Final Impressions

Silent suffering

Written by James Combs

Open your eyes to people with invisible illnesses.

I might be better off having cancer. At least others could see where chemotherapy has left me bald. 

I might be better off being a wounded warrior. At least others could see my amputated limb. 

I might be better off being a quadriplegic. At least others would see me sitting in a wheelchair.

But I’m none of those things. I’m one of the “lucky” ones with an invisible illness. And let me tell you, it is extremely frustrating when your pain isn’t visible from the outside. 

Mine is degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine. I’ve never had an MRI of my thoracic spine, but odds are I’m jacked up there, too. Smoking, obesity, bad posture and several automobile accidents in my younger years have finally caught up to me. I get through the day with ice packs, heating pads, and a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit, a device that reduces the body’s ability to send pain signals to the brain. 

To look at me, you’d never know I endure daily pain. In fact, you would very likely question it. I work full time. I walk every day on my lunch break. Until recently, I would take hikes on the weekends. I try to crack jokes and smile. 

How could I be in pain if I’m able to do those things? Well, a fusion on my cervical spine in 2016 gave me three very good years of life. Unfortunately, the pain has started to rear its ugly head again in recent months. 

I try to talk about it and receive a heaping helping of ignorance.

“You look fine.” That doesn’t mean my pain isn’t real. 

“Don’t worry. It could be worse.” While true, this isn’t a who-has-it-worst competition. Also, you’re minimizing the very real struggles I face. 

“I had a very tight back muscle one time and it really hurt. I know how you feel.” No, you don’t. Your tight back muscle isn’t chronic. My degenerative disc disease is. 

“Have you tried (insert a long list of potential remedies) medical marijuana, yoga, turmeric, chiropractic, acupuncture, herbal tea, eliminating sugar, the South Beach diet?” While I appreciate your input, if any of them offered the magical cure, I would’ve been on it years ago. 

Talking does no good. I feel misunderstood and dismissed. People simply do not want to hear about my problems. So, I suffer alone in silence. 

But I’m not actually alone in that regard. Those with other invisible illnesses—fibromyalgia, diabetes, digestive disorders, rheumatoid arthritis, depression—can relate to this. 

Some of us have received rude stares when we park in handicapped spots. We’ve been told to “suck it up” and “try harder.” Some question us about our medications, even though they provide some pain relief and allow us to function at a minimal level. 

Those of us with invisible illnesses are not looking to be pampered and coddled. We just want to be understood.

Dealing with people who are blind to invisible illnesses makes that impossible. 

About the author

James Combs

Akers Media Group's James Combs has been a staff writer for several local publications since August 2000. He has had the privilege of interviewing some of Lake County’s many fascinating residents—from innovative business owners to heroic war veterans—and bringing their stories to life. A resident of Lake County since 1986, James recently embarked on a journey to lead a healthier lifestyle. He has lost 60 pounds and walks nearly five miles a day. In his spare time, he enjoys target shooting, skeet shooting and watching his beloved Kentucky Wildcats!

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