Disappearing Behind Your Invisible Illness
Have you ever noticed that the invisible illnesses we live with often make us actually seem or feel invisible? We disappear behind our illnesses, using them to define ourselves while physically disappearing from work, school, our friends, our lives. If you're anything like me, you often find yourself feeling guilty, sad, and misunderstood by this phenomena. We question why we feel invisible. We wonder what we should say to others. Ultimately, we consider how on Earth we can learn to cope with this disappearing act?
Disappearing Behind your Illnesses
One of the most damaging aspects of living with an invisible illness, such as IBS, fibromyalgia, or mental health disorders, is the weight it places upon our own minds, our behavior, and our image. This image not only portrays how we see ourselves but how others see us, as well. When people ask what we are doing, how we are feeling, or what we are planning, how often do our illnesses come up? How often do we find ourselves, consciously or not, using our invisible aspects of ourselves to explain our lives? How often do we hide behind our illness?
I've recently noticed that I, and others with invisible disorders, do this often. This is not to say that we are using our illness as a 'crutch,' so to speak; but rather, that we are hiding behind it. We are using it to define ourselves or our actions. We are rewriting our image while attempting to make our invisible illnesses visible. We lose ourselves inside the realm of our disorder. We are no longer separate from our physical problems, but rather, have become them. This is how we disappear.
Invisible Becomes Absent
In addition to disappearing mentally behind our disorder(s), we often find ourselves physically absent as well. How many times have our invisible illnesses made us disappear from our actual lives, our jobs, our classes and gatherings. We've left early, disappeared for minutes or hours at a time, and cancelled plans entirely.
My days are often filled with worry that I will have to cancel plans, or be absent from work. I feel guilty when I call in sick because of a flare-up, even if I know that I need to take the time off. Invisible symptoms like, nausea, pain, anxiety or depression all combine to remove us from our lives. We become the ghosts we are haunted by.
Coping with our Invisibility
So, the question here is, what do we do about this? How do we cope with our invisible illnesses? How do we refrain from losing ourselves, or missing out on life? How do we stop ourselves from the loneliness and guilt that can follow our disappearance?
As I've said before, one of the most important and effective coping mechanisms is communication. Having a solid base (loved ones, friends, etc) to lean on is always a fantastic way to remember that you are not alone and, more importantly, that you are not invisible. According to a recent study in the Journal of Applied Gerontology, social support is more effective than religious or compensatory coping resources in relieving the depression and loneliness we feel from our chronic invisible illnesses. Ultimately, having a social support network mediates the often turbulent relationship between our illnesses and mental health.
Unfortunately, when we cannot find ways to cope with our invisible illnesses and absenteeism, the negative impact upon our mental health is unquestionably palpable. By either refusing to stay connected to a support network, or simply hiding behind your disorder, the inability to cope will lead to further mental strain. This is especially exacerbated when the situations we are absent from directly affect our livelihood, such as education and work. What is increasingly distressing is that these important spheres of life often lack the necessary support and understanding we need. Alas, it becomes a vicious circle wherein we find it difficult to cope with work and school while work and school are uninformed about why we need to cope.
This is precisely why we must continue to educate and communicate; we must work to take the stigma and pressure away from invisible illnesses and the affect they have upon our lives. Furthermore, clinicians, employers, loved ones, and teachers must learn to avoid provoking shame in those suffering from such illnesses. The only way that this can be achieved is by talking. Sharing. Be open about your disorder. Instead of hiding behind your IBS, fibromyalgia, or mental health, learn to understand it better. Learn who you are with and without your disorder. Find yourself in order to find answers, in order to cope.
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