Your mom probably said it a thousand times to you when you were a kid. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” She said it to mean don’t judge a person’s character by their physical attributes or outward behavior. However, I think this statement should extend to something beyond character; it should also extend to not judging a person’s health by their outward appearance.
We as human beings make judgments every day, so it isn’t necessarily a problem to judge in and of itself. However, when we use judgments, we have to understand the reality of what they tell us as well as their limitations and inherent flaws. For instance, we may be able to look at someone dressed nicely and judge accurately that this person cares about how other people view them and are trying to make a good impression, but we cannot judge where they bought these clothes or how much income they make from this information alone. Additionally, we may be able to judge from a phone conversation with a close family member that they are not feeling well because their voice is raspy and nasal, but we can’t judge from this that they are experiencing a headache.
Conditions like chronic migraines, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and many others are what some call “invisible illnesses.” There is no outward sign of illness with any of these conditions and therefore there is no way for others to immmediately judge that something is wrong. Moreover, when these conditions cause frequent and chronic problems that seem “invisible,” others are more and more likely to stop believing them and judge that they are using their medical condition as a crutch or an excuse to not do X, Y, or Z (including but not limited to going to work, to school, or completing certain tasks). Not only is this a problem socially with friends and family, this can become a legal problem when an employer stops providing accomodations or requires taking unpaid leave for lack of attendance. Though there are laws in place to help, this doesn’t solve the underlying problem- the invisible disease that is affecting these people with these conditions every day.
I’m writing this because I have been there and I have also been on the other end too. If you’ve been reading along, you know that I have a history of a heart defect, undiagnosed for many years which caused me innumerable problems, many of which were “invisible.” Most of my symptoms occurred at night because lying down instigated respiratory issues and many times I was on drugs like Prednisone, which caused emotional fluctuations like you wouldn’t believe (unless you’ve been on Prednisone yourself) and drastic weight changes. It was embarrassing and frustrating having to explain to my teachers why I burst into tears randomly in the middle of class or why I hadn’t gotten enough sleep because I was up all night coughing (and why I seem fine today). Most recently, I received a concussion from a girl swinging into my head while belaying at the gym. It’s been a month since the event, but I am still dealing with the effects of it- and they are very odd effects. It is difficult for people to understand why I can safely rock climb (on top-rope with precautions), but going grocery shopping or driving or reading in certain circumstances is a huge problem for me right now. Some people have been more than understanding, but others….well, others have not. I have also had many friends with “invisible” health issues including chronic migraines, genetic conditions that do not affect their appearance but affect them on a daily basis, depression and anxiety. All of these friends at one point or another were treated negatively, dismissively, and sometimes unfairly by a friend, school, or employer because of their condition.
Without ever having experienced a migraine, an asthma attack, depression, or any number of other problems, I can understand why it is difficult to be able to relate to someone explaining why they cannot do X, Y, or Z because of their problem. I can also understand why it is hard not to take it personally and to believe someone when they have told you for the tenth time that month that they have a migraine and can’t come to the function you invited them to. When someone looks fine at the times you see them and they are showing no outward signs of illness, it is easy to make a quick judgment that they are in actuality feeling fine. I of course am not speaking for everyone, as there may be people who are using a condition as an excuse when they are truly fine. However, I think the vast majority of people who state they have an “invisible” condition are being entirely truthful and when they “look” fine, it is because they have made efforts to live a normal life when they don’t feel normal or “fine” at all.
I am writing this because I have in the past been suspicious of what I thought was someone’s “fake” illness and after a long time found out that their problem was actually a rare condition finally diagnosed after years and years of extreme disability. After all those years of doubting, I felt horrible for acting in such a way that I always criticized others for acting about my medical problems. Thankfully, there was a cure for them. Many people are not as lucky and will have to deal with others’ doubts and flawed judgments for the rest of their lives. If we can’t cure people of their invisible illnesses, we can at least acknowledge what they perceive as a problem- whether we know it to be true or not- and offer to help them or at the very least keep offering them that invite.