Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Invisible Illnesses

There's a somewhat precious meme going around that features a photo of an old bedraggled man sitting on a park bench in the rain.  Paired with the evocative image are the words, "Be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is fighting a battle." The meme hits home not because of its profundity or aesthetic originality, but because we all sit and respond interiorly when we read it, probably not with our battling neighbor in mind, but our suffering selves. We say to ourselves, "You got that right. Now I wish I could tell someone I'm the guy on the bench."

I suffer from a number of invisible maladies, both physical and mental/emotional.  None are plain to see in a still photograph of me, especially one of me on a good day, when nothing is flaring or being triggered or keeping me homebound.  If you met me, you'd find me focused on your words, not mine, well able to take care of my two children, and you'd likely describe me as energetic and vivacious.  

Suffering is something we mask.  We are not only called to do so, but we know that socially it's impractical and inadvisable to go around in everyday life bleating about our physical pains and mental scars.  Still, chinks in the armor are visible, to those who know us best, and to those strangers who are sometimes the unfortunate brunt of our accidental displays of distress.  During the year my mother was dying, I heard more honks behind me at traffic lights than most drivers do in a lifetime.  I would just space out and not observe that the light had changed.  How annoying I must have been to the people behind me!  I was and am sorry for that.  I remember sitting in my best girlfriend's kitchen, and she alerted me to the fact that I hadn't said a word during the last half hour of our time together.  "I'm not very good company," I said to her.  Immediately I choked up.  We both knew why.  I was sucked dry of the energy and vigor I once had; my mom had just died and I couldn't pull my act together. I couldn't adjust to the ordinary requirements of life without my mother in the physical world.

On a day when I have a migraine, or my IBS is flaring, or I've had a particularly difficult time putting into perspective some of the images that attack me during my active PTSD periods, I'm really not sure how I come off to those around me.  I try to put them first.  I try to hyper-concentrate on them.  That may translate as a little crazy, frenetic, overly affectionate, or compensatory.  Or I may read as lethargic, because the medicine for my IBS makes me so exhausted.  It dries out my throat so I sound hoarse and not very healthy.  

When people are outright nasty to me, I try to keep all of my own past and present sufferings in my heart as I receive their behavior and words.  What battle is this person fighting?  Cancer?  Addiction?  Depression?  Poverty? Spiritual dryness?  What broken vehicle is this person driving, as C.S. Lewis termed it?  More important than the invisible ailment, the invisible thorn in their flesh, is how I can help my neighbor cope with it.  Offering it up works rather well for me.  So does spiritual reading.  Sleep helps, when I can get a peaceful one. A touch helps.  Not a full on embrace, mind you, because often that's enough to start me crying, and sometimes people don't feel comfortable receiving a hug, despite Leo Buscaglia's best efforts at convincing us so.  But a simple squeeze of the arm, a hand on the shoulder can go a long way.  When my suffering has been at its worst, to be very candid, nothing anyone can say will really change anything.  I have to be in that moment of suffering because that's where I am.  And God is with me there, and I know that, and I'm fine, really.  I hope everyone can feel that way, that every moment, even (or especially?) the most pain-filled one, is a moment when you are surrounded by Heavenly friends.  

The Communion of Saints, the angels, particularly your Guardian Angel, are there, at the ready, waiting to aid you.  Jesus is beside you, the Holy Spirit within, and God above on His throne, holding a place that only YOU can fill.  These are our comforts.  These are our truths.  A good cry out to the Father, from deep inside, can bring you through a bad moment.  Falling on your knees, even prostrate on the ground in prayer, can also carry you closer to the place God needs you to be. 

God also has given more mundane gifts that are of great value: people who are trained to help us with medical, social, psychological, and family problems.  Medicines and foods that are healing.  Priests, sisters, deacons, and parish leaders who will listen to us and counsel us. Trusted friends to whom we cannot be too prideful to go to for help.

I used to tell my high school students that if they were feeling depressed, and they often were because of the tumult of that age in one's life, to look in the mirror and make funny faces.  They would scoff, then secretly go home and try it and report back to me how well it worked.  I think part of its effectiveness was just their knowing that I cared enough to give them a tip like that and ask a few days later if they were feeling any better.  I was often disappointed and shocked at how many of them had no adults in their lives to whom they could talk about their suffering -- not a receptive parent, not a relative, not a pastor.  There is a tragic and noteworthy paucity of people who are willing to simply listen to others.  Just listen.  

An invisible woman is a woman whose visible self can look shiny and privileged, but who may be suffering beneath that polished and "together" exterior.  If we can increase our powers of empathy and perception, share in each others' suffering, and if we can, again, say, "I see you," that can treat a host of ailments, for both the giver and the recipient. 


  1. Thanks for this post, it really speaks to me. I've struggled with depression regularly since I was a teenager, and since becoming Catholic, it hasn't made it any less vicious, but it's given me a focus that I can make use of the misery I fall into, avoid despair, and know that it'll lighten up again and it doesn't have to be aimless. And since learning about myself as an Aspie it's helped how I relate with others, and helped them learn that hugs are absolutely *not* what's needed most of the time. So many times I've wished I could talk to my teenage self and tell her what I know now--about Asperger's and depression and neither of them being the end of the world, but the talents and crosses that make my life what it is now. Having that little bit of explanation to myself has helped me be compassionate with others, and my joy increased with my autistic son, whose invisible struggles are visible to me because I know them myself.

    Thanks for sharing, Nicole. I'm really enjoying learning more from you and about you through your blog :)

  2. My dear friend you have written my story too.The Lord brought us together for a reason.
    Thank you for your open heart.

  3. Ladies, thank you so much. I feel very strongly that secrets hurt and exacerbate our thorns. When we find someone else who suffers similarly, we feel so much more part of the Body of Christ, not only united to Him, but to each other. All part of the vine! Philomena, I know exactly what you mean. My PTSD isn't "better" or miraculously lifted from me, but I have so much more of a network of saints and a gallery of writings now.

  4. Thank you, Miss Nicole. These beautiful words touch my heart on so many different levels. You are a blessing. And I don't care if you cry or not because if I ever get an opportunity to meet you I'm giving you a full-on hug! :o) Love you and thank you!

  5. Nicole, I just happened to follow a link to your blog and saw this. God bless you. There are so many who struggle with invisible illnesses and faith, and we must support one another. Perhaps you have heard of my book *Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy*, which came out a couple of years ago, published by Servant Books. Here I express how God's mercy has sustained me through my struggles with Lyme disease, depression and OCD. With much support from my family and trusted people and medical treatment, I live each day. In all and above all, Jesus has shown His mercy in my weakness. It was necessary for me to retire from an active career as a college professor, but the Lord has opened new doors for our family, and has led me to write in a way that has been a help to some people. God bless you for your witness. May He continue to give you strength.

    --John Janaro