When I thought of the term 'invisible illnesses', conditions like chronic pain, deafness, and Multiple Sclerosis were always the first things that sprung to mind. These are conditions that even when managed can make living every day life immensely difficult. Being productive at school or work without the proper support or assistance in place can prove to be a trying task. And the thought of someone discriminating against a person who dealt with an invisible illness actively horrified me.
Which is why it was that much more shocking when a psychiatrist recently told me that’s what had happened to me over the years.
I sat in a small office last week telling a specially-trained doctor, but albeit still a complete stranger, every hardship I think I’ve ever experienced in my life. While for the most part he let me lead the conversation, towards the end he interjected and said, 'You know what your teachers and bosses have done to you is wrong, right?' And I replied, 'Well yeah…'
'No, it was. Perhaps legally in some cases you’ve mentioned.' I didn’t say anything, but instead just nodded along with a slightly confused look on my face.
'Let’s say you were blind. If you couldn’t maintain your grades at school because of your blindness, and your teachers just gave up on you without seeing what they could do to make you more successful, would that be considered okay?' he asked me.
'If you broke your legs and you went to your boss and explained you were having trouble keeping up with the workload, and you could use some assistance and their response was, "That’s not my problem", would that be okay?'
'Exactly. Some people are much less sympathetic, and frankly discriminatory, towards you because you have an invisible illness. You look like an able-bodied, healthy woman, so people will look at you and say you’re being too emotional or you need to just get tough and get on with things when that can be nearly impossible without support.'
I’d never thought of my situation that way before. I knew that I had a mental illness, but I didn’t consider myself on par with more commonly thought of invisible illnesses.
Since being signed off from work, I’ve found myself struggling with a lot of guilt. Every time I have a 'good day', I think to myself, Why am I home right now? I need to go back to work. But then the next day can be so wrought with anxiety and depression that I can’t even get out of bed, and I think, This is why I’m signed off. My husband has been great about getting me out of the house, even doing so much as to take me down to Southampton for a couple days. But while on Instagram it looked like we were having a ball watching movies, shopping, and eating by the ocean, in real life I was asking him to leave the hotel room because I needed to be alone. He was sitting me down in the middle of the shopping centre and talking me out of a panic attack. And he, just like the doctor, kept reminding me: 'Just because your sickness is in your head, and not visible to the naked eye, doesn’t mean it’s not real. It doesn’t mean you don’t need time off to receive treatment. And it doesn’t mean that anyone should be making you feel less than for taking time off work. Your physical and mental health is worth more than a job. It’s worth more than buying a flat (apartment). It’s worth more than people’s opinions of you. You know deep down you’re doing what’s right for you.'
I have invisible illnesses and they do affect my day to day life. I don’t need a special seat on public transportation because of them. I don’t need any devices or machines to make getting through life easier. All I need is understanding. Understanding that I and so many people who live with invisible illnesses like me are doing our best. That we’re not 'cry babies' or 'drama queens', we’re people trying our best to thrive despite this thing that’s desperate to hold us back.
Just a bit of empathy.