What is an Invisible Illness?
Lupus, like many other autoimmune diseases, is an invisible illness. Consequently, one of the most common phrases I hear is, “But you don’t look sick.” Our society has conditioned us to recognize sickness as an outwardly identifiable characteristic; however, this is not always the case. An invisible illness can be a physical illness or disability, or even a mental illness, that is not immediately visible to the people around you. While people who suffer from invisible illnesses do not often look sick, the pain or suffering they may experience is not any less diminished.
Some common problems faced by people who suffer from invisible illnesses are loss of credibility, judgement from people around them, and a general lack of social awareness among the people they encounter every day. Just think about it, have you ever seen a person park in the handicap spot and get out of their car looking perfectly healthy? What about on the subway when a young man takes a seat as an elderly woman is forced to stand nearby? These are both examples of invisible illness stigma. Our immediate reaction is to judge these people for being inconsiderate or abusing a system not meant for their use. Instead of jumping to conclusions, we should consider the fact that this person might have an invisible illness, something they can’t control and something you can’t see.
During my senior year of high school, I collectively missed over a month of classes. While some teachers were understanding about the health struggles I was facing, the majority of my teachers had a hard time following my 504 Plan set forth by the school administration—a plan they were legally obligated to follow, I might add. I had to learn how to be an advocate for my health and not let the opinions of my teachers get to me. Sadly, my experience is just one of many. People often question patients with invisible illnesses and make them feel like the experiences aren’t valid.
I truly believe invisible illness stigma is stemmed from ignorance or lack of awareness, so that is why it’s my mission to educate everyone I can about what invisible illnesses are. People who suffer from invisible illnesses are not faking it, it isn’t all in their head, and they most likely aren’t complaining just for the fun of it. Practicing compassion for people in your life who have invisible illnesses can go a long way with promoting invisible illness awareness. Trying to understand what they are going through and being empathetic to their situation will help foster a more social aware population. After all, you never know what is going on behind closed doors.