Healthy Living

Really? Wow, You Don't Look Sick!

I don't take offense to it, because it is a natural thought. It's not coming from a place of dismissal or maliciousness
04/04/2017 02:21pm ET | Updated April 5, 2017
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Many of us deal with an invisible illness (physical, emotional, mental) and we don’t look sick!

Typically, if we are out and about or even within our own family, if we see or know someone that looks outwardly ill or has a visible disability, hopefully, we feel compassion, give them space, and help them, usually without thought or frustration. Our very human nature is that if we can see it, it exists.

Sometimes, out of pure surprise, when people find out I have PTSD, they say, “Really? Wow, you don’t look sick.” I don’t take offense to it, because it is a natural thought. It’s not coming from a place of dismissal or maliciousness. But I do take offense when the next words are, “Can’t you just get over it?” There is something about those six little words that rub me wrong. I had a doctor say to me once, “You look fine, you survived, can’t you just get over it?”

Strange, coming from a physician’s mouth, and I’m smart enough to never go back to that person again ― but whoa, that stopped me in my tracks. I looked at her and asked, “Did you really just say that?”

Some of the invisible symptoms of my PTSD are flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, and becoming extremely overwhelmed from triggers. I don’t freak out and run through the streets ranting, raving and screaming, but I do get out of sorts, can become kind of spacey, decisions become impossible and I’m sure I look shut-down and unhappy. Or I look shut-down and have that ridiculous, “I’m okay” smile plastered sweetly on my face.

When I’m out with friends, it’s usually not a problem, because they are aware of my “tells,” but if I’m with people who don’t really know me and what to look for, it can be uncomfortable for them. I don’t ever want to feel like the elephant in the room, so I will try to talk about it if it’s happening or I have to leave. What I don’t want to hear is, “Why do you have to respond to triggers? It makes you a victim again.”

Really? When someone who has a physical illness (perhaps asthma and gets triggered and has an asthma attack) do we tell them they are acting like a victim? If I’m putting myself in harm’s way, physically or emotionally, then maybe someone can make that sort of judgment statement? I’m not sure ― I don’t really judge illness when I’m not living inside of that person.

I recently had breakfast with my good friend. We have known each other for years. We were talking about how after my recent travel experience, I realized that my family and friends have created a “new normal” for me because of my many deficits. When someone wants to hang out, they tend to say that they will pick me up. When we go to restaurants, we tend to go to the same place so I don’t get overwhelmed with menu choices; even my boss will end a meeting if she sees my concentration waning. A two-hour scheduled meeting may end after 15 minutes.

My breakfast buddy was nodding her head in understanding because she has had two knee replacements in the past year and has had to make changes in her life because of physical challenges. We were getting ready to leave, and wincing, my friend said her body was sore from the weather changing. My tongue-in-cheek response, was, “Really, just stand up, you don’t look sick!” We laughed and laughed because that’s how easy the thought and words can form when we don’t see someone’s challenges.

For many of us who have survived trauma (I expect it may be the same for people who have a chronic physical illness), we can be the master of minimizing our experiences, with our own tired, worn out mantras of, “I survived it, so what’s the big deal?” I know I have questioned ad nauseum to myself and my therapist, why can’t I just get over it? It’s tired and worn out, because why would I just get over it? And If I could, I would have chosen that a long time ago. I wouldn’t ever expect someone else to just be okay, would I? No, absolutely not. A person feels the way they feel until they have processed and passed through all the transitions of healing. And if there are multiple events it will take that much longer.

I am beginning to experience the depth of grief that still lingers inside of me. Part of the grief is sadness for the life I know I was never destined to have because my decisions were pre-determined for me for so many years. But, in spite of that, I chose to make a good life from my lied-to, tattered soul. Part of the grief is sadness for the life I had for the first 20 years. For the pain, the suffering, and the squashing of my potential. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in spite of what happened to me.

So when others say to me, Why can’t you just get over it? You survived and have a good life with a great family and lots of great friends and support. I say, “Yep, I did survive because I stuffed all the feelings, emotions, abuse, terror and pain down as deep as they could go.” The plan was never to resurrect any feeling or memory. But PTSD doesn’t work that way. I have complex PTSD. It’s an invisible illness, which because of the severity of my trauma will most likely leave me with symptoms (although now more manageable) for years and years to come.

I know I don’t look sick, and I probably will never get over it, But I have learned to live with PTSD. Yes, thankfully, I did survive. Just surviving doesn’t suit me any longer ― living and thriving is my gold standard now.