There is a certain hesitation that comes with being sick with a disease they refer to as “invisible.” Who are they? And why do they call it invisible? The they is simple; it’s not so much a reference as it is a perspective. People and doctors don’t tell us our ailment is invisible. They simply don’t see it. And when you’re sick, especially for a long period of time, you become keenly intuitive about who sees it and who doesn’t. With someone who does, a certain ease settles in, as though you could wink at one another and understand it completely, even if you’d met minutes ago. Your guard goes down. Shoulders relax. That apologetic tone leaves from your voice.
Those who don’t see it, or don’t fully “accept” it, and it makes sense that some wouldn’t, can be sensed just as quickly. There’s an immediate undertone of tension, it makes my cheeks hurt while talking, the way eating a lemon does. I can feel my defenses go up. No matter how strong I’ve become at sloughing it off, doubt or judgment, it still stings. ‘Rubs salt on the wound’ as they say. It makes me want to explain everything, from the start, “No wait, if you just listen to how it all went down, if you knew how I was before this, what it’s like most days…” but it’s useless. For them but more importantly for me. For us. I have to cease needing the validation from others and just trust my inner self. ‘Choose your battles wisely’ they say. Turns out they say a lot, don’t they.
I think about The Truth, the eternal one that we’ve gotten wrong so many times, absolutely certain with documentation and everything that we were right and that was that. And yet the world remained round and the sun chilled with black sunnies on in the middle of the earth revolving like dude, yall are way off. The truth has never required us to believe in it in order for it to remain, and that often brings me comfort. It’s my ego that seeks the validation. Still, I’d call it’s pretty reasonable that you’d rather not be seen as crazy or a malingering pansy particularly in a vulnerable time of your life when you’re sick and need support. But this is another “invisibility factor” of the illness. And it matters because not being believed is a psychological kick in the brain. Or face. And that’s just it. We don’t look the part on the outside. People can’t see pain. Or a headache. Full body weakness. Mental spaghetti. Vertigo. The hit-by-the-truck feeling. Yada yada yada. Almost all we have for “outsiders” is our word, and some take us up on it, others don’t. I’ve been surprised observing the fluctuation of strength in my own word, depending on who it’s being exchanged with. I’ve been struck that a doubter could make me doubt myself.
Besides not seeing it “on” us, most doctors aren’t going to see it “in” us either. Invisibility factor number 2. We’ll give gallons of blood and urine samples and get x-rays and MRI’s and whatever other procedures they can think of that insurance doesn’t really wanna pay for. They may find little things, but for the most part it will all come back normal. Yaaay! Normal. But let me intervene quickly that the American medical term for “normal” is a bit flawed if you read how the numbers are configured, but that’s another issue. But the point is: invisible. Again. Nothing to see here. Even in our blood and our brains and our tickers!
So there you are either in an ER bed or sitting on the crinkly white paper of a doctors’ office being told you’re in fine health and that this is good news. But it’s also important to point out here, often these tests are ‘normal’ because most doctors aren’t trained on what to look for in regards to this illness. This isn’t taught in most med schools. There’s no standard diagnostic test yet, which makes things harder. Invisibility Factor Number 3: no research. The things a specialist test for are far more in-depth than a regular doctors work up: like NK cells, cytokines, CMV, HHV6 and many more. Right now, due to the lack of these specialists, it’s basically like having cancer and visiting the foot doctor. Welp, everything looks great to me!
Still, a large man in a white coat, his degrees framed behind him, scanning through your labs and telling you you’re fine, to get outside, drink more water and eat more protein, (my advice given to me) all encourage doubt. Even though I knew otherwise. I know what I feel inside, and it does not align with what I’m being told. And yet, when someone challenges your thinking, someone bigger and smarter and who you’re supposed to trust, you can’t help but consider that they might be right–thus, you might be crazy. Just great.
But it’s important to recognize the reality of the situation right now, and also that this it’s changing. More doctors are being educated about the illness and presumably in the next ten years, you won’t have to travel to other states in order to find one who knows more than you about it. Not to mention, doctors make mistakes. They are humans after all, and they are limited in their knowledge because they can only know what they’ve been taught. So often after a bad experience with a doctor, or anyone for that matter, I have to remember, (or my mom has to remind me) that this is vastly misunderstood right now, and people aren’t acting out of malice but from misunderstanding. That lack of understanding is just beginning to change. Slowly. And you know what? I think the petition may end up helping with that. That’s my hope, anyway.
A friend of my mine asked a while back “Have you ever considered that they might be right, that this might be more of a psychological thing, and you could actually be cured by pacing your exercise and receiving cognitive behavioral therapy? Or do you feel totally positive that it’s a physical disease?” This is all under the umbrella that I fully accept, and believe that mind and body are connected and the health of the mind is intrinsically tied to the health of the body and vice versa. Still, this topic is not being brought up so much in the same way with other diseases. The intention is different.
I admit I didn’t know exactly how to answer. I felt like “techinically” the right answer was, yes, they might be right and this might have a major psychological component that could be an intrinsic part of it and a part of curing it. I should have to consider that these psychiatrists might be right. But I couldn’t do it. Even though I have looked at myself in the mirror and asked that question, considered many times Could I be crazy? “Could this all be a front, could I be a mildly insane hypochondriac? Or could this all be ignited by something psychological from my childhood that I never worked out?” These doubts have run through my mind more than a few times. But in that moment, despite by own past consideration of other possibilities, I truly felt like a monkey being asked, Are you open to the idea that the others might be right, and you might be a giraffe? I answered in solid faith even though I felt myself nervous to do it. “No, I’m sure that’s not the answer to this.” I was in that moment, a total monkey.
