Recently I was involuntarily involved in a conversation that went a little something like this:
Auntie: What is wrong? Are you alright?
Me: Oh, I just ate something off last night and it didn’t effect me very well. I’m just very tired today.
Auntie: Let me tell you something… hasn’t Allah (swt) given us a perfect way to live? Say “Bismillah” before you eat, and everything will be fine. And as our Prophet (s) said, say….
[I zoned out a little as I was extremely fatigued and very annoyed by this point. So I said what in my situation would say.]
Me: You are right, Auntie. Thank you.
I continued to be frustrated, annoyed, and still very, very fatigued the entire day. Do you think this conversation is over? Oh no, no it is not. Fast forward to a little while later.
Auntie: You are not eating this?
Me: No Auntie, I can not have this currently.
Auntie: Didn’t I tell you? Say “Bismillah” and everything is going to be just fine! You are eating like us old people.
Me: Auntie, I really do have an illness.
A dearest auntie who only meant well ended up being the driving force behind this post. Just a little warning before you continue reading, though, I am feeling a little angsty and a little annoyed still as I record this recollection for you to read. Before you start feeling like I am being ungrateful or disrespectful or thoughtless to the well wishes of an elder of the community, let me remind you that this goes deeper than a well-meaning conversation. This has to do with ignoring a very real issue that many people suffer from everyday, and often times, by our own family members. It is that of Invisible Illness.
Many categories fall under the umbrella of “Invisible Illness.” Think of it as a bus ride filled with people going through some serious health issues, some people are on it for a long haul, while others ride for a short time. They all carry baggage, invisible baggage, that only they can see. Some riders are carrying a bag of mental health issues where overtly they seem to be in perfect health while mentally, they are dealing with disorders that can be life altering and quite debilitating. The other group of riders are my fellow compatriots. We are also dealing with a health crisis that can not be seen from the outside. No, we do not have a physical disability that can allude to an illness and no, we do not carry physical symptoms on our bodies that can indicate a health condition. Our luggage is also invisible, but as our strained arms and backs can attest, the luggage is very real and it is very heavy.
Often times, people automatically assume all invisible illnesses are mental. I feel that is a very unfortunate misunderstanding. While mental disorders have their place (many of which have strong biological basis), not all invisible illnesses are within that category. My condition, an autoimmune disorder, is a great example. My symptoms can range from having mood swings to debilitating fatigue. There are many who are walking around town suffering from conditions like arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and the likes. Unless you ask, you are never going to know.
You know how they say, “Be Kind. Everyone has their struggle”? They are not only referring to religious or emotional struggles, a person can be going through a physical and painful struggle as well. I seem completely normal on the outside as I walk around town, grab a smoothie and run errands but only I know if I am barely keeping my head up from fatigue or not. There are times where I have had to cancel gatherings and meetings with friends because the day before things were well, but the day off has had me laying in bed most of the day. Another person might just assume that I was awake all night to be this tired, when the reality is quite the opposite.
So to all the aunties, the well wishers, the friends, and the family members: If someone says they are ill, believe them. If they say they can not do something, or eat something, or attend something, understand them. And if you fail to understand, then ask them. There is a strong likelihood that they are needing someone to talk to, to share commonalities with because in this world of invisible illnesses, it can feel a little lonely. People are carrying their baggages from mysterious, unknown places, some of whom may have a similar destination than us but the invisibility of it does not allow us to commiserate. We can not share the “places to visit” or “survival tips” with each other. In the strange bus ride of baggages that can not be seen, it is a relief to get off once in while to meet someone who understands.