In many ways it can be a blessing to have an invisible, rather than visible, illness. No one has to know how much pain you’re in unless you choose to tell them. Your ostomy bag can stay a secret if that’s what you prefer.
But invisible illnesses aren’t as well understood as cancer or a broken leg. And the resulting scepticism from everyone from doctors to strangers in the street can be infuriating.
People with invisible illnesses have been told they “don’t look sick” or they’re “too young to be ill”. Some have had doctors dismiss their symptoms as ‘twenty-first century syndrome’. Others put up with strangers tutting at them for parking in the disabled space at the supermarket without a wheelchair.
Yet one in three people in the UK are living with a long-term condition. Many of these are invisible illnesses such as:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Mental health issues
- Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Coeliac disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Heart conditions
- Lyme disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Sjögren’s syndrome
It can be isolating to live with an illness that no one else can see or understand. But supportive friends and loved ones can go a long way to restoring a sense of normalcy.
If you want to help someone who is living with an invisible illness, here’s what you can do:
Understand that some days are better than others. Don’t assume that just because someone is laughing one day they’re faking being in pain the next.
Take the time to learn more about their condition. It can be hard for someone to explain their symptoms, so it helps if you have already done your research. It shows you care.
Remember that looks can be deceiving. Someone with an invisible illness can look well but feel terrible.
Don’t be afraid. Many people are uncomfortable talking about illness, but it doesn’t have to be depressing. Just as there are many healthy people who are miserable, there are plenty of happy people who happen to have chronic illness.
Be patient. Invisible illnesses often involve fatigue, pain or, as is the case with digestive disorders, potentially embarrassing symptoms. Just because someone has cancelled plans twice doesn’t mean they never want to see you again.
Ask how they are feeling. It shows you haven’t forgotten about the condition they’re dealing with day to day.
Offer help. It’s always nice when someone asks what they can do for you, but sometimes offering practical support on the spot is better. You could try bringing them a healthy meal when they’re having a flare up, or looking after their children for an afternoon.
Remember that having an invisible illness doesn’t define someone. People can be strong in spirit even if their bodies are weak. Sometimes it may even make them more optimistic, more empathetic and a better friend!
Finally, pat yourself on the back for being a good person. It can be difficult to see a loved one in pain but your willingness to help will not go unnoticed, and may make a huge difference to someone else’s life.