Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. ~ Plato
"Honey, you're so lucky. You should be grateful you are so young! You don't have to take all these medications and deal with being sick all the time like the rest of us."
Oh come the hell on, are you serious? The statement was made to me recently in a doctor's office by a woman, maybe in her seventies, who is probably quite sweet normally. At that moment though, I just wanted to lunge at her and shake her incessantly. Not one of my finer moments I tell you! It was just myself and two other women sitting in a mini waiting room after our hearing tests; waiting to either see the doctor or take home the person we were responsible for driving there. I had made the mistake of looking up from my very challenging game of video poker and I guess the woman thought that was a perfect time to snag me into her "woe is me" session with the other absolute stranger.
I know, I know, the poor woman probably didn't mean anything by it. Yes, you could say because I felt down and out that maybe I was oversensitive to her comment. But I have to say, it struck a nerve because it was just another example of how easily we make assumptions about people based on how they look. My autoimmune disease is what many in the chronic illness world would consider an "invisible illness" most of the time. Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes with me knows that in the past few years, I have logged in more hours in doctor's offices and been on more medications than many people are in their entire lifetime. It is a fact I am not proud of and I can be well, a little sensitive about.
I really could have ignored the comment because reality was, my health concerns were none of her business. However I also felt strongly that I needed to speak up and educate this woman who made such a thoughtless comment to a stranger, however innocent it may have been. So in my head I quickly calculated if it was worth it to educate her about how looks can be deceiving or to just let it go because in the end, I would probably benefit the most from taking the path of least resistance. I decided to compromise. I turned to her and in the most patient voice I could muster, told her that I wished because of my youth that I was healthy and medication-free. I said to her that in actuality, I am currently taking six prescription medications, not to mention several other non-prescription ones because I have a chronic illness that has been difficult to get under control. Her response was simple. She just said "oh, I see" and then turned away to continue comparing notes with the other stranger. I could tell that I caught her off guard though as she appeared slightly embarrassed and I decided finally to just leave well enough alone.
What is the significance of this one simple interaction? Well, like I mentioned, it is a classic example of making assumptions based on what our preconceived notions are of people's god given physical appearances such as age, weight, skin color and the like. This woman assumed that because I am young, that I am healthy as well. Kind of funny if you think about it because I am young and yet was still sitting in a waiting room for people having hearing tests! In relationship to medical issues, I have found that in this society, looking well is a disadvantage. I have not only encountered it personally, but have met many people who have also faced this challenge. If you have a disease such as lupus, crohn's disease, depression, or fibromyalgia, there is usually not an outward sign of the fact that you are ill and/or have a disability. Wheelchairs are a concrete sign. So is wearing a scarf because you are losing your hair from chemotherapy. Being so fatigued that picking up three items in a grocery store makes you want to cry is not an outward sign. Crippling pain is not always an outward sign. I am in no way implying that people with no outward signs of illness have it worse or better than those that do. It does mean however that those with these invisible illnesses oftentimes have more explaining to do and well, that does seem to be a bit unfair; as well as tiresome and frustrating.