“You don’t look sick!”
I have lost count of how many times someone said these words to me and am certain that many people with invisible illnesses can relate. I have an irresolute response every time I hear this axiom. There are times when I smile, say thank you and continue on my way.
There are also times when I respond rhetorically and ask, “What does sick look like?”
No one can satisfactorily answer that question. I believe most people are well intended and complimentary when they tell someone they don’t look sick. People have identified what a “sick person” appears to be and anyone who does not conform to this limited, visibly challenged view of illness must be fine.
Subconsciously, the image of what constitutes a “sick” person has been imbedded into the fiber of our society. I believe that this image and adage unknowingly creates a division between those whose illnesses are visible to the human eye and those of us whose illnesses and symptoms are not visibly present at all times.
For me this is of great concern. It is improper and dismissive to believe we can comprehend and assess the extent of someone’s illness. Every one has a different experience and judgment in any form leads to the invalidation and diminishing of that person. Many of us with invisible illnesses are often placed in positions where we feel as if we have to explain and defend our disabilities. I have experiences where people assume that my high heels, hair, jewelry and make up are indicative of my physical abilities.
What they don’t see is the constant pain, sleepless nights, mental anguish, fatigue and other symptoms I live with daily. The truth of the matter is I don’t pamper myself to appear less sick. I totally embrace my illnesses and I am not trying to be anything other than myself.
By no means am I attempting to put on a “good face.” I am simply living my life with my illnesses, caring for myself and appreciating each day as best as I can. I am choosing to get up, show up and not give up despite the challenges and adversity that I am faced with. It is a matter of recognizing my purpose and realizing that there are no guarantees in life.
The day may come when I cannot function as well as I do today. I recognize this. The future is unpredictable and so is the course of multiple sclerosis. In addition, my heart health can change at any moment. Today is what is important to me.
Therefore, hearing I don’t look sick is not very comforting. I don’t want to sound offensive and I really appreciate the sentiment that I believe to be behind the words. However, language is important and I would be remiss not to express my sincere feelings regarding this issue.
Everyone does not fit the prototype of what sick appears to be. Many of us are not visibly incapacitated and you cannot assume you know someone without knowing the story behind who they are. In order for us to become an empathetic and socially conscious society we must eliminate the stereotypes, misinformation and the archaic views of what we think situations should appear to be.
A liberated society is an enlightened one. I learn something new each day and there was a time when I too was guilty of the very same behavior that invokes such a strong reaction in me. Please remember that illness cannot be reduced to the visual realm. Realistically, there is no look to being sick.
Do you get frustrated when others tell you that you don’t look sick?
Teresa Wright-Johnson is a 43-year-old MS Warrior and Congenital Heart Disease Survivor. She has had multiple open heart surgeries and cardiac procedures and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in November of 2014. She also is a community activist with a background in Criminal Justice and Social Services. She aspires to use her life to empower and inspire others. A retired Sr. Parole Officer, a Poet and an Inspirational Speaker, she enjoys spending time with her loving family and friends, writing, reading and listening to music.