“But you don’t look sick!”
I can hear my mother’s words as clearly as if she’d said them to me yesterday rather than more than half a century ago. Given that I contracted every infectious disease suffered by anyone within a 50-mile range of me, as well as those of my schoolmates, and given that she would be locked away with me in our tiny flat for the duration of my illnesses, self-preservation was her likely motivation. In any case, she did her utmost to convince me that regardless of how sick I was, if I looked better, I must feel better. At my tender age, it wasn’t often worth the effort, although I began to see that it made my mother happy, and that in itself made me feel better.
As the years went by and my illnesses continued and lingered (one year I missed more days of school than I attended), I saw the situation in a different light. I worried that if anyone saw me when I was feeling and looking my worst, they may not care to see me if or when I was feeling my best. My mother’s words and my growing interest in people-pleasing — especially people of the opposite sex — encouraged me to heed her advice. My rationale was that you never knew when an opportunity might appear. If one did, I’d be ready.
For example, I once answered the door to a handsome paperboy who had come to collect his route money. He may have interpreted my fiery red cheeks as embarrassment at being seen in my freshly laundered bathrobe. In truth, I was too sick to care. But in no way did he detect the 104-degree fever burning inside my flu-ridden body. Why? Every hair on my head was in place – as was my smile and my pink lipstick (the only cosmetic I was allowed at that age). Several months later, during a time when I was relatively healthy, he invited me out to a movie and an ice cream sundae. Sickly li’l me was the first eighth grader I knew to have a real date with a real high school boy. Now you get the picture?
Even as an adult with daily fibromyalgia symptoms, I couldn’t break the habit. No matter how fatigued or painful I felt, I got dressed, fixed my hair, and applied makeup rather than appear as haggard and disheveled as I felt. I attended my son’s grade school functions looking capable and presentable.
In retrospect, this may have been a mistake. The “healthy” mothers saw no reason not to expect me to be a room mother, bake cookies for events, or whatever else needed doing. And, of course, I did these things as efficiently as possible, while looking as good as I could look. I did them so well that I was appointed the parent-teacher organization’s president. The stress and physical effort of that job nearly did me in.
I still cringe when someone blurts out, “But you don’t look sick!”, although I no longer have the strength or the desire to go along with the public’s mistaken belief that I feel well because I look well. I’ll probably never outgrow my need to look presentable, but I make no bones about my limitations. I’m the healthy-looking lady in the wheelchair at the airport. I know I can’t stand in a security line for an hour or longer, but no one else needs to know that. I’m also the smiling lady riding in the electric cart at Costco. If the world thinks I’m just lazy, so be it.
If a situation requires me to share my health issues with a stranger, and I get the usual “But you don’t look sick!”, my standard reply is, “Thanks. Today’s a good day.” Whether it is or it isn’t.
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