In a recent survey of 611 chronically ill individuals, done by the National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week committee, 53.27% of the respondents said that the most frustrating or annoying comment people make about their illness is “But you look so good!”
“Although telling someone they look good is often seen as a compliment,” says Lisa Copen, founder of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week “it feels like an invalidation of the physical pain or seriousness of one’s illness and the suffering they cope with daily.”
This is a sore spot for many with “invisible” conditions: that is, disabilities or impairments that aren’t visible to the eye, that don’t cause outward physical deformities or leave other telltale signs. The icon of the disabled in our society is a stick figure in a wheelchair; many healthy folks don’t realize that a good many of the people milling around them, though appearing outwardly healthy, can be suffering a chronic illness that leaves them impaired or outright disabled.
These illnesses can range from diabetes to chronic fatigue syndrome to cancer to eating disorders.
And because they are invisible, they can be harder to understand. People can’t see what’s wrong with you, so they assume there isn’t anything wrong (and we’re back to that white male able-bodied heterosexual default “person” again). Even presented with evidence, many people still insist that there can’t be anything really wrong. As people who have battled depression surely find familiar, you’re expected to just get out and get some sun, go out with friends, or otherwise push through. Most of us, after all, have experienced periods of sadness, pain or fatigue, or times when we were excessively hard on ourselves over our physical appearance—and healthy people will be able to recover from these things and move on. They have little concept of living with these things every minute of every day for the rest of your life.
And of course, no one can be expected to fully understand. But there are certainly conversational landmines that even the most well-meaning and sympathetic person can inadvertently step on. “You look great!” is one of them. Naturally, everyone loves a compliment (although many, especially women, are trained to feel a need to debate or deny those comments so as not to seem unduly self-confident). But when these compliments are offered as a refutation to a person’s complaints that they are feeling down or tired or overwhelmed, it leaves a person feeling (recall that teenage angst) that they aren’t really understood.
I’ll grant that I don’t tend to mind these comments as much; they blow over me a bit more easily. But a couple more comments that the committee picked out tend to dig under my skin:
* “If you stopped thinking about it and went back to work…” (12.42%)
I’ve been told to “think positive” my way out of the pain countless times. I have news for these people. I thought-positived my way through my entire first nineteen years of life. Despite living with a pain processing disorder that can make carrying in a few grocery bags feel like running a marathon, I pushed my way through school on nothing but Tylenol. And then I very nearly failed out of high school because I overworked myself. I was out of school for so long that the attendance office started calling and leaving threatening messages that I needed to come back or… I would go back to school for half a day and then take off my three-days-without-a-doctor’s-note just recovering from those three and a half hours sitting in a chair, not even enough mental energy left to learn: just enough to be present.
I then pushed myself through college, thinking that if I could just keep at it I could be “normal.” After six weeks I had to drop all my classes; I was stuck in bed in too much pain to so much as microwave myself a Hot Pocket for lunch; I lived on a big pan of bread bedside until I was able to go back home. I was bedridden and then housebound for three months thereafter.
I learned to pace myself after that; I dropped down to twelve units when I was able to return to college, and then mid-semester had to drop half those just to be able to finish half my work in the remaining half. (One prof cut me slack and gave me an A based on the work that I did, the other didn’t and gave me a C- because though I did good work, I didn’t do enough work to earn the grade. I still can’t decide which approach affords me more dignity.) Then I dropped down to six units the next semester and wasn’t able to finish it out. The pain catches up to me.
Then, a year later, I started working. Ten hours a week. And after six months I had to quit. It was killing me. I couldn’t walk when I woke in the morning; it felt like daggers shooting through the floor into my feet with the slightest of weight. I was feeling the migraines coming back, and my painkiller use was shooting upward at a rate I was decidedly not comfortable with. And my bosses were jerks to boot (“I’m fifty years old, honey, I hurt too.” “…!!!! [splutter]”).
No. I can’t be normal. Even if I look like any other perfectly healthy twenty-one-year-old (albeit with somewhat darker circles under her somewhat baggier eyes). I have to pace myself. I can’t take any more than two showers a week (and showers-per-week is a good gauge of my health at the time; when it drops below one, I know I’m in trouble). I can’t get out of the house too much (the effort trying to make myself look half-presentable, even after I ditched the somewhat exacting patriarchy standards, is too much, and then I’m out of my comfort zone where I can sit, stand, lie how I need, when I need and where I need, have my medicine and a drink at hand and heating pads and pillows ever-ready). I can’t take on too many out-of-house commitments, if any, and it has to be a pretty flexible definition of “commitment” to boot. My husband works full time and I not at all, and he still does half the housework. I’ve learned to ask for help when I’m struggling instead of stubbornly insisting I can do it myself. Etc. I’ve had to accept all these things. It’s a heavy hit to your pride, trust me.
Which reminds me of the last one that bugs the shit out of me:
3. You’re so lucky to get to stay in bed all day.
Oh, honey. I’d give anything to trade you…
*(A side note: I find it frustrating that a good chunk of stories I receive on fibromyalgia are press releases, seeking to advertise a new “alternative” treatment or, in some other way, make money off those suffering. A good chunk of the rest is business stories talking about how a condition impacts corporate profits. The remainder are slice-of-life stories that often get the facts pathetically wrong. I’d say perhaps one out of every thirty or forty stories that come my way seem to approach the condition in a respectful and accurate tone. This, despite being a press release, was one of them.)