Monday, September 12, 2011

Breaking the Silence of Invisible Illness

I have always struggled to answer when people, who really aren't wanting an answer such as the cashier at Wal-Mart, ask you, "How are you doing today".  Unfortunately, however, I do it too. I believe it has mostly become a cultural greeting unless we are talking with a close friend or family member and then sometimes we will open up a little more. My husband works in retail and he says it's not uncommon for him to ask people if there is anything he can help them with and the customer respond with "fine". Our answers are so programmed sometimes we don't even listen to the question.When I lived in Africa we would say, "Oraire ota" or "how was your night". Everyone would automatically respond "Ndeire gye", meaning "it was good".  Granted a lot of these people slept with 3 other people on a thin mat in their mud house with rats, but their response was always the same.

Kind of like most people with a chronic invisible illness.  When asked how we are doing, I think most respond with, "fine" or "ok". I was joking with a friend today, who also suffers from pelvic pain, that when the greeter at church asks us how we are, they don't really want to hear, "well, it feels like my perineal area is on fire" or "I feel like there is a knife stabbing me around my tailbone".  Of course, that would be extreme, but it does get old being silent when you are in so much pain, be it emotional, spiritual, or physical.  How can get through some of the challenges of being "real" in a very private and individualistic society like America?

For those who struggle with chronic illness:

1. If you know the person well enough, or even if you don't but would like to, open up a little. Share something small, "well, it's been kind of a hard day." Maybe that will pave the way for deeper conversation.

2.If you are in a "rushed" greeting atmosphere, like with the greeter at church you can say, "I am making it daily by God's grace" or something of the like. It's true and more personal than "fine" when in fact you are anything but fine.

3.With the cashier at Wal-Mart you can say, "today is a good day (or bad depending on the circumstance)...I live with a chronic illness that makes daily life a challenge, but God is good." This not only opens up the door to share about chronic invisible illness, but it also is an avenue to share the gospel.

4.Pick one thing you've been struggling with to share about. Even with my close friends and family sometimes it's difficult for me to know how to answer when asked how I am doing. Often it feels like there is so much "wrong" that I can't even begin to explain how I have been feeling, but if I choose one thing to share it allows the person to really understand that one area of struggle instead of feeling overwhelmed by unknown medical terminology or the inability to help. It will also help them know how to best pray for you.

For Those Who Don't Have a Chronic Illness:

1. If you know someone is struggling with a chronic illness or any other difficult life situation, ask more probing questions than "how are you doing?". Ask, things like, "how can I be praying for you this week?" Or if you know about their specific situation. Ask "how is your pain level today?" or "how was your doctor's appointment this week?" (it means a lot when people remember these things). 

2. If you do ask "how are you doing" and the person struggling says, "fine", ask them how they really are.

3. Begin sharing deeper things about your own life to those who have a chronic illness. It will in turn help them open up to you.

4.  Don't just ask about how they are doing physically, rather ask how they are doing spiritually or emotionally.  This is important for any person whether they struggle with chronic illness or not.  Often the struggle to trust God in all things, is just as difficult as the pain itself.  Ask questions like, "what have you been studying in the Bible lately? or "where do you find your encouragement when life is hard?

Hopefully the more we open up to each other the more we will begin to live in community rather than suffer alone in silence.

 For more encouragement and support visit Invisible Illness Awareness Week this week, September 12-18. 

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