Those living with chronic illness are more marginalized than most people realize. The biggest difference between a person with an invisible illness and a visible one is how society treats them. A woman in a wheelchair or a man with a guide cane will automatically be believed and accommodated accordingly.
People with invisible illnesses such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, PTSD, or depression are not offered this same societal acceptance and protection. If anything, it’s the exact opposite. People with invisible illness are misunderstood, not taken seriously, and sometimes even taunted for something they have absolutely no control over.
Below is a list of 10 things you would never say to someone in a wheelchair (or any other visible condition), but people with invisible illness hear all the time.
1. “You sure do a lot of sitting around.”
Would you ever, in your wildest dreams, walk up to somebody in a wheelchair and say that? Of course not!
Yet, people think nothing of saying the same to people with chronic pain and autoimmune conditions. Chronic pain isn’t just painful, it’s exhausting.
Therefore, the person needs more rest and recovery time after everyday activities than someone in good health. That’s just a fact.
2. “It must be nice to have other people doing things for you.”
You wouldn’t say this to a 96-year-old woman using an oxygen tank and living in a residential care facility. Yet, someone with an invisible illness might be fair game for the same judgmental statement.
A 36-year-old woman living with invisible illness may get financial support in the form of food stamps, disability, and/or housing. They may have a nurse or home health aide who helps them with housework, meal planning, and chores.
They both need the level of care they are receiving. So, why is it acceptable to say something like this to a younger woman with invisible illness, but not to the elderly woman who has visible medical challenges?
3. “When was the last time you tried to walk?”
Unless you know for a fact that the condition is temporary, you would never ask a person in a wheelchair this. Not only would it be rude, it would be ridiculous!
Yet, people with invisible illness get asked similar questions all the time. “When was the last time you tried to exercise?” “When was the last time you cooked yourself a healthy meal?”
Remember, chronic pain is exhausting. Many living with chronic illness can no more get up and cook themselves a meal than a paralyzed person can dance a jig.
4. “Are you sure you really can’t walk?”
Someone could offer you $1,000 to go up to a complete stranger in a wheelchair and ask this, but, even if you agreed to take the money, you’d still be uncomfortable doing it.
Because human beings are social creatures wired for compassion. The thought of asking somebody in a wheelchair if they’re faking their condition may make our palms sweat and our heart pound. It just feels wrong.
So, why doesn’t it feel wrong to ask, “Are you sure you really have Crohn’s disease?”
5. “Can’t you just try to walk a little bit?”
Would you ask a wheelchair-bound person this? No. Yet, people think nothing of asking somebody with celiac disease, “Can’t you just try a little bit of gluten?”
Believe me, I’ve more than tried gluten, and when I don’t eat it, I feel like a human being. When I do, I feel head-to-toe horrible. What kind of masochist would I have to be to “try” a little bit of the food that ripped my intestines apart for decades?
6. “Maybe if you started jogging, you could get out of that wheelchair.”
Think of the absurdity of that sentence. I mean, really let it sink in. Nobody in their right mind would ever say this to someone in a wheelchair. Just like you wouldn’t ask a blind man for his opinion on a fine art painting or someone born without arms to give you a high five. It just isn’t done.
So why is it so easy to give similar advice to someone with an invisible illness? If your friend struggles to get out of bed, shower, and function every day, what makes you think more physical exertion will improve things?
7. “It’s mind over matter. Just stop using the chair.”
Those with mental illness struggle with the same lack of understanding from society as those living with chronic pain. When it comes to mental illnesses like OCD or PTSD, there is a chemical change in the brain. These chemical changes cause physical reactions such as excessive hand-washing or intense flashbacks.
This isn’t something the person is doing on purpose. Yes, they are doing something with their physical body in response to the chemical changes in their brain, but they can no more “just stop” than a person with diabetes can stop having blood sugar spikes.
8. “You use that wheelchair too often.”
I think this is another one people with mental illness hear quite a bit. Just replace the words ‘use that wheelchair’ with ‘worry’, ‘cry’, ‘get angry’, or ‘become confused’, and you’re as good as saying that your family member can make these challenges go away at will. It just doesn’t work that way.
9. “You’re just pretending you can’t walk to get sympathy.”
I think this statement applies to just about every invisible illness known to man. Whether it’s rheumatoid arthritis or depression, anxiety or hypermobility syndrome, people who are in good health tend to assume those with an invisible condition are somehow playing for sympathy.
Maybe there are a few people who do this, but they are FAR and few in between. Most people with chronic illness just want to to fit in. They don’t want to draw attention to themselves by asking for help because it makes them feel like a burden.
If you wouldn’t tell a person in a full-body cast that they’re just faking for attention, why would you do that to somebody who tells you they are on the autistic spectrum?
Statements like this are hurtful and emotionally damaging no matter what the condition.
10. “Why don’t you take the stairs?”
Do you know why it was so easy for the serial killer Ted Bundy to lure his victims? Because he wore a sling or cast to garner sympathy from others so he could catch them unawares and overpower them.
As human beings, we are hard-wired for empathy. If we notice somebody struggling, and they ask us for help directly, it’s almost impossible to turn them down.
People are so compelled to help that they will put their own lives at risk if the condition/problem is outwardly visible. But when it comes to an invisible illness, it’s a completely different story.
Take traumatic brain injury, for example. I have this, so I struggle with understanding verbal instructions and retaining information.
Asking me to carry out any task that has more than three steps is like leaving a person in a wheelchair at the bottom of a flight of stairs and saying, “Good luck!”
Invisible illness can be difficult to understand at first. If someone in your life has one, do research on the illness, ask them questions, go to a doctor’s appointment with them, and give this person the same respect and validation you would anyone else.
If you’re on the fence about whether or not to say something to a person with an invisible illness, ask yourself this, “Would I say this to someone in a wheelchair?”* If the answer is no, then don’t say it.
It’s that simple.
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*In this article, I used a wheelchair as an example because it is the most recognized symbol for ‘handicapped’, but the same concept applies to any visible condition.