Understanding Invisible Illnesses


An invisible illness is exactly what it sounds like. It’s an illness that impacts on the person’s daily life without others around them being able to notice it. They can be physical or mental: chronic pain, fibromyalgia, hearing and vision impairments, learning difficulties and mental health disorders are all examples.

The extent to which the illness impacts someone varies. For some people, they just have some mild difficulties and challenges throughout the day. For others, it severely impacts their daily routine and is present with them in everything that they do. Regardless of the intensity of the illness, for most people it is something that alters their life in some way, prohibiting them from doing things that they used to be able to do with ease.

Sounds pretty serious, right? Like, as serious as a visible illness? Unfortunately, there is a common tendency to judge people on what we see, and decisions about how capable or incapable they are often made just based on how they look. Someone can look absolutely fine but severely struggle with something that they need or want to do. You might see someone getting out of their car that’s parked in a disabled space, and think: ‘Oh they look fine, why are they parking there? They don’t really need it.’ Just because someone ‘looks fine’, that doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling. That person could have severe chronic pain and struggle to walk further across the car park. They could be with an autistic child who has sensory overload issues, and parking as close to the shop as possible to help them stay as calm as possible.

It can even impact a person’s personal life. If someone can’t go to work because of their illness, people may wonder what’s wrong when they seemed fine the day before. Plans are all too often cancelled because someone is depressed; someone may not want to go to a club because it overloads their senses and is too much for them. Someone may have over-exerted themselves the day before and used up all of their spoons.

Christina Miserandino, a sufferer of Lupus, once said that:

The difference in being sick and being healthy is having to make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to.

Invisible illnesses, like any other, can be unpredictable. People with invisible illnesses are not just being lazy, and I assure you that they don’t mean to cancel plans or call in sick. Actually, they would love to be out and not forced to sleep all day and watch Netflix instead of being productive with friends. There is so much internal turmoil that can come with invisible illnesses – I should know, I have enough of them – and the more that people understand the effect they have on people’s lives, the better the person’s life can become.

Next time you see someone walking out of a car in a disabled space, or someone has to leave a loud space, or someone is sitting in a seat for disabled people when they ‘look fine’, maybe just take a moment to think that more could be going on than you know about. Just because you can’t see a problem, it doesn’t mean there isn’t one.


Third year PAIR student and head of events. Also The Edge's live editor and 2016-17 opinion editor. Fan of cats, gigs and a tea lover - find me rambling about politics and cats @_Carly_May on Twitter.

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