Watch out for invisible disabilities
The International Day of People with Disabilities (IDPWP) theme for 2020 is “Not all disabilities are visible.” The IDPWP is held every year on the 3rd of December. I know I’m a day late but I’d like to share my experience of living with invisible disability.
This year’s theme focuses on spreading awareness and understanding of disabilities that are not immediately apparent, such as mental illness, chronic pain or fatigue, sight or hearing impairments, diabetes, brain injuries, neurological disorders, learning differences and cognitive dysfunctions, among others (IDPWP).
Raising awareness of invisible disabilities
During the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation, disconnect, disrupted routines and diminished services have greatly impacted the lives and mental well-being of people with disabilities right around the world. Spreading awareness of invisible disabilities, as well as the potentially detrimental— and not always immediately apparent— impact on mental health is crucial as the world continues to fight against the virus.
I live with invisible disability
As many of you might know, almost ten years ago, I was struck down with a rare disorder – idiopathic (cause unknown) Transverse Myelitis (TM). It’s normally caused by a virus but, despite the hundreds of tests, mine wasn’t, hence the idiopathic.
TM is a rare neurological disorder, a “neuroimmunological” disease of the central nervous system. It’s an inflammation of both sides of one (or more) section of the spinal cord.
TM involves inflammatory attacks in the central nervous system which damages the insulating material covering nerve cell fibres (myelin). In short, it creates lesions on the spinal cord that interrupt the messages that the spinal cord nerves send throughout the body.
Symptoms of Transverse Myelitis
The main symptoms of Transverse Myelitis are:
- muscle weakness mainly in the legs – so I can stumble and trip and appear drunk to others. My arms are weak too and I’ve dropped the kettle, pots and pans and many cups of coffee causing severe scalding.
- change in sensation (unusual feelings) in the lower half of the body. Mine occurs from just under my arms to my toes. It feels like a tight banding all the way down to my feet so even wearing shoes hurt. I do get odd looks wandering around in flip flops in the rain or cold.
- numbness, and pins and needles from the torso down
- heightened sensitivity to touch i.e. the feel of clothing on the skin might cause pain (allodynia). Even a single hair can cause me pain, like one unshaved leg stabbing the other! A light breeze blowing on my legs can be agony and a cold wind blowing on my torso feels like a hot water bottle in the area. All this can change each day and it’s never the same feeling every day.
- heightened sensitivity to temperature i.e. extreme heat or cold. My normal body temperature is now anything from 32.3 to 35.9° (even in the sun) which is really low compared to others at approximately 37°. This causes extreme perspiration (I do not sweat buckets, rather I perspire gracefully 😂) if the temperature rises due to any activity i.e. showering or cooking.
- losing the ability to tell the temperature of water or objects. This happens mainly on my left side but does occur on both sides. It’s really odd when I’m in the shower or the bath because different areas of my body feel different temperatures. And say when rubbing my hands together I don’t know which one is cold and which is hot. Common sense should tell me, but perhaps I’m missing that 😂 .
- pain (nerve and muscle). The nerve pain feels like I’m burning and tingling with sharp stabbing shooting around all my nerves. And the muscle pain — well, that feels like I’ve done 12 hours in the gym. I ache all over and any movement is painful.
- tiredness and extreme fatigue. Just showering and drying, together with brushing my teeth, or ten minutes of housework feels like I’ve done a days work already. Some days I have to lie down before I fall or faint with exhaustion and, trust me, this is no exaggeration.
- muscle spasms and twitching muscles. The twitching in my muscles feels like that twitch you get in your eye – painless but irritating. The muscle spasms can be more painful and can make my hands and fingers contort and I can’t hold a pen or cutlery properly.
- a general feeling of being unwell i.e. just not with it and my body feels like it doesn’t belong to me, it’s separate from my mind — that’s literally how it feels even though that common sense thingy tells me it can’t be.
- problems with the bowel and bladder. Suffice to say I’ve had many an accident both at home and in public. And please, don’t suggest those big uncomfortable incontinence pants — it’s just not happening! I’m 59, not 89.
The unusual feelings (paraesthesia) that we experience generally starts from the spinal area where the lesions are. My lesions started at C5-6 and L5 so areas like my arms, wrists and hands are affected. Imagine a horizontal line or band drawn around the torso i.e. from just under my arms, and that’s where the unusual sensations begin – so that, for me, is all the way down! Aaarrgghhhhh!
Mental health symptoms can be invisible
That’s TM in a nutshell. So, please try to understand how invisible illnesses can affect people, how difficult life is for them and for those around them i.e. their families and carers can have it tough too. I know mine do and sometimes I wonder how or why they put up with me. It’s not just the physical side but also the
- mental health side like depression and/or anxiety, suicidal ideation, hallucinations due to extreme fatigue, and
- sleepless nights
- sadness for the loss of the life I used to l used to live, the loss of the job I loved, and the friends who just moved on — without me.
- anger at not being able to do the things I used to and having to be cared for, cleaned up behind or helped to shower and dress
- loss of confidence makes me upset, feel useless, worthless and sometimes hopeless
- annoyance when people laugh if they think I’m drunk when stumbling or when people glare if we park in a disabled bay, like we don’t belong there…….
“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”Unknown
Okay, I’ve shared my experience of invisible illness……..
Over to you
Do you or someone you know have an invisible disability, or are you a carer? How do you cope with your disability or someone else’s? What’s been your experience with how people treat you or others with invisible illnesses? I’d love to hear your thoughts and I’m happy to answer any questions.