What is an Invisible Illness?


I have been thinking a lot this past month about what makes a, so called ‘invisible illness’. For fear of sounding Orwellian but surely all illnesses are invisible, but some are more invisible than others – or are they? Hospitals invest billions of pounds in highly sophisticated equipment so that they can see what is happening inside the human body, this wouldn’t be necessary if all illnesses were instantly visible. The sheer fact that an illness is invisible is in itself not a problem, unfortunately there are a few people who will then jump to a conclusion – that if you do not look ill then you obviously are not. So what on earth does ‘ill’ look like, maybe it looks like flu, high temperature, sweating, shivering, bunged up and croaky. Or maybe ill is a broken leg with a cast on it but whilst acute illnesses may have a ‘look’ to them, many chronic illnesses generally do not.

I had the absolute pleasure a few weeks ago to spend a few days with a number of people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. I sat talking to a lady for about half an hour and it wasn’t until she stood up that I realised she was a full leg amputee. This might seem an extreme example but people use prosthetics and wear long trousers and it is then an invisible condition, you do not automatically assume that every person with a limp is an amputee. Likewise, if you see me walking slowly, at 36 you wouldn’t automatically assume my joints are riddled with arthritis from constant dislocations, my spine has fractured in two places because of the stress of my vertebrae dislocating, that I have had 19 operations or that I have a heart condition, which results in 15-25 angina attacks a day - and the result of all of this is that I am in constant pain.

So then again I have to ask, what is a visible illness? Is cancer visible? Well no not really. Sometimes the treatments of cancer can make you archetypally looking ill - tired, vomiting and of course hair loss. Not everybody going through chemo loses their hair, not everyone who goes through chemo has cancer and then people wear scarfs and wigs so again I don’t believe cancer is visible. I have some experience of this having had cervical cancer 15 years ago – I didn’t tell anyone at work I was ill and nor did they ever know.

I would argue that most chronic illnesses are invisible, the only visible side of an illness is when someone uses an aid to help or hide an issue. The thing we must endeavour to do is not presume or judge the extent or impact of a persons condition. We should try and understand and support them instead.

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