Invisible Illness, Invisible Empathy

I’ve been sick since last Friday. I was sneezing enough that my co-workers kept asking me if I needed to go home – and it’s probably a good thing.

Normally, I don’t get colds too easily – but when I do, I go down hard. And that’s been the case here. I went home and was mostly asleep for thirty six hours or so (and then slept another eight). I’ve not been able to walk up a flight of stairs without having a coughing and wheezing fit.

Which is to say that it’s pretty obvious that I’m sick.

Except that as I’ve started to recuperate, I can be okay while I’m just sitting down and doing nothing. And I’ve had a few people who have visited or talked to me on the phone be taken aback by my apparently “okayness” for a moment… until I get up and start moving and attempt to expel a lung from my body through my trachea.

This reflects my experience with chronic pain (via restless legs syndrome – see here, here, and here). Because my pain is entirely internal and can resolve to nothing the next day, added to how crap we are at evaluating other people’s pain anyway, it’s led to some skeptical looks before. I’ve had the same experience when I threw my back out:

Because we assume that if we can’t see someone’s illness or suffering, then it must be a lie.

And that is utter and complete bullshit.

It’s just a (milder) version of the crap I witnessed back in the military:

Over half of my patients on Fort Leonard Wood have been trainees, seeing whether or not they have stress fractures. 

Or rather, to see whether or not they’re “faking it”. 

Sometimes, a drill sergeant will actually accompany the trainee when they come to thier appointment; often this is accompanied by an aside that can be paraphrased as “they’ve been faking it for weeks”. 

Every one of those patients have had a real injury.

Hell, even Cracked recently talked about this recently:

It’s around here that we should note that America is absolute trash when it comes to paid sick leave, creating the current epidemic of “presenteeism.” That’s the technical term for employees going to work while sick and making everything worse. It’s even stupider when you realize that studies show working while sick is significantly more expensive for a company than letting employees take time off. It’s almost like they’ve been trained to equate suffering with success.

This probably has a lot to do with how mental illness gets derided and looked down upon – whether as the explanation du jour so we don’t have to face hard truths, how it’s harder to get mental health care than physical health care, or as Psychology Today put it:

Our culture still perpetuates the belief that people suffering from mental illnesses are not intelligent, extremely violent, or incapable of making decisions that profoundly impact their lives.

And this is why I think it boils down to a lack of empathy. It’s easy to believe someone’s pain if a bone is sticking out through their skin or if they can’t stop coughing. It’s easy to believe them and empathize then – you’ve got physical evidence right in front of you.

And to that, there’s only one thing to say: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

Featured Photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

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