I Am Not Lazy! I Have an Invisible Illness!

"You are a lazy coworker! You are such a flake! Why do you always cancel on me? You are inconsiderate of my time. Why can't you produce as much as your colleagues? Why do you always run late for morning meetings? Are you listening to me? You seem so preoccupied." These are just a few of the comments and questions people who live with invisible illness frequently need to respond to. Yet very few people ever fervently respond with, "I am NOT lazy! I have an invisible illness!"

Invisible illness can be so lonely. A person may walk around feeling very sick, fatigued, clouded cognitively, and utterly alone. It is very difficult for people in this person's life to understand the experience of invisible illness unless this person does a great job communicating what his or her illness is, and even then it may still be a struggle to evoke comprehensive understanding. When people witness a person with an obvious physical indication of illness, such as use of a cane or hair loss, there is a mental click and it becomes easy to acknowledge that there is some sort of medical or physical ailment present. Evoking empathic and understanding perceptions of a person with such visible indications of illness comes much more effortlessly than evoking such feelings towards a person with invisible illness.

There can be something exhausting about having to repeatedly explain yourself to others, if this is something you even choose to do. Sometimes people with invisible illness can feel like the person they are sharing their diagnosis with is not really believing them. Comments such as, "but you don't look sick" can make a person with invisible illness prefer to keep his or her experience to him or herself. Questions of suspicion such as, "how come you had energy to participate in that prior event but this time you don't?" also contribute to an experience of isolation and perpetuate silence. It is easy to understand why people with invisible illness may choose to not disclose their diagnosis with friends, family, or employers; however, this is a big mistake. Staying quiet maintains the idea that people with such conditions are just lazy or looking to manipulate a situation, and even worse it keeps people with invisible illness in a space of aloneness and at times even shame.

It can be extremely difficult, frustrating, and even feel like it is not worth it; however, finding the courage to speak out about what it means to live with invisible illness provides the public with the necessary education it needs to take invisible illness seriously. Yes, even then, some people may never understand but there will be many people who will. For example, brain fog can be a debilitating symptom of many invisible illnesses, particularly autoimmune disorders. Brain fog can be a source of self-consciousness and embarrassment for some people with invisible illness. Imagine feeling like an articulate person, and then on some days struggling to communicate with your coworkers, forgetting to perform certain tasks at work, or appearing confused when speaking to your employer. People may perceive these things as laziness, lack of motivation, or even low intelligence, when in fact they are concrete manifestations of very real cognitive problems. Most people really have no idea what brain fog is. It can feel quite empowering to be able to advocate for yourself and to know that you are more likely to be understood when struggling with a symptom of invisible illness. Additionally, you counter the experience of shame. Hiding and silencing yourself reinforces the false belief that there is actually something to be ashamed of. In reality, you are not lazy, stupid, unmotivated, or trying to manipulate a situation--you have an invisible illness!