Visibility and Invisible Illness: 5 Struggles Unique to Having an Invisible Illness

Note: To be clear I am not saying that invisible illnesses are more difficult than visible illnesses. I am not comparing or ranking struggles, just pointing out differences so we can better understand each other better. Each brings its own specific problems, and both are incredibly difficult to deal with.

It has been on my mind lately how different having a chronic illness can be for each person. Recently, I was hanging out with friends when one friend asked me how I had been feeling. I explained that I was better, but not great (my go-to response because what else do you say). Then, someone I considered a friend said “Is there anything you don’t have?”

I was taken aback- why would you say something like that?! Well, his explanation really got me thinking. He has a chronic skin condition that has had some pretty bad flares. He explained that he hates when people pity him and he prefers to crack jokes instead. I honestly didn’t know what to do with that response. He gets pitied so often he thought an insensitive joke would be better? I rarely get pity and that hasn’t been my experience at all. I just could not relate.

So what is so different in our experience? How can we relate so little to each other? Visibility.

I tend to be in casts, braces, on crutches, or in a wheelchair more often than the average person. At these times my illness becomes visible. The majority of people of us with POTS usually deal with the struggles of an invisible illness. Invisible illness is when someone has a chronic illness, but you can’t tell just from glancing at them. Occasionally, we are visibly sick because of blatant POTS symptoms, PIC lines, mobility devices, or feeding tubes. However, the majority of the time I don’t look obviously sick. This is a blessing and a curse. I can pass for healthy and avoid constant glances and invasive questions which obviously can be nice, but here are some of the terrible parts as well:


1. Being Told It Is All In Your Head

I was told for years that my symptoms are all in my head. It is harder for doctor’s to diagnose problems you can’t see. I’ve been told by doctors that I am hypochondriac, that I have a low pain tolerance, that I have Munchausen’s, that I’m overreacting, that I’m anxious, depressed, and anorexic. The worst part? After long enough my family, friends, and even I started to believe them. After hundreds of tests it isn’t hard to believe that maybe you’re just crazy.

Emotional stress isn’t the only danger of having no outward symptoms. I nearly died because no one believed my pain when I had a blood clot in my chest. I was told I had low pain tolerance, was a drug addict, and just had a “stomach bug.” I am constantly having to be my own advocate to ignorant health professionals who don’t believe me and it is thoroughly exhausting.


2. Diagnosis Can Take Longer

When you only have symptoms and not obvious signs of illness getting diagnosed can be more difficult. With a broken bone they can take an X-ray and tell exactly what is wrong. When you have generalized symptoms that sometimes only be seen in one situation (i.e. Tilt Table Tests) it can be nearly impossible to diagnose and doctors jump to the easy solution when they don’t know the answer- dump you with the excuse that it is a Psychology issue.

3. Difficult For Friends and Family To Understand

Friends and family don’t understand why you can’t do the things you used to because we look the exact same. It is more difficult to understand why your teenager suddenly can’t help with chores when they look the exact same. Friends don’t understand why you are suddenly cancelling on them when you don’t look sick.


4. Judgement From Strangers

When strangers see people with invisible illnesses in a wheelchair or using handicap bathrooms, parking, etc. they jump to judgement. I get rude comments, and other’s with invisible illnesses regularly get rude notes. I get the comment “but you don’t look sick” and am dismissed and chastised. I nearly never get sympathy. If you need more convincing, these notes are really common to receive on our cars with invisible illnesses:


Could you really be anymore ignorant and insensitive?

5. Judgement From Those With Visible Illnesses

The strange things about it is that there are a ton of us with invisible illnesses, but we are misunderstood even by others with chronic illnesses. This week someone called attention to a post on a Facebook group called Disabled Dating that read “If you don’t look like you have a disability you will be booted from the group.” So many disabilities aren’t immediately obvious! How do you even say something like that?

This is a great website for invisible illnesses.

