invisible illnesses are, by definition, not seen. there are two parts to this: the (un)seen, and the (non)seer. i’m not sure that invisible illnesses are in fact invisible.
the man with chronic pain sits on his bed at 3:00 am, a gun in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger. he makes sure his wife doesn’t see it. but it is a reality that can be seen; in some/many/most cases a reality that exists because insufficient effort has been made by the medical profession to see his pain and suffering. ask anyone working in palliative care or a hospice (and, surprisingly enough, sometimes also in sports medicine): in many cases, if you experiment long enough, a combination of drug cocktails, complimentary approaches and human(e) caring out can be found that will bring adequate relief of the horrible experience of excruciating pain.
the woman who keeps going back to the casino covers her tracks; she doesn’t want her co-workers to know how deeply she is in debt, and she is horrified at her mother finding out what she’s done with the money that aunt judy left her. but there she is, look: at the table, throwing in one chip after the other. yesterday she won $6,000! she just knows it will happen again, maybe tonight, for sure tonight! at a deeper level, she feels she is doomed, is always a few minutes away from enrolling in the voluntary exclusion program but somehow is afraid to do it. and we, we know she, or someone like her, is there, right now, this minute. she, too, is at a high risk for suicide. we know it, and therefore we can see it. even if we suspect it – maybe we are one of her coworkers – we can see it, just a bit. we don’t always need a 100-watt light bulb to tell a horse from a dragon.
the old man whose wife died a few months ago is sitting in front of the TV. his children are busy somewhere at the other side of the country, and the dog passed away a year ago. he stares at the moving images in front of him but doesn’t see them. he knows there’s a world out there but he perceives no place for him there anymore. no-one needs him. he sees no more point in talking, cooking, or brushing his teeth. his curtains are drawn; no-one can look in; depression is about to take him over completely. but there are still stories inside of him, experiences, wisdom. they can be seen by those who take the trouble to listen to him to hear him.
in invisible illness, there are things that are hard to see; it’s not easy to directly point at experiences like pain, addiction or depression. but there are also things that are hidden by the person with the illness because of shame, hopelessness, or because of the many times an attempt was made to show what’s going on but no-one seemed to care. and there are things that are not seen not because they absolutely cannot be perceived but because we don’t look and don’t listen.
that can be changed.
(this post was written in honour of invisible illness awareness week, september 14 to 20, 2009)