There is a surprising common factor which is shared by a vast range of physical and mental health conditions. Fibromyalgia, anxiety, endometriosis, lupus, endometriosis, pelvic pain and depression may vary in causes and symptoms, but all of them have a deadly weapon in common – invisibility. They are often classed as an invisible illness.
These conditions fight their invisible war on two fronts.
Firstly, they leave no trace. The majority of these diseases attack the body internally, leaving no external signs which might allow the patient’s suffering to be easily recognised.
As well as causing physical pain, invisible illnesses may attack the body’s programming, transforming routine activities such as eating and sleeping into difficult tasks. They can leave their victims mentally and emotionally exhausted, hampering their ability to work and socialize as they normally would.
It is with a heavy heart that many sufferers hear the words ‘But you don’t look ill’.
It’s a sad fact that women are often more prone to these types of condition; many becoming more common during the menopause. As women, we tend to soldier on doggedly through illness – prioritizing the responsibilities of work and family life over our own health, sometimes even hiding the extent of our suffering to protect those around us (there’s a reason why it’s called ‘Man-flu!’). While this determination to maintain a semblance of normality is entirely understandable, even admirable, it allows the conditions to remain hidden and misunderstood.
Secondly, the invisible illness uses lack of public awareness as a powerful weapon. Tell a friend or colleague that you suffer from Sjogren’s syndrome, for example, and you’re just as likely to be met with a blank expression as with sympathy. Even from a medical perspective, these conditions can be difficult to diagnose, and are often missed by Doctors until the later stages when symptoms become more pronounced.
This might explain why so many sufferers of invisible illnesses feel they have to defend themselves; to assert that they are genuinely ill, and not merely weak or lazy. Indeed, the symptoms of invisible illnesses are often compounded by the sufferer’s feelings of frustration at not being understood or taken seriously. As Andrei Lankov eloquently puts it, ‘To not have your suffering recognised is an almost unbearable form of violence.’
In the coming months we’re going to be exploring more of the ‘invisible illnesses’ affecting women, including:
Fortunately, the victims of invisible illnesses do not have to fight this battle alone. Pharmaceutical companies are recognising the need to provide better treatments for these conditions, but they do need volunteers om the research studies. This year Covance Clinical Research Unit will be researching new-to-market medications for chronic pain relief and autoimmune diseases, as well as improvements to existing depression tablets. You can find out more about how to participate in the next chronic pain study by clicking here.
For those battling invisible illness, help is at hand. You may not feel seen, but you have been heard.