, now the last ones in the elevator, opened the door to the first floor and directed us that our seats were just up the stairs.

“Well, that was pointless,” I said to my boyfriend once we were once again on the main floor, staring at the daunting red stairs filled with people. It was clear to us both that the man found no reason to assist us; we looked like two able-bodied college students who were just looking for a free ride. Little did he know, I nearly collapsed once I got to my seat.

A few weeks later, I was going to class. Once I reached the building, I headed straight for the elevator. Inside the elevator, there were a few people with me, but I pressed the button for the second floor. One of the guys said: “You know, you could’ve just taken the stairs. It’s just one floor.”

“Ignore him,” his friend said. I didn’t say anything, but I didn’t ignore his words. Just one floor. If only it were so simple.

So, the other day when I was staring at those stairs asking the question: to take the elevator or the stairs? I decided to let my social anxiety and my shame about my condition win. I took the stairs. I started to black out as I reached the top steps. The first several minutes of my class I spent in a fog, trying to come back to reality. And I was upset with myself, that I had let myself be bullied into hurting my body, just because people didn’t understand I have a chronic illness.

The reason I share these stories is twofold:

1. If you have chronic illness, don’t allow social norms to pressure you into doing something that will hurt you. Your health is worth more than a few snide comments. You are worth more.

2. If you see someone take the elevator or use a disabled parking sticker, and that person, to your eyes, doesn’t seem to need it, don’t immediately jump to judgment. Illness and disability come in all forms.

I’ve decided that from now on, the elevator is no dilemma: it is a social mountain that I am going to climb. I will take the elevator despite the awkwardness or the ignorance of others. I am going to put my health first.

Getty image via Stockbyte

Originally published: February 8, 2019
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