The many masks of chronic illness

This week’s Chronic Babe carnival topic is “behind the mask”.  The full description is at the end of this post.

Hiding.  I am amazingly good at hiding.  But we all wear masks at least sometimes, right?

I do it in plain sight, of course.  I’m standing right in front of you and you have no idea who I really am.  I’m often told I don’t “look Jewish,” whatever that means, and so people assume I’m not, even though I am.  Supposedly I don’t dress in a particularly queer way, so people assume I’m straight, even though I’m not.  And at a glance I appear to be healthy, so people assume that I am, even though I’m not.  In the first second of meeting me, people make all of these assumptions, and I don’t always bother to correct them.

Sometimes I feel threatened.  If I overhear a homophobic comment I’ll say something if it feels safe.  If the person appears violent, of course I keep my mouth shut.  With my family and friends, though, I’m completely open.  With the illnesses, it’s entirely different.  With that, I never let my guard down, not even around my closest family or friends.  Some of the reasons for this are obvious and some aren’t.

For one thing, I don’t like to worry anyone.  This may sound silly to some, but it’s really big for me.  I feel horrible when people worry about me because there’s nothing they can do.  If there’s a way for them to help, I’ll ask for it.  If they can’t help, then why should I upset them?

Then there’s the hypochondriac issue.  I have so many health problems that if I talk about all of them, people will think I’m making them up.  No, really, they will.  It’s a bit ridiculous.  So I keep my mouth shut.

The Office Mask

And of course there’s wanting to appear like I can do everything I’m supposed to do.  This really only comes up at work.  I got over the desire to “appear strong” a long time ago.  I don’t mind people seeing my weaknesses.  The one exception is my boss.  She clearly doesn’t get what I’m going through.  I let her see little bits and pieces so it’s obvious there’s really something wrong and she’ll approve the accommodations I ask for, but at the same time I want to make it clear that I can get the work done.  That was going great, until I needed to take a leave of absence.  But even up to the day I left I wore the mask as much as possible.  I didn’t know how to do it any other way.

The Stranger Mask

Walking down the street, I try to keep it together.  I don’t care too much what strangers think, but I feel like a big limp makes me a target when I’m alone late at night, and looking haggard is just unpleasant.  And it won’t help my dating situation (I once got picked up in the grocery store; it can happen.)  But when I really feel lousy, I just don’t bother to hide it.

The I-sort-of-know-you-but-not-really Mask

Then there’s acquaintances.  At social gatherings I wear a huge, thick mask.  I try to act like everything is fine.  When someone questions my obvious food restrictions, I brush it off as allergies.  My limp?  Just a small injury.  My wince of pain?  Oh, just a sore back.  I must have slept funny.  The truth?  Not a chance.  I don’t want to talk to strangers or acquaintances about my health unless there’s a really good reason, and letting on that I have even a small problem usually seems to segue into the full deal.  Who needs that when you’re trying to have fun?  Having fun is so much easier when people don’t think of me as “poor Ms. Rants” or “the sick one.”

The Huge Family & Friends Mask

The biggest mask of all, the one I really can’t seem to put away, is the one I wear in front of the people I love most.  Like I said, I don’t want to worry them.  I also don’t want their concern to color our relationship.  I don’t want it to be all about my illness.  If I’m having a really tough day or week then I let on, and they’re always there for me.  But the rest of the time, it’s more of a background thing.

I recently had a friend get on my case for it, actually.  She can tell when I’m hiding something, and then she worries that it’s something really horrible.  So I’ve tried to open up and tell her more.  The crazy thing is, after all these years, I don’t know how!  I’ve been wearing masks for so long, learning to fake it through pain and fatigue and nausea, that I can’t remember how to share it all.

Pulling the Mask Off

My health problems started as a child, and even then I learned quickly I had to be careful who I told and how much I told.  Now, twenty years later, my first instinct is always to cover things up.  And when I’m alone, the mask is still there, only now I’m hiding my emotions from myself, and only occasionally I’ll take it off.  I’m very aware of the physical problems.  At home I’ll collapse on the couch and watch tv for hours or take three hot showers a day to try and warm up.  Alone I don’t try to hide the limp or the bags under my eyes or my pale, haggard look.  I just try to hide from the fear.  Every now and then, very rarely, I’ll allow myself to face the fear, the uncertainty, the permanency.  And sometimes, very few times, I’ll cry.  And that’s when the mask is truly off.

Coming up….

In tomorrow’s post I’ll talk about the real carnival topic: what’s behind the masks.  Who am I when the masks come off?


This week’s Chronic Babe carnival topic is “behind the mask”.  As they write:

We know you are doing everything you can to cope with a life with illness and showing your co-workers, family, friends and neighbors that you can manage it. But when you are all alone and your guard is down, who emerges from behind that super-coping ChronicBabe you present to the world? Who is she and what is she most concerned about?

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