Celebrity chef Paula Deen's recent announcement that she has Type 2 Diabetes lit up the Internet as people took sides about whether she had kept her illness a secret in order to continue promoting her calorie-laden Southern cooking. Yet no matter where you stand on that issue, the fact remains that it has brought to the forefront the dilemma facing everyone who has a chronic yet essentially invisible illness: Will disclosing your health problems hurt your career and your relationships?
Depending on the stage and severity of the condition, the list of ailments that aren't obvious to the casual onlooker include Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, a host of autoimmune disorders such as Fibromyalgia, mental health issues such as depression and bipolar disorder, and even cancer and Parkinson's disease, among others. Is the stigma that can be the result of having a serious illness even though you "look normal" a reason for hiding your problem? Or are you doing yourself a disservice by suffering in silence?
Even the experts flounder when dealing with these pressing questions. In an article in the "Journal of Advanced Nursing," lead author Gloria Joachim and her colleagues write: "Having a chronic illness or condition and being different from the general population subjects a person to possible stigmatization by those who do not have the illness. Although an understanding of how patients cope with stigmatizing conditions is essential for nurses who aim to deliver comprehensive individualized patient care, there is little current literature on this subject. The relationship between visibility and invisibility and disclosure and non-disclosure remains poorly understood."
That being so, the real experts turn out to be people who have the invisible conditions. A tour through the blogosphere netted a compendium of advice born of experience:
Choose Your Confidantes During the Early Stages.
You may not be ready to let the whole world know what you're going through, and you may not need to do that for some time to come, but you'll be benefit from being able to blow off steam with a few close relatives or pals. Concealing your problem entirely can add to the stress you're already experiencing. Maybe your husband is the one who will be sympathetic about your symptoms and your fear of what's happening to you. Or you may feel more comfortable talking to your dearest friend. The point is to have a trusted ally or two who will bolster your spirits and perhaps go with you to doctor's appointments to make sure you ask all the right questions.
Only You Can Decide How Your Employer Will React.
The Americans With Disabilities Act makes discriminating against ill or disabled employees illegal, but even if you don't lose your job you may find that your boss sees you as less valuable than you once were. Choosing when to come clean about your condition is a tough and very personal call. However, if you get to the point where you need significant time off or even a few hours here and there for appointments or treatments, you'll have to let your higher-ups know what's happening and take it from there.
Full Disclosure Can Bring Comfort and Support
The web is rife with blogs chronicling the journeys of critically and chronically ill people who take solace in sharing their stories and reading the comments of others. Some people even post their revelations on Facebook where friends can cheer progress reports and offer thoughts and prayers. If you tend to be a very private person, this route may not be for you, but those who espouse it say it helps them cope.
A final note: If you have a "mystery" condition such as chronic fatigue syndrome, you probably already know that some people will brush off your symptoms as being imaginary and that many others will say, "But you look so good!" rather than offer compassion. And regardless of what your issue is, you are no doubt also aware that reactions will vary from empathy to simply not wanting to be around somebody with your disease. Certain people just don't like entertaining the possibility that your misfortune could become theirs. So be it. You'll learn to count on those in your circle who can bolster you, make you laugh in spite of everything, and live as well as you possibly can with the hand you've been dealt.
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