By Trudie Mitschang
It’s always enlightening to read Facebook posts from our readers. A recent comment really got my attention: Responding to a question about how to educate others about chronic illness, one woman said she struggles with the stigma that accompanies long-term poor health, especially at work. She hated the thought of being viewed as the weakest link by her colleagues, and although it was probably in her best interests, she resisted going on disability because she didn’t want to be labeled “that sick.”
Earlier this year, I suffered a back injury that led to a protracted and painful bout with sciatica. The tingling, numbness and nearly round-the-clock pain was most pronounced when I sat at my desk. And as a writer for IG Living, that’s pretty much all I do at the office — sit at my computer and type.
Initially, I welcomed my co-workers’ sympathy and understanding, leaving the office early for doctors’ appointments, taking more frequent stretch breaks, and missing entire days of work because the pain pills left me feeling drugged and exhausted. But as weeks stretched into months, the story grew old and people gradually stopped asking “How’s your back?” I felt an unspoken obligation to begin pulling my own weight at the office again, gritting my teeth through long meetings and basically just toughing it out. Some eight-hour days seemed unendurable.
During that time, I learned something about the nature of invisible illness. If you have a fever, are coughing or throwing up, everybody immediately “gets” that you are sick. But if you look fine on the outside, there is a general expectation that you should feel good on the inside. Our readers know better than I do that this is simply not true.
At the peak of my pain spell, I remember nervously thinking, “What if this never goes away?” As a writer, the possibility that I might be unable to do what I love most was heartbreaking. And like our Facebook poster, the thought of going on disability filled me with dread; I didn’t want to be considered “that sick.” Maybe I felt guilty, too. I’ve sat in judgment of those with invisible illnesses on occasion, casting sidelong glances at people who appeared healthy yet parked in spaces marked “handicapped only.” What I know now is that there is almost always more to a situation than meets the eye.
As I write this, I count my blessings because my experience with chronic pain was temporary. My back got better and my symptoms are gone. But, wearing the stigma of chronic illness for even that short period deepened my compassion for those who live with this struggle daily. It certainly drove home the parable that says, “prior to criticizing a man (or woman), we should walk a mile in their shoes.”
How have you dealt with the stigma of having a chronic illness? What has helped you cope with other people’s assumptions and judgments?