Visible Illness Problems

I have much more experience with my illness being invisible, but my experience when my illness is visible has been completely different. People with visible illnesses do tend to get more sympathy, but there are also terrible downsides I would never wish on anyone. People ask invasive questions about their condition, and they get a ridiculous amount of pity. We could all use some empathy, but pity takes it a step too far. People with visible illnesses are talked down to in an incredibly dehumanizing way. People are constantly saying things like “you’re so brave” or “you poor thing.” People also expect some visible illnesses to be short-term and constantly ask when people will feel better, be getting out of a cast, stop needing a port, or stop needing a feeding tube. Constantly explaining your problems are chronic is also frustrating.

Our experiences with visible vs. invisible illness are certainly different in many ways. One thing in common is people have no idea how to talk to chronically ill people. We should at least learn to relate to and talk to each other.

Do you have a visible illness? Would you like to share your experience on how the challenges differ and are the same? Submit a guest blog post! Email me

7 Things TV and Movies Get Wrong About Chronic Illness

Chronic illness is not regularly represented in movies and TV shows. Only recently have movies and TV shows about chronic illness been made popular. For example, The Fault in Our Stars, a love story about two teenagers with cancer was wildly popular with nearly $125,000 in box office revenue. Any representation of chronic illness is a step in the right direction, as an estimated half of all people have a chronic illness. The current representation of chronic illness often perpetuates common misconceptions about dealing with chronic illness.

Seven Things the Movies Get Wrong About Chronic Illness
Hard Work Can Cure Everything
We often see people who are paralyzed and injured struggling at physical therapy appointments. These struggles are intense and common in chronic illness, but one aspect commonly depicted of this struggle is not. Many of the chronically ill characters are cured simply by this hard work. There are a few scenes of them struggling and suddenly are cured of all symptoms. Many illnesses, like Type I Diabetes, won’t be cured with hard work. Symptoms may be kept at bay through activity, but rarely are their illnesses entirely cured.

Diagnosis is Fast
In movies or TV shows, we often see someone get obviously and visibly ill. The character suddenly faints or has a seizure then in the very next scene their illness is explained. In House, MD the most complicated cases the writers can think up are often solved within the time of a week on the show. In the real world, a lot of people do not immediately receive a diagnosis, especially those with rare or newly recognized illnesses. In rare illnesses, it may take decades to be correctly diagnosed. The process is exhausting and representing this problem in diagnosis is crucial to the understanding of what the chronically ill go through.

All Illness is Visible
The chronically ill protagonist is always obviously sick. They are in a wheelchair, on oxygen, or have lost all their hair from chemotherapy. Outside the movies, not everyone who looks healthy is actually healthy. This assumption is problematic to those of us with chronic illness. People assume you aren’t actually sick because every representation of chronic illness they have seen has been obvious and visible. In many illnesses, such as Fibromyalgia and Dysautonomia, patients may look healthy to outsiders.

Chronic Illness is Temporary
Occasionally movies and TV shows claim a character has a chronic illness, but the illness is not actually depicted as chronic. Characters are all either cured or die. The doctors, tests, pain, and medication is all shown as temporary. Audiences don’t see the daily permanent struggle that is faced by sufferers of chronic illness.

It Is All Cancer and Injury
There are so many chronic illnesses that people deal with, but usually only cancer and illness caused by injury are represented. Cancer and injury are easy fall-backs because they are easily understood, but there is no excuse for this lack of creativity and underrepresentation. There are plenty of chronic illnesses that make for compelling characters and stories.

Skip the Coping
Coping with a chronic illness is a huge struggle. Many patients grieve for their old lives and have to learn how to enjoy life in new ways. Coming to terms and learning to be happy with an illness is a rough and inspiring battle. By skipping this struggle and only showing illness as temporary, producers miss an opportunity to share these inspirational stories.

How Do We Fix This?
The more that chronically ill people share their experiences, the better the representation in the media will be. People have trouble understanding the issues chronically ill face and representation of chronic illness in the media is a step in the right direction. An accurate representation of this struggle in the media, TV shows, and movies would do wonders for awareness and understanding.