I am an indecisive, uncertain person by nature. It takes me twenty minutes to pick out what to wear, including pajamas. (Ahem, that’s what I wear) I doubt and question myself a lot. I feel like I’m still learning how to be who I am. But, I’ve had twenty years of this invisible illness and gone through the ringer of its effects, felt deeply the losses it has caused. I’ve watched what it does to my mom, who I trust. I’ve read the stories and comments of thousands of others with experiences uncannily similar to mine. High functioning, happy people, (SANE PEOPLE) who had a rug swiped out from under them and were never the same. I think of the extremely current research and that of the last five years. I think of Lauren Hillenbrand. Of Whitney Dafoe. Of my doctor, Nancy Klimas. And I just can’t imagine at this point, that all of this comes back to some psychological trauma that just needs to be worked out with behavioral therapy and physical conditioning.
This is what is being touted as a legit cure in many countries, including ours, but particularly England, Australia and a lot of Europe. This illness can be triggered by a psychologically traumatic event, but this only points to another pathway in which, whatever this disease is categorically, (presumably a virus that takes advantage of a vulnerable immune system) has varying opportunities in which to intervene. This doesn’t make it a mental illness. And even if it were, it still doesn’t justify the way it’s been treated up to now.
I wish I could say that I’ve never doubted myself or the disease again. But I have moments where I do question myself. But I think that’s normal. Enough people question your your point of view, inevitably you’ll question it yourself. I know that there are many more invisible diseases besides M.E., and that a lot of people have felt isolated by the facade it produces. I hope if they’re reading they know they’re not alone, and they’re not crazy. They’re just sick, with whatever: ME/CFS, Depression, Fibromyalgia, Arthritis, Lupus. I have moments where I forget what it’s capable of and crash myself for days. My mom always tells me, don’t play ball with this disease, it will always win. That’s typically how I’m reminded of reality when I doubt it– the state of my own body. It’s hard to doubt your own illness when you’re struggling to walk. And if that somehow isn’t enough, I close my eyes and go back to my inner, inner self, where the truth lives in stillness, without interruption. Where the world is flat. Where the earth orbits the sun. Where an invisible disease simply hasn’t found the cause or cure, but one day soon will be seen, will be believed, but most importantly, will be cured.
Health, Happiness, (In)Visible
P.S. The petition is still live and running! The new goal is to get to 50,000 signatures before I formally present it to Collins and Burwell which should be in July. I promise this is the last high goal. We stop at 50. And if we get there, I will sing a song on camera that I wrote called “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Other Associated Conditions” and post it to the blog. It’s two chords, and worth seeing. Mostly to watch me make a completely humiliating knucklehead out of myself. So sign! Good night.
5 thoughts on “What Makes An Illness Invisible? I do I do!”
Hello There! I am a Podiatric Physician and Surgeon who treats many disorders both clinically and surgically. I do understand your trials due to many physicians who do not spend the time with their patients to truly diagnose and treat them individually. With the current pandemic, the care levels are of greater concern and I hope you are receiving what you need to at least keep comfortable and be able to lead a life with some sort of normalcy.
In case you have not figured out who I am yet let me tell you…I am the Physician in the photo you share on your blog without my permission. I also do not appreciate the zinger toward “Foot Doctor”. We are highly trained and educated with 4 years of undergraduate education, 4 years of Medical School, and multiple years of residency and postgraduate training. Podiatrists provide surgical and clinical care for skin, muscle, tendon, ligament, nerve, blood vessel and bone disorders as well as concomitant underlying disorders like diabetes, gout, bone and skin cancer, and trauma care.
PLEASE remove my photo from your blog. I wish you the best of luck in your health endeavors and God Bless.
‘It’s hard to doubt your own illness when you’re struggling to walk.’ Exactly. It’s always good to have an open mind, but there are some things where the truth is just so ‘in your face’ that questioning it is about as helpful as deciding that a square is a triangle. I, too, had doubts. Even when more-or-less bed bound. But that’s only because some voices have more power than they should. Now I just get on with living it in the hope that one day things will be different. After all, Simon Wessely, Peter White and their colleagues cannot live forever ;-)
I can totally relate to this. I don’t know what I have but it is crippling. I know what it’s like not being believed. Your honesty is what proves your tale, friend. Your self-doubt, your questioning, as beautiful as your strength. I will spread this petition as far as I can. Thanks for making yourself visible for all to see. It helps.
I have often questioned if I am “really” sick or just incredibly lazy. I have prayed that if I was just lazy that it would be revealed to me so I could give myself a good kick in my very large arse and get off the couch and back to living. But then I will have a “good” day where I feel terrific and energetic and hopeful. The next day, whammo…back to the couch. Laziness doesn’t have “good days”. I don’t make this crap up. I had a very busy life. Then my dad was dying and that was when my body started doing really odd things. I believe that the consequences of extreme stress triggered something that was laying dormant in my body. That was almost 30 years ago. 30 years of constant pain…of doctor visits where I was looked at like I was making it all up (way before anyone ever heard of CFS/FB). I have pretty much given up explaining my illness to folks. No one except another sufferer gets it. Not my mom, not my sister, not my hubs of 32 years….I am tired of the fight. But I pray that someday soon, there will be a treatment or a cure for us, even if it is too late for me. Keep fighting, Mary…keep hoping.
Tell me about it! For years, grammar school, junior high, high school, and so on I referred to it as the gallivanting unknowns along with Graves disease(not diagnosed until my early 40’s).