I confess....I've spent a lot of time over the years pondering the complexities of invisible illnesses. It is hard when you look healthy from the outside but are suffering inside, a situation that I've faced due to both endometriosis and back problems. Recently, however, I've found myself struggling to answer a question that arises when a chronic health issue does produce visible results.
As I've mentioned here, I've spent the better part of the past few months in bed due to the severity of my back issues. In an evaluation last week, a new physical therapist said that my body is functioning at the expected level for an 80 year-old woman. I pushed myself through an outing this weekend...I'm glad I went but it was a huge challenge physically and I couldn't always hide the struggle. It was the first time I was that obviously struggling in public aside from when I had a walker or brace post-op (which was sort of its own explanation). Some people knew upfront that I was dealing with severe back problems but others simply noticed a grimace, a struggle to stand, or simply that I was moving slowly and hobbling on the way to the restroom.
The overt manifestations led to several people asking "Are you okay?" I appreciate the question, one that is obviously motivated by concern, but I have trouble knowing how to respond. The answer is really "No" but there's a definite difference between a chronic issue and a more immediate injury. It isn't a situation where the asker can really do much to help. I don't need them to run for a first-aid kit or get someone to come assist me. There are times when I can answer more fully...like someone seated at my table seeing me sit very carefully...but other times are just short moments..like someone holding a door when I was moving slowly down a brick pathway towards the bathrooms. I wanted to tell the person not to worry about holding the door (I feel bad making them wait three times as long as they expected to when they grabbed the door!) and not to really worry about me. But I can't really say that "Yes, I'm fine" when my movement proves that a lie.
Sometimes I say "No, but it's my normal" but that feels a bit snide and flippant. "No, but it's chronic" just leaves them confused. "No, but there's nothing I need" feels rude. I want people to know that I DO appreciate the concern but I also know that not every moment calls for a longer medical history.
What do other people with chronic issues that manifest with visible struggles say? If you don't have chronic issues yourself, what answer would be the right amount of information and honest but not rude?