Sunday, January 26, 2014


As near as I can tell, there are two different types of catastrophes.

Catastrophes in the first category are impossible to miss. They are loud and explosive and completely in-your-face. They consist of floods and fires and hurricanes and bombings and car accidents and plane crashes. They also consist of cancer and heart attacks and strokes and spinal cord injuries that result in paralysis. Sometimes they result in deaths. Sometimes they don't. Either way, the losses from these catastrophes are often substantial and devastating, and painful in ways that most of us probably cannot fully imagine unless we've been there.

However, these catastrophes have one redeeming feature: they are visible.

And visible catastrophes are often met with an unsolicited outpouring of support that can take various forms, be it emotional, financial, or material. Sufferers of these catastrophes are met with big love. Not that this can undo the damage, but it certainly helps with moving forward.

I don't mean to argue that there's anything wrong with this outpouring of support. Quite the contrary. By all means, we should reach out to those in need.

The problem is, the people who fall in this category are not the only ones in need of support.

The other category, as you probably guessed, is invisible catastrophes.

Shortly after I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis, I began to notice the "but you don't look sick" phenomenon. It works like this: many people with autoimmune diseases and other similar disorders that cause chronic pain, such as fibromyalgia, appear to be healthy and able-bodied. There is nothing in their physical appearance that gives away their level of pain or fatigue (except possibly for the fact that they're wincing with pain with every movement). Because of this, they are perceived as lazy malingerers, despite the fact that they may be pushing through unbearable pain just to leave the house to buy groceries. This perception can be exacerbated by the flare-remission-flare-remission progression of these types of illness. One day, a person with an autoimmune disease or fibromyalgia may be able to function almost completely normally, and the next day, without warning, they may not be able to walk.

Illnesses like these are invisible catastrophes.

So are mental illnesses.

Retrieved from:

Other invisible catastrophes can include things like being a victim of bullying or abuse or rape, or infertility or pregnancy loss, or, on the flip side, unplanned pregnancies, and possibly abortion or adoption plans. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I'm sure I could go on and on.

One huge barrier for the people who experience invisible catastrophes in accessing support is that they are generally not going to get help unless they ask for it. And asking for help can be one of the hardest things in the world to do.

Unfortunately, sometimes when people experiencing invisible catastrophes do reach out for help, the response that they get is less than helpful.

Some of the responses are victim-blaming.

A victim of bullying may be told, "If you weren't so sensitive, they wouldn't pick on you."

A rape victim will very likely be asked, "What were you wearing?"

Some of the responses are a minimization and denial of the heartbreak that the person is experiencing.

Sufferers of pregnancy loss may hear, "At least you know you can get pregnant."

Most people are only going to have to hear something like this once or twice before they stop reaching out for help.

Some of the invisible catastrophes have stigma attached, like mental illness and unplanned pregnancy, and speaking about them in some circles is completely taboo.

Some of these responses may be well-intentioned, or simply a reflection of not knowing what else to say. Some of them may be coming from a darker place, a place of judgment. Regardless, they serve only to further isolate the people who are going through invisible catastrophes from the support that they need.

Here's what I want to say to any of my readers who have experienced or are currently experiencing invisible catastrophes:

I see you.

I see your loss and your pain. I see your anger, your hurt, your frustration, your grief, your disappointment, your fear. I see your anxiety as you struggle with the choices you have to make in situations where there is no right answer. I even see the feelings you may not be willing to admit: your jealousy, your bitterness, your hate, your guilt.

And your feelings are valid. You have a right to feel them. You have a right to acknowledge them and own them. Because you'll never be able to work through them if you don't.

You also have a right not to be judged for your feelings.

I also see your strength. Whether you realize it or not yet, you are a survivor. You have made it this far, and that's quite an accomplishment.

And I want you to know that you can go on. You will heal. It will probably take longer than you want it to, and you won't be the same as you were before the invisible catastrophe hit, and sometimes those painful emotions will pop up on you again when you least expect it, but that's okay. The point is, it will get better than it is now.

But in the meantime, your pain is real, and I recognize it.

You don't have to be invisible.

To anyone who may know someone who is going through an invisible catastrophe:

Reach out. Let that person know that they are seen. Let them know that their pain is valid.

Don't try to fix, or minimize, or deny. Don't judge or blame.

Just listen, and be present.

That may be all they need from you: to know that you see them, too.

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