I Believe You — The Challenge of an Unseen Illness

Dr. Mirissa Price

There are bruises we cannot see. There are diseases we cannot scan.

And yet, without swelling and discoloration, it can be easy to look past someone’s pain. We do it every day. Perhaps you wonder why an able-bodied man is using a handicapped parking space or why a woman with full function is not holding a job. As a child, we may question the family cutting lines in the Disneyland theme parks when there’s not a wheelchair in sight. We forget to notice the pain that is hidden, though still very real.

We forget to notice the pain that is hidden, though still very real.

In modern times, this challenge is magnified. We find ourselves fighting to prove our internal experiences, justifying a need for disability benefits or simply the need for a moment’s break. With children, we find ourselves battling to create individualized education plans that can meet a child’s unique though unseen needs. The burden lies on us as individuals to demonstrate a real, though invisible, struggle.

And yet, hidden struggles are pervasive. In 2012, well over 25 million adults in the United States alone suffered from chronic pain. Sometimes, their limbs were swollen and bodies visibly affected. Often, only they knew the experience of their pain. In the United States, too, 43.8 million individuals suffer from mental illness. Though the conditions can be readily apparent, mental illness, like chronic pain, is a pain that is often hidden from the world. The afflicted are left to overcome in silence.

And in that silence, the afflicted find a unique loneliness.

When I was ten years old, I had a rare neurologic condition, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. The disease left me in constant pain and wheelchair bound. My leg swelled in shades of blue and red, and my body felt as though it were being stabbed by flaming knives. The pain was as real as any object in my hand. But for the first few days, there was little swelling. For those first few months, as the illness developed its symptoms and tests failed to show broken bones or clear anomalies, nobody believed me. And so, on top of the chronic physical pain, I felt a generalized throbbing of being misunderstood. Not even a doctor could comprehend how a hug could hurt so much.

But it wasn’t my job to prove my pain; it was my job to heal.

If you are experiencing a hidden pain, an unseen illness, the same holds true for you. It isn’t your job to demonstrate your internal struggles — whether physical or emotional. Those struggles are your own, free to share at your discretion with those you trust, or yours to keep tucked within. Your 1 to 10 scale of pain does not deserve a place in public sight, unless, of course, you put it there. Your only responsibility is to heal. And to remind those around you of that which cannot be seen.

Your job is not to prove your pain; your only job is to heal.

Source: 5K Parkfest

Each day, the person to your right my be an individual with a hidden struggle. You may never know. But, you may be able to help.

Each of us is blessed with an incredible gift. We carry within us the healing power of respecting another’s struggle. No scar or bruise is necessary to make that person’s experience real.

If you are experiencing an unseen illness or an illness that others simply choose not to believe, know that there are so many out there who do understand. More importantly, hold in your heart and share with those around three simple words: “I believe you.” You’ll be amazed what strength those three words can bring.

Dr. Mirissa Price

Written by

Dr. Price is a Harvard dentist and pediatric dental resident at Boston Children’s Hospital, author, and improv comedian, blogging at mirissaprice.wordpress.com.

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