The infamous ”but you don’t look sick” is usually at the top of the list of things not to say to people with invisible chronic illnesses.
It’s always the same quandary — we are pressured by society to look cute until we drop dead of old age, but when we comply and get all dolled up, no one believes us if we say we’re ill.
Maybe it’s chronic illness—maybe it’s Maybelline.
The cartoon is similar to my makeup routine (as an MCAS patient with rosacea)—it’s not meant to represent anything universal among people with chronic illnesses (although perhaps the need for extra concealer is universal). I wanted to add extra stuff like “contour swollen face “and “draw in outer eyebrow if thyroid is broken” but I didn’t have enough space.
I was sick for six years with a “mystery illness” before I was diagnosed with Lyme. Early on, I really did look sick—very inflamed red skin, no energy, stiff joints, and limited mobility. My face was too inflamed to put anything on it.
I got more obnoxious comments during that time than I did when I got a bit better and didn’t look sick anymore. A lot of them were from doctors. Some of the comments were strange: at one point I had so much back pain that I could only wear sneakers, yet there was one psychologist who was somehow convinced that I was only going to get to the bottom of my medical issues if I wore a business suit and heels to my doctor’s appointments.
I told her I couldn’t wear heels because I had three herniated disks in my lumbar spine and I felt vibrations shooting up through my back if I so much as got in an elevator. She responded with, “There are a wide variety of flats available.” Because flats are known for being such supportive footwear. When you can’t tolerate anything but a super-cushiony running shoe with arch support, a cute little flat is not going to cut it.
She kept it up for many appointments. She really believed I would get my mystery illness diagnosed if only I dressed like I was going to a job interview. So I was supposed to not look sick in order to find out why I WAS sick. She herself looked vaguely like an aging Barbie doll. I guess her designer suits and heels worked for her. In the end I got my Lyme diagnosis while wearing jeans and sneakers.
Nowadays I don’t hear that many ”you don’t look sicks”—over the years I’ve found practitioners who don’t say things like that. Also, the main ”you don’t look sick” offender in my life was my Passive-Aggressive Illness-Dismissing Aunt, and she finally left this world at age 96-ish. I think meanness kept her alive. Various iterations of this aunt seem to show up in a lot of the cartoons I draw. Here she is in a cover image for a blog post.
She was really into recommending aspirin, but I later found out she was addicted to Percocet. It was a family secret until my cousin spilled the beans.
I recently realized there are some people (not Mean Aunts) who tell you that you don’t look sick because they have the misguided notion that they’re giving you a compliment. They don’t see that they’re invalidating you. They think they are saying, ”Wow, you have all these health problems, but you still manage to look nice.” I don’t know know to respond to them. I sort of nod and change the subject.
Have you gotten the dreaded ”you don’t look sick? What have some of your experiences been like?