I am a face of “Invisible Illness”. I want to show you what one symptom of living with an “invisible” me is like, in hopes others struggling with illness, disease & the purgatory of Undiagnosis know “I see you” to give others insight what my invisible illness looks like. So let me take off my mask..
I live with multiple Autoimmune diseases; often referred to “Invisible Illnesses” because these diseases cannot be seen to the naked eye. Because of this, many who are diagnosed with Autoimmune diseases, like Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis, are not taken seriously because physically looking at me, you cannot see the physical toll the internal destruction and irreversible damage.
My invisible illness means taking upwards of 20 pills a day. Some of these medications include daily or daily injections, monthly infusions, etc. Some are so harmful, they must be identified as “black box” medications. This means death is a possibility and has been reported as the cause of death in some patients. I don’t say this to scare anyone, but medications for chronic illness can be huge decisions that can greatly impact your quality of life, not to mention your finances, social life, holiday celebrations & major milestones in your family’s life. it doesn’t show the anxiety of knowing some weeks I’ve had to make the choice of being able to afford groceries or medications. It doesn’t show the hundreds of denials from insurance companies, stacks of appeals my doctors and I have fought endlessly for & the major disappointment of never getting the medications I need in order to be able to save an organ. It doesn’t show you the thousands of prescriptions I’ve taken since age 15. It doesn’t show the guilt of failing multiple medications & never knowing when a drug that will work for you shows up. It doesn’t show the guilt, missing out on amazing opportunities & chances to achieve my goals.
My invisible illness is located in nearly every organ: skin, small bowel, large & small intestine, rectum, esophagus, sympathetic nervous system, musculoskeletal system, deteriorating bones due to long-term steroid use & joints that begin to fuse together. You cannot see the obstructions in my intestine, the ulcers in my esophagus, the number of times I’ve thrown up, nor time spent on the bathroom floor writhing in pain. You can’t see the amounts of blood in my stool that makes me so anemic I’ve required blood transfusion. What others can’t see is an infection in my intestinal tract, the long-term side effects of small doses of chemotherapy injected weekly and monthly infusions. Invisible illness is blood clots, respiratory infections, sepsis, pancreatitis, exploratory surgeries, fusing of bones, inflammation of eyes, ulcers in the nose and mouth, insomnia, osteoporosis. it causes cancers, changes in weight, my skin, my hair & my self-esteem. It doesn’t show tubes, PICC lines, NG tubes or preps for surgery. It doesn’t show anxiety, withdrawal from friends or the lasting effects of PTSD many patients experience after traumatic & near-death experiences.
It doesn’t show the self-esteem Iose every time I look in the mirror and don’t recognize the reflection, wondering where the “old me” went and what, if anything, I can do to get her back. There are times my illness becomes visible. My eyes sink in, I’m visibly tired, very pale. Sometimes I’m thin, making it more apparent. Rude, uninvited comments like “you look much healthier than before”, only to be left thinking “was I that fat before??”
It doesn’t show the friendships I’ve lost because I’ve had to back out of plans, fun events and celebrations. It doesn’t show how hard it is to maintain a relationship with someone; the fatigue, the guilt of not feeling well enough to care for myself and the guilt knowing they may have to care for me,. Caregiver/Family tip: They may not always know what to say or how to offer help, but even offering to come over, sit with they & just stay awhile speaks volumes. A little help gives a lot of hope. Pain is incredibly lonely.
Despite my invisible illness, I’ve mustered strength to run a couple 1/2 marathons, educate myself & become an advocate for others. This past year, I was asked to be an Ambassador for an organization I have such great respect for. For nearly 4 years, I have been using the Charity Miles app, which donates to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. It’s extremely rewarding to be well enough to train for endurance events, especially while training and fundraising for Team Challenge events.
Recently, I needed emergency care for my arthritis, so at 2am, I called the on-call Emergency Rheumatologist. I explained my situation and was brushed off and told to “just get through tonight”. I hung up the phone and sobbed. I felt completely invisible.you see, invisible illness isn’t just just brushed under the rug by common folk, it’s also invisible to some of our specialists – who challenge us & presume our pain “cannot be that bad”. You may be able to see my glassy, inflamed eyes with bags underneath them, but no one knows the struggle my insides are putting me through. Your own doctors & nurses do n’t understand the excruciating pain of what it means to be a patient living with autoimmune disease, trapped inside a body in which your cells attack your entire body. the cells meant to protect you communicate with one another fight each other instead. if we can’t get providers to understand the seriousness of our pain, who will?
I struggle mentally, like many other autoimmune patients, with putting any biologic into my body. I’m weak, foggy & often sore and sick the next day. ask yourself: How would you
plan my week around which day I would inject? Would you do Fridays so you could rest/recuperate over the weekend? would you inject Mondays so that by the time the weekend came you would be able to enjoy it?.. As someone living with an illness that seems obvious only to start to cycle over right away on Monday? Quite a perspective, isn’t it?
What it shows is my strength, despite the odds I’ve dealt with, the redirection I’ve taken in stride & the pride I feel overcoming each flare I experience. Illness changes you. When we explain to others what it’s like to live with invisible illness we often say that our insides don’t match our outsides. We share our stories in hopes that our future will include more support & give others courage to tell someone “I’m struggling too “. Sometimes we just need people to simply be there, not analyzing our every move, not picking us apart because they don’t perceive our illness to be the level of “disability” which people won’t mock us for parking in the handicap zone, for using “the perks” of Disability Services on campuses, missing work to “sleep all day” or “catch up on talk shows”. We need you just to be here. Just be with us, even in silence, to just feel.. Visible.