Yes, Aunt Lucy, I do look fine. You know how? You know why? I have an invisible illness. Plus, I only see you every now and then. Or once a week. I don’t live with you. That means if I am feeling upset or something starts to go wrong, I can go home or call someone to come get me. Don’t you wonder why I always leave family gatherings early? I know you mean well. You’re proud of me. You’re happy to see me doing so well, but don’t invalidate the way I feel, don’t invalidate my symptoms, and my unique human experience that is sometimes very hard to deal with, by saying, “But you look fine.” As if I’m supposed to be screaming or crying or hurting myself in front of you. I was taught that appearances matter. And my symptoms embarrass me. I want to fit in with others. I want to be like everyone else. But just because I’m doing a good job of hiding my pain doesn’t mean I’m not in pain.
The other day I was having a panic attack, so I went outside. I did breathing exercises. I counted to ten. I tried to shake it out. I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable just because I was having a hard time. And so no one knew. No one suspected until I said, “Sorry, I’m just having a panic attack.” And honestly, they looked at me surprised. They thought I’d just come outside for air. I was really proud of myself when they said, “Oh? You seem fine.” Because that’s my job: to seem fine so others won’t be uncomfortable or scared. It’s been my job my whole life. Scared? Paranoid? Check the closet, under the bed, and behind you when no one’s looking. I’d be sitting in class and turn around to talk to a friend or gaze at a wall in boredom. No one knew I was positive there was a dead girl in the room following me to every class. Growing up like that, knowing that I needed to hide it, is just something I’ve always done. But people take it for granted. And when you say, over and over, “But you look fine,” you invalidate my feelings, my symptoms. Yes, I know I look fine. That’s what an invisible illness means. And if I didn’t look fine, like say if I was crying, I would go hide in the bathroom. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I don’t want you to say, “Oh my god, you look terrible.” I want you to hear me out. I’ll say, “I’m having a panic attack.” You’ll say, “Oh, okay. What can I do to help?” It’s easy.
Remember, it’s called an invisible illness for a reason. Don’t accuse us of faking or overreacting. Don’t wait for someone to hurt themselves to get your attention. Listen to them when they say, “I’m not okay.” Ask what you can do to help, but above all, just listen. Listen and believe us.
August B Pfizenmayer is the founder of Survival is a Talent. She is a freelance writer, blogger, and student. She studies creative writing, specializing in poetry and creative nonfiction. She loves sweets and warm weather. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.