Invisible Disabilities: Just Because you Can’t see it Doesn’t Mean it’s not Real
Have you ever heard diseases like fibromyalgia called an “invisible disability?” Essentially, invisible disabilities are conditions that can’t be seen but still have serious effects on your ability to live a normal life. The term makes a distinction between conditions like cerebral palsy, where the effects of the disability are often noticeable, and conditions like fibromyalgia.
Of course, humans depend heavily on their vision. We use our sight to make sense of the world around us and the people in it. And in spite of proverbs warning us “not to judge a book by its cover,” that’s often exactly what we do. If someone doesn’t “look” sick many people refuse to accept that they are.
That means that living with invisible disabilities is one of the hardest feats to manage when it comes to coping with long-term illness. So, how do you live with debilitating pain in a world that refuses to accept that you’re suffering? To find that out, let’s talk about some of the common invisible disabilities and some strategies for managing life with an invisible illness.
One of the most infuriating things about the skepticism many people display towards invisibility is that it implies that they’re rare. But the truth is that many long-term disabilities are invisible. The basic criteria is simply that a condition is not immediately apparent and impairs you enough that you can’t function normally.
By that definition, many chronic conditions could be considered invisible disabilities. For instance, someone with a traumatic brain injury may not show any outward signs of injury. And many of their functions, like walking, could be unaffected. But even so, other important functions like memory might be damaged enough that they can’t hold a job.
Or, someone might have suffered from the degeneration of the tissue between the vertebrae. This can lead to unbearable pain but leaves no outward sign of illness.
And anyone who has suffered from fibromyalgia knows how devastating an invisible illness can be. People with fibromyalgia live with not just constant pain, but constant fatigue as well. Of course, people with fibromyalgia also know how hard it is to live with this kind of condition. And one of the hardest parts about managing a chronic, invisible illness is simply getting people to acknowledge that their condition exists.
Consider one of the most common forms of disability: vision loss. According to the CDC, about 3% of Americans over the age of 40 are either legally blind or visually impaired. But simply putting in contacts is enough to correct many of these people’s vision to functional levels. Technically, these people are living with an invisible disability.
No one would believe that people with contacts don’t actually have impaired vision, but that’s often the attitude that people have when it comes to other disabilities.
People with fibromyalgia are often accused of “faking it.” It’s an accusation that they’re making up a disease so that they can get special treatment or attention. Of course, that doesn’t explain why people with fibromyalgia continue to hurt when there is no one around to see it.
Or they’re accused of being crazy. They’re told that their illness is all in their head. The implication is that all they have to do is realize that they aren’t actually sick and everything will be fine. But that idea doesn’t explain why almost all doctors now agree that fibromyalgia is a real condition.
Trying to get that kind of validation from society and even doctors adds another horrible burden on people who are already living with a devastating disease. And learning how to cope with that skepticism is an important part of managing invisible disabilities.
Part of that is learning to manage your expectations of others, even when they put unfair expectations on you. The truth is that many of the people who are skeptical of conditions like fibromyalgia are really skeptical because they are ignorant. Consider any interaction with these kinds of people a chance to help spread awareness about the condition.
It’s often a good idea to prepare a basic explanation of the condition that you can fire off whenever you’re confronted with people who are skeptical. The classic spoon analogy is a good place to start if you’re looking for inspiration.
But don’t expect everyone to immediately change their minds. You can’t control the way others think. Sometimes, all you can do is try not to let their negativity get to you and politely end the conversation.
Of course, this is impossible when you’re dealing with a spouse or family member. In these situations, it’s often a good idea to seek professional counseling. And generally speaking, seeing a professional counselor is important for anyone with a chronic illness.
The pain and loneliness of these sorts of conditions can get to anyone. Just as you see a medical professional for your physical health, seeing a mental health professional is a good way to keep yourself mentally and spiritually healthy.
Being proactive about your mental and physical wellbeing is the best way to manage a chronic illness, invisible or not.
Finally, remember that you’re entitled to protection under the law for your disability. Employers cannot legally fire you for being disabled. Nor can they deny you accommodations that you need. Many people with a disability have a story of losing their job because of their condition. This is not just wrong, it is illegal. And you should carefully consider the possibility of contacting a lawyer if you feel you’ve been treated unfairly.