I’ve often observed that people react to blindness as though it were the worst fate they could possibly imagine. Of course, for some it probably is (though I do wonder how good their imaginations really are). Sympathy (sometimes misplaced, sometimes welcome) abounds for visible disabilities like deafness, blindness, paralysis and so on. What we lack, though, is compassion for those with invisible disabilities–and they may be the ones who need it the most.
I’ve always been blind, and most of the time my life has still been full and happy. But I carry heavier burdens, too—burdens which aren’t easy to see. Among other issues, I suffer from chronic tension pain, migraines, and mental illness. Unless you come upon me walking out of a psychiatrist’s office or holding my head in pain while I throw up on the sidewalk, you won’t know any of this simply by watching me go about my day. Blindness causes me to suffer in highly visible ways; it’s hard to miss it when I trip over a chair or smash headlong into a wall. At job interviews, employers become immediately nervous as they mentally catalogue all the problems they anticipate. They wonder about how I will keep up with the workload. They wonder how I’ll navigate the building safely. They wonder whether my screen reading software will be supported by their current systems.
They don’t wonder how I’ll attend work regularly. They don’t wonder how I’ll find the emotional, mental, and physical energy to make it through the day without collapsing. They don’t wonder who will drive me home when I’m too weak and sick to walk unaided. They don’t think about the leave I might need if my mental state becomes too precarious.
They can’t wonder these things, because I don’t go out of my way to reveal them. Some stand behind the policy of full disclosure: get it all out of the way now so that awkward questions and explanations aren’t needed later. Really, though, If an employer won’t accept me because of a relatively superficial disability—one that can be easily accommodated—how will they feel when I reveal far more debilitating disabilities? Let’s face it: having malfunctioning eyes has nothing on being in excruciating pain, or feeling so low that you want to die.
Sometimes, I fear that people will judge me harshly if I divulge too much about my “other” disabilities. I worry that they’ll think I’m crazy, or whiny, or simply delusional. Will they label me an attention-seeker? I mean, I’m blind plus six other issues? When does it become suspicious-looking? I’ve been blessed with many compassionate people in my life ranging from friends, to coworkers, to instructors. They’ve done their best to let me know that I’m okay, no matter how many things are wrong with me, and that I don’t have to feel guilty about what I can’t control. Conversely, though, I’ve had people become frustrated and offended when I cancel plans due to a sudden migraine (it’s not like I plan them!) or bow out of an engagement because I’m feeling too down to even get out of bed. Each time this happens, my first instinct is to blame myself, even when I know better. It’s easy to convince people that my broken eyes aren’t my fault; it’s harder to convince them that I don’t choose to be depressed, or lie abed all day in pain. Some of them won’t say it outright, but it’s clear as day that they doubt me. I can’t articulate what it’s like to know that it is only my least debilitating disability that people will feel any empathy for. I don’t need help across the street as much as I need a sympathetic ear and maybe a hug.
The pitying sighs get to me after awhile, partly because I don’t need them (I get along fine, thanks) and partly because they are so misguided. I don’t want a pat on the shoulder because my eyes don’t work; they never have and they probably never will. I don’t need them in order to live contentedly. What I do need, though, is energy, will, and strength. My invisible disabilities strip all of that away on a regular basis, leaving me to struggle along in the wake of emotional and physical suffering.
Now, before I go any further, let me make it clear that I’m not saying that blindness doesn’t have its downsides. I’ve done little but write about them for the past few months. I’m also not trying to run a fishing expedition here: I’m not claiming that everyone should begin pitying me for something other than blindness. Ideally, I don’t want any pity at all. But considering the ample sympathy that is heaped upon those with visible disabilities, it would be nice to distribute some of it to those whose pain is less evident but no less unbearable.
No, you won’t be able to tell who is suffering from what unless you make a habit of asking people intrusive questions (and we all know how I feel about those). But if someone comes to you with a clearly visible disability, don’t automatically assume that it is the only battle they’re fighting. For as John Watson so aptly observed, you should always be kind, for “everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”.
It took a great deal of personal courage to write this post, humble as it is. As I’ve said, I usually take pains to hide these parts of myself, lest I be misjudged or shunned. But as Gregg has taught me, silence is our worst enemy here. If people like me don’t speak up, then no one can understand. You can’t offer compassion for what you don’t know exists. It’s blogs like these which need to be written. It’s conversations like these which need to take place. We need to know that we can be honest. I live for the day when being frank about what I can’t control will not bring me shame or guilt, but relief and a sense of peace.
As someone with multiple invisible disabilities, thanks for writing this. 🙂
I’m very glad that you’ve identified with it. I hope that conversations like this take place in your life often, and that they are a source of strength and reassurance.
I wish they did more often! A lot of my friends deal with various invisible disabilities but may or may not identify as disabled. We talk about those struggles and support each other in many ways, but they aren’t necessarily politicized around it.
I would like to say thank you for saying those things. Though I am not blind I have many of the problems you suffer from including a traumatic brain injury, these things can’t be seen, but they are felt. I appreciate what you go through. No pity here, but love and warm thoughts are headed your way. Sometimes the unseen pain is the hardest to deal with.
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This article was incredibly refreshing to read. As someone who has been completely debilitated at times by chronic migraines (and the depression and anxiety that often come hand in hand) it is so difficult to discuss with people who don’t understand that I struggle to roll out of bed more when I have a migraine or am feeling particularly depressed than I do when I have strep throat, or I can’t stop throwing up. Even more interestingly, the physical disabilities that occur due to migraines (numbness in my hands, inability to see through the aura of the migraine) are often ignored because of the disorder from which they originate.
Regardless, I commend you for discussing your invisible disabilities in such an open and honest manner. This kind of dialogue can really help people.