“Invisible illness” is a term you see thrown about a lot these days, but have you ever wondered exactly what it means–how an illness can be “invisible?” Well if so, good. You’re in the right place, cuz I’m about to explain. Or try to at least.

See these two good-looking sisters? Pretend for a moment you don’t know which one is me–just by looking at the picture can you tell which sister has an immunodeficiency? Migraines? Anxiety?

No. You can’t. Let’s be honest–you can’t even tell which of us is older (me people! Me. The one with bad vision. Everyone always thinks she is older). That’s what an invisible illness is–a condition that can’t be identified by just looking; it’s the pain that no one sees, the panic that no one notices, the everyday struggle that goes unrecognized, the illness that goes unseen, unrealized, sometimes unbelieved–that is what is meant by “invisible.”

Really almost all chronic illnesses fall under this category because so little of what goes on with our bodies is visible to the naked eye. And yes, this is good because I think most people, sick or not, prefer not to stick out. But it’s also bad. Why?

Well let’s go back to me as an example. Except for my inability to smile normally for pictures, I look like a pretty average college student (I think so at least). So people who don’t know me, who say, see me in a morning class but not in an afternoon one, would assume I’m just skipping that second class. And that, in turn, would change the way they look at me. I know this from high school; most kids I had classes with the last couple years of high school thought I just skipped class all the time. So did some of the teachers. Because they couldn’t see what was wrong with me, and because at the time, I didn’t even know exactly what was wrong with me, they didn’t believe that a teenager could really be sick that much. Therefore I must just be a lazy, liar skipping class and then making up tales to cover my butt.

We humans have a hard time believing in what we cannot see. It’s silly, but it is definitely a thing. When applied to invisible illness, it causes people to say stuff like “but you don’t look sick,” in turn causing an increased co-morbidity of chronic illness and homicidal impulses (kidding). But hearing stuff like “but you don’t look sick” or “but you’re too young to have all these problems” does get old real fast. Not that I would like people to come up to me and say, “wow you look awful!” That’s not what I’m getting at here. What I’m getting at is that all people with invisible illnesses want is for you to believe them. Believe when they say they’re in pain, they’re in pain–even if you can’t see it. Believe when they say they’re tired, it’s more than just being a little sleepy. Believe them when they say they’d love to, but they’re not feeling up to it. Just believe and be understanding. Those two actions alone can significantly lift the burden of an invisible illness.