“Do you know the fine for using someone else’s handicapped parking permit is $300?” “That parking spot is saved for the disabled! You should be ashamed of yourself!” Nearly everyone with an invisible illness has been told, “You don’t look disabled to me!” One of my friends replied, “Well, you don’t look stupid to me.” I just bite my lip to try to prevent the tears from forming, broken-hearted that I appear to be deceptive, when I would do anything to give back this parking perk that I use on a rare occasion.
As I circle the parking lot a fourth time on this day I hope for a spot to open up within two-hundred yards of the store, but there is nothing remotely close at this bustling superstore where I need to buy my prescriptions and milk for my toddler. My rheumatoid arthritis is flaring badly, causing extra fluid in my knees to dislocate pieces of loose bones. Every step is painful and unpredictable.
Finally I sigh in resignation and pull into the farthest “blue parking spot.” I reach for the placard–the one that has a bold white symbol of a wheelchair–and no, I don’t have a wheelchair–yet. So after fifteen years of having this “privilege” at my disposal I still warily scan the area before reluctantly dangling the placard from the rear view mirror. Is there anyone watching, wondering, or waiting, ready to confront me?
I’ve had scathing notes left on my windshield and many people, empowered by television exposés, have approached me with their opinions. Judgmental expressions and whispers sting just as much. My husband and I adopted a baby and when I would get my child out of the car I would avoid eye contact with onlookers because I could hear their whispers of, “She’s not disabled! Or–if she is–she has no right to have a child!”
Nearly 1 in 2 Americans (133 million) live with a chronic illness. It could be diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis, fibromyalgia or even chronic back pain. Many illnesses make walking long distances impossible because of limited lung capacity, physical pain, or unpredictable numbness in the legs. According to statistics provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, about 96% of these illnesses are invisible. There is no sign of the illness existing, nor the use of an assistive device like a cane or a wheelchair.
I began National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week in 2002, which is held annually in September, after witnessing thousands of people who had frustrations, fears, loneliness, and bitterness, about feeling invalidated. One’s illness, age, diagnosis, or level of disease degeneration, doesn’t change the emotional pain.
Strangers and loved ones alike doubt the severity of our illness or even the diagnosis. We’ve heard, “You look so good! You must be feeling better.” But we don’t feel better. We just bought some fake tan in a bottle and pasted on a smile.
National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week is a time to acknowledge that invisible illness is more prevalent than we’d imagine and everyone–both those who are healthy and ill–can make a difference by encouraging someone with an invisible illness, rather than tearing someone down.
Are those parking spots painted blue because they give so many people the blues? That small area of square footage is a breeding ground for many frustrations as we are forced to defend our illness and character to total strangers. I’d gladly trade in my placard indefinitely for just a week of having my old body back when I could run, sit on the floor, or even hold a fork without tendons popping out of place.
I anticipate the day when a nationally designated system is formed. Texas law states that blue placards are for those who use assistive devices; red permits are for people with a “condition that impairs mobility.” In other states, red symbolizes six months of disability and blue is permanent. It’s confusing! And for one with invisible illness, the wheelchair symbol discredits both our physical pain and–in the eyes of others–our reputation. Until then, we rely on Invisible Illness Week bumper stickers.
The next time you see a healthy looking man loading groceries into his car–parked in the “blue spot”–don’t glare. Stop and offer to help him, or just smile nicely, giving him the benefit of the doubt. Seventy percent of suicides have uncontrollable physical pain as a factor. Your smile may save his life. At the least, it will astonish him, perhaps providing him with genuine encouragement he hasn’t felt for months.
To find more articles and overall support while living with a chronic illness and/or pain, please visit The Invisible Illness Awareness Website or Rest Ministries ! Lisa Copen is the director of Rest Ministries, author of ' Beyond Casseroles : 505 Ways to Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend' and founder of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week .