I was 24 when it happened for the first time. I sat beside my husband in our church that met in a little log building in rural Alaska. The congregation stood to sing, but I remained seated. It was awkward to be the only one sitting, especially when I looked so healthy. My body appeared strong, but inside it was weak.
My health had been slowly deteriorating for several years, and my disability was invisible. Many in the church probably didn’t even know that I had an invisible illness. They could not see that each week it was becoming harder for me to attend church. No one could see that standing made my blood pressure drop too low. No one could see my heart racing to keep my blood circulating so that I didn’t faint. No one could see the energy draining from my muscles. But I could feel it, and I knew that if I wanted to make it through a whole church service, I could no longer stand while singing hymns.
My church was very kind and accepting of my new limitations. They allowed me to remain seated without shame, and they brought meals to show their love and care. We have moved many times since then, but I will always be grateful for our little church in Alaska.
My family lives in Minnesota now, and I am grateful to have another loving and accepting church. My invisible illness has grown worse over the years, but my church accepts me just as I am. They even keep a recliner at the church for my personal use! I can no longer sit up through an entire church service, so lying down in a recliner enables me to attend a service occasionally.
There are many members in our churches who are fighting invisible illnesses, and although we cannot see it, their struggle may be profound. Their illnesses may be disabling even if they appear to be able-bodied.
This week is Invisible Illness Awareness Week, an annual online awareness event sponsored by Rest Ministries. According to Rest Ministries, nearly 1 in 2 Americans live with some kind of chronic condition, and the majority of their symptoms are invisible. An individual may be dealing with pain, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, weakness, cognitive difficulties, or any number of other debilitating symptoms.
People with invisible illnesses need our support and encouragement. They face challenges each day that no one can see and that many do not understand. They may feel lonely, discouraged, or misunderstood. They may be struggling to keep up with simple tasks of daily living. They may be facing a disability while those around them are unaware.
If you have an invisible illness, it can be embarrassing to let others know about your struggle. But sometimes we need help and encouragement from others, and if we do not share with them what we are going through, they cannot offer their support. Let’s humble ourselves enough to let our churches know that we are living with an invisible illness.
When we learn that someone has an invisible illness, let’s be ready to offer them our encouragement and support. Let’s be understanding when they need to sit, leave church early, or cancel plans at the last minute. Let us accept them, limitations and all, and welcome them in our churches.
If you have an invisible illness, what is one of your most disabling symptoms?
What are some ways we can offer support and encouragement to those who are suffering from an invisible illness?
Rachel Lundy is a wife and mother of two children. She lives with dysautonomia, a condition that leaves her mostly homebound. She writes at Cranberry Tea Time about life with a chronic illness and the hope and joy she has in Christ.