My family and I just shared a fun-filled week with a highly contagious stomach virus. And when a friend I hadn’t spoken to in a while called and asked how I was, I found myself giddy at the prospect of sharing how I spent an entire day with my head in toilet.
Which is just so, so messed up.
And yet, it felt so good to be so confident in just how sick I really was.
See, there’s at least 24 hours of total stomach virus bliss where No One, NO ONE, wants you around. Client meeting? Canceled without guilt. Dinner? Unmade with no expectation. Deadlines are missed, pets go unwalked, houses stay cluttered.
Entire cruise ships understand the ferociousness with which a gastrointestinal virus can hit. In fact, I’m fairly certain that nearly everyone on the planet gets how life comes to a full stop when you’re in the throes of viral gastroenteritis.
This is so not the case in the land of Invisible Illness. Every person with an invisible illness has varying levels of symptoms, pain, and seriousness. But many of us living with chronic illnesses like lupus live with certain truths:
- We don’t look sick. To the people who love us. Even to our doctors.
- Words like hypochondriac and “highly-suggestible” are thrown around. By people who love us. Even by our doctors.
- Some days we’re unable to tell where our “physical” illness starts and the mental mindf*&# of a life-changing, incurable illness begins.
- We know it’s not our fault. But the voices interrupt like breaking news with #alternativefacts like, “It’s in my head” and “It’s all my fault” and “I’m not worthy of (love, respect, meaningful work, good health, good days, this list could go on for days.
- We’re hard on ourselves. We judge ourselves. We attach our worst fears to illness.
(Of course this isn’t all of us. But I share, just in case anyone else feels like me.)
Let’s go back to that stomach virus most of us are intimately acquainted with. Do me a favor: Think back to how you felt about 24 hours after the last incidence of vomiting those three sips of water you thought you were ready for, alas you were not. Right around the time you’re able to hold down your 7-Up sips and nibbles of saltines. Yes, you’re miles from where you were 24 miserable hours before. But maybe you’re still a bit feverish. You feel weak—exhausted if you’re being honest. If you HAD to, you might be able to half-ass it through your normal day. (But really, only if you HAD to.)
I can’t speak for everyone with a chronic illness. And I’m fortunate that my baseline symptoms aren’t so serious that I feel like someone in the violent first hours of Norovirus. But I do regularly feel like the day after vomiting stops.
And while I am infinitely better at self-care than I was a few years ago, there are many days that I put on a smile and plow through my regular routines feeling like stomach flu Day 2.
Invisible illnesses like lupus, fibromyalgia, Sjogren’s Syndrome, Celiac disease, arthritis, bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, ankylosing spondylitis, rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, Lyme disease, migraines, MS, diabetes, erythromelalgia, Raynaud’s—Holy Crow this list is way too long and I’ve left out hundreds!— are misunderstood.
My brain knows that I should feel no shame for my illness. Yet the thrill I felt about sharing that I had a Real, Tangible, Everybody Gets It Puke Parade shows I have a lot of work to do.
*I know that we only use the term “flu” for influenza, the respiratory virus. But you try finding a rhyme for “gastroenteritis.”