This last week was Invisible Disability Awareness Week as well as Suicide Awareness Week. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that they fall on the same week but it is fitting that they do so. Suicidal ideation like all mental health conditions is an invisible illness that seeps into the conciseness and can be as deliberating as many other “visible” illnesses.
I remember the soul crushing weariness and hopelessness I felt for many years before receiving treatment of any kind and not having any kind of validation for this feeling caused even more hopelessness. At this point in my life I had no voice with which to speak. I did not know how to share my pain or advocate for myself. As I spiraled further down into anorexia and my weight loss began to mimic the sickness inside me there was some relief. Now someone knew I was not ok. Now it showed. However, as my weight climbed into the normal range again I was left once again with all of the challenges that come with an invisible illness. (important thing to note: you cannot tell if a person has an eating disorder based on their shape or weight. In fact, an eating disorder can be one of the most deadly forms of an invisible illness and I was in fact very sick at an acceptable weight).
And these challenges that come with an invisible illness are many. As I began to inch my way towards recovery my activities were limited. I did not attend school nor did I work. However, I often got the question ‘where do you go to school?’ and when I said I wasn’t in school it was followed by ‘okay so where do you work?’. I was often considered to be lazy because I didn’t do something productive. I didn’t look sick or ill therefore in society’s eyes I wasn’t. This extended to friendships. Some friends didn’t understand that I didn’t turn down invitations because I didn’t like them but because mentally I had limited resources and reserves for what I could and couldn’t do. I lost some of these friends who didn’t try to learn. And then there were my long absences from life which was the time I spent in the hospital. This was also hard to explain to those who would see me one day looking fine and the next I would be hospitalized for up to a week at a time. As hard as many people tried to understand many couldn’t and some wouldn’t try.
Now I face new challenges – having a service dog while while not looking disabled. Benny sometimes wears a patch that says not all disabilities are visible as a reminder that just because I don’t look disabled doesn’t mean I am not. Most people assume I am training Benny and Shona for someone else and when asked and I say that yes, they are service dogs and yes they are mine. I get probing questions that quite frankly sometimes I struggle to answer politely.
Mental illnesses are not the only invisible illnesses. There are many others. Wonder into a service dog group and you’ll find at least ten other handlers that have a service dog for an invisible disability and each has a different illness.
And from these handlers I have learned that it is impossible to know someone’s story just as it is impossible to know my story. I hope you’ll join me in dropping judgement about mental health, the use of accommodations and other disabilities.