To Those Who Find My Illness ‘Hard to Understand’ When They See Me Smiling

sketch outline of woman's face with small smile

By Tiffany Early.

My husband and I had a conversation about how others perceive my illness the other day. It wasn’t a confrontational conversation — it was more the random musings that happen when you’re waiting for dinner to come out of the oven. Joe mentioned that a mutual friend had once said to him (not an exact quote), “I understand Tiffany’s illness, and I think people believe she’s sick. It’s just hard for them to understand when they see her out and she’s smiling and bubbly.”

Hmm. OK, I’m typically the great empathizer, so I can try to understand what others see. I can understand to a degree that it’s difficult for people to see a 30-something with a loud voice and ridiculous laugh and reconcile that with the stories they’ve heard about me being ill. I suppose I can understand how it’s all confusing.

But, geez Louise, people! How on earth am I supposed to act? If I’m in public, I try to act like I belong in public. I don’t leave the house if there’s no chance of me staying conscious. When people ask how I’m doing, I say, “Fine” or “The best I can” and I smile. That seems normal, and that’s how I’ve chosen to handle my illness. If I know that I have an event to attend (even if it’s a seemingly “no big deal” event like dinner with friends or an evening basketball game), I prepare the entire day beforehand, so I will seem “fine.” I rest more than normal. I don’t lift anything or do any exercise, so I can protect my joints. I eat foods that aren’t likely to make me sick. There’s a lot of work that goes into appearing “fine.”

The problem with so many people who live in my world of chronic illness is that we never fake being ill — but we’re masters at faking being well. I think it makes people uncomfortable if I’m honest about how I’m feeling. Think about it. If you say, “Hi, Tiffany. How are you today?” and I reply, “I feel horrible. I just popped in a dislocated elbow, and I’m really nauseous now” then the conversation is awkward for everyone. You might suddenly feel like you have to offer me some sort of comfort (You don’t.). I feel awkward, because you’re pitying me. It’s just more difficulty than I want to add into running my errands or joining my husband at a football game.

An acquaintance recently asked if I’m “doing better now.” Well, that’s complicated. In that exact moment, I had been running errands for a bit. I was drenched in sweat and shaky. In that moment, the answer was “no.” In life in general, I have a chronic condition. There will always be good days and bad days. There will more than likely never be a time of being better or worse, because symptoms seem to come in unpredictable waves — the kind of waves that sweep you off your feet and make you eat sand and get salt in your eyes. However, the best response I could give this person — who had all the best intentions — was to say, “I’m trying my best to do better.” Cue the smiling and awkward giggling.

So, for the sake of everyone else, I’m going to keep giving oversimplified answers to difficult questions. Please, don’t misunderstand. I appreciate that people include me in small talk. I choose to keep my answers simple, even if they don’t accurately describe my current condition. I don’t feel like I’m lying — I’m shielding people from an uncomfortable truth. We all do it to an extent.

To the people who don’t feel like I act “sick enough,” I have no apologies. I’m doing my best to handle this life — same as you. I’m open to questions, because I understand that my reality is quite different from that of my peers. Let me share with you about my world. There are needs and concerns that exist for my chronic illness friends that others our age have never considered. I don’t expect those who don’t live this life to understand. I don’t fault anyone for not understanding either. I’m simply asking for the benefit of the doubt. Trust me, with this body, I’m bound to prove to you that I’m sick if you watch for a bit.

Peace, love, and health, friends.

This was published by The Mighty.

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