The phrase “invisible illness” is a complicated one. It has a use, of course – it is incredibly important to acknowledge how society expects disability to be something obvious, Other, and easily identified. The idea behind invisible illnesses is that many people suffer from illnesses and disabilities silently, without the support they need, because they appear to be perfectly fine.
The trouble starts in the middle of the invisible and the visible.
Mental illness is one of the most frequently discussed invisible illnesses. It is an issue of the brain and rarely manifests itself in a way that would obviously indicate its presence. Mental health patients aren’t known for using wheelchairs or braces to assist for that particular problem. The distinction between mental and physical illness only strengthens the assumption that the former cannot be guessed from appearances.
It is from this point that I find myself in a no-man’s land of visibility.
My mental illness was first identified when I was sixteen, but it had existed, undiagnosed, for maybe over a decade longer. I am now entering my late months of twenty. Objectively, I doubt it is a surprise that over that time, my illness has had its way with my body. My ribs stick out from my chest in a way that it disconcerting even months into my eating disorder recovery; my hair grows choppy and uneven from regrowth in the wake of trichotillomania; scars run down my thighs too thick and far to hope to constantly cover.
And I know for a fact that this is not an issue of self-consciousness. I have that confirmation in would-be subtle glances, frowns, and subtexts. More than once I’ve had strangers come up to me and ask if I’m okay (with the result of me avoiding skirts for a few days after). Friends and acquaintances have grabbed my wrists and told me that I need to “put some meat on those bones.” People make it all too known that they notice these flaws in my appearance, these clues that something else is going on. Perhaps it would be easier if it were less obviously based in pity.
Because in the end, pity is so much of the casual recognition of disability when it becomes visible. Concern for a friend exists, certainly, but strangers who approach me and offer help do not fall into that category. They do not see me as a person working through things, using coping mechanisms at various stages of productivity; to them, I am some young waif who is to be looked down upon, perhaps even saved.
I think that is the most difficult part of my partial visibility. I can work through my own feelings about my body and its various evidence of illness, but nothing I do affects the condescending pity that comes from others, the glances and stares and frowns that sometimes make it difficult to venture outside.
The most I can do to manage it is to know myself; to know that I am a far more complex individual than my physical appearance could ever indicate. My scars and hair growth and weight do not define me any more than the judgments of strangers do.
It is not something I have learned overnight, but like all healing it is a work in progress. I eat regular meals. I cut my hair. Months later, I wear skirts again.
Monica is an undergraduate student studying English Literature and Studies in Religion. She lives in Queensland and is a strong advocate for increased attention to mental health in the education system.
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