Last week, I participated in an Out of the Darkness event with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (you can read more about how that went in my Tuesday post). As it does every year, this event brings about a mix of feelings ranging from empowered to depressed. It’s a very tricky tightrope to balance, and being one of the participants who have struggled with suicidal thoughts/ideation, I’m used to the feelings it brought up. But this year, I also reflected a lot more than usual on how mental illnesses can be invisible – not only the impact that has on others, but the toll it takes on the people who are dealing with them.
One of the things that was repeated at last week’s event (and is repeated often in the mental health community) is that the work in this space is so important because you never know who is struggling. Someone can appear like they’ve got it all together on the outside while carrying a huge weight on the inside. And while the attitude in the mental health community is much healthier surrounding this idea, there is still a general idea that something needs to look “off” or be wrong for action to be taken. Coupled with this attitude is also the thought that by reaching out or having one conversation, the issue goes away. To be honest, that conversation is only the beginning for a person with an invisible illness.
What is an Invisible Illness?
An invisible illness is an wide-ranging term for any medical condition that isn’t easily visible. Examples include chronic physical conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, fibromyalgia, and others — but it also includes mental illnesses. Since they aren’t easily visible, spreading awareness is extremely important because the need for education is even greater than with illnesses that are clearly seen. These chronic physical conditions can be very different from mental health disorders, but the way we talk about them – and the advice we give to deal with them – can be very similar.
Living with an Invisible Illness Can Be Difficult
Living with an invisible illness can be hard for many reasons, but for me, there are two things that stand out that I want to leave you with today. The first thing, and it’s something I’ve written about before on this blog, is that my invisible illness won’t just “go away.” It’s something that is part of me and even though I will have days where I look okay or “seem fine,” that doesn’t diminish what I often deal with on a daily basis. I have worked very hard to make sure I can function on the outside despite what I may be feeling on the inside, and the idea that one day I’ll wake up and be ‘cured’ isn’t an idea I will entertain.
The second thing reason invisible illness is difficult for me is because it makes me feel like I’m not being seen for who I really am. When you see the end result of something, you don’t know how hard someone worked to achieve that goal. It’s easy to guess how much hard work went into winning a championship or getting a promotion, but some of us work hard every day just to get the simple things done. I’m not saying that always needs to be celebrated, but it does need to be acknowledged. People with invisible illnesses have very different challenges than most people, and keeping that in mind when you’re talking with someone goes a long way in validating their existence and experience. For all of you reading this with an invisible illness, I see you, I appreciate you, and I wish you the best of luck.