Ten Things I Want to Share About My Invisible Illness

  1. I am one of many. Nearly 1 in 2 Americans has some sort of chronic condition, and about 1 in 4 adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder every year.  Of those who live with a chronic illness, the illness is invisible 96% of the time. In my case, I don’t look sick at all. In fact, I appear to be quite healthy. But my illness is very real, as real as your flu virus or broken finger. In July of 2014, I experienced a mental breakdown and required hospitalization for eight days followed by three months of intensive outpatient therapy. I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder earlier this year after being misdiagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder for the last 15 years.
  2. My life has changed dramatically because of my illness. I have been on disability through my employer for the last 18 months. My former position no longer exists, so when I’m cleared to go back to work, I will have to find a new job. That will be extra challenging because I have permanent short-term memory deficits due to electroshock therapy to treat my severe, suicidal depression. I have also had to make significant changes in my lifestyle in order to stabilize my mood cycles. Some of these changes were easy (getting more sleep, keeping a journal) while others have been quite difficult (reducing caffeine, eliminating alcohol, learning to be mindful). I see a therapist weekly and communicate with my psychiatrist monthly. I am not the same person that I was before my breakdown last July.
  3. The hardest part about my illness is fighting persistent suicidal thoughts.   I have two young children, a supportive family, and many additional reasons to live. And yet I struggle day to day, week to week, with persistent thoughts of self harm.
  4. If I could make my illness visible, it would be ugly. So far, my illness has been a great burden to myself and my family. We would all have large, heavy black chains around our necks, dragging us down, down, down every minute of every day. Good days, bad days, it wouldn’t matter. The chains would always be there.
  5. I wish people would ask me questions about my illness. I would love the chance to explain how Bipolar Disorder affects me. Everyone’s experience is a little different. I welcome earnest questions about how I feel and why.
  6. I wish my friends understood that: there is a stark contrast between my good days and my bad days. On my good days, I look and actually feel pretty normal. On my hypomanic days, I feel full of energy, super productive, and indestructible. But on my bad days… I may not be able to leave the house, much less my bed. I may have to cancel all my plans. I feel guilty and ashamed when my illness forces me to renege on my obligations. And no, there are not enough good days to make up for the bad days. Time lost due to a mental illness is time gone forever.
  7. I wish my husband understood that: no matter how dark my mood or how negative my thoughts, I love him and greatly appreciate the many ways he has supported me through my illness.
  8. More than anything else, I fear that my illness will result in the destruction of my marriage. The divorce rate among those with a chronic illness is over 75%, and at 90% for those with Bipolar Disorder. I hope that my marriage will be among the 10% that survive.
  9. The stigma that surrounds invisible illnesses like mine is crushing and demoralizing. Comments like “but you look fine” or “can’t you just snap out of it?” are both insensitive and unsupportive. I am well aware of how healthy I look, even when I’m besieged by severe depression. And believe me, if I could just snap out of it, I would have years ago.
  10. My illness has taught me to be empathetic towards others and never to minimize someone’s pain. As the saying goes, everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about. Above all else, be kind.


sarah4Sarah Emmerling is a scientist, wife, mother, and writer.  She’s been happily married for 10 years and keeps busy with two children and an aging black lab.  She maintains a colorful flower garden, loves to fish, hates to cook, and plays the trumpet in her spare time.  Sarah is an avid sci-fi reader and has an uncanny knack for repairing children’s toys.  She has worked in cancer research for the last 12 years, and has a passion for interpreting science to make it understandable and relatable to the average person.  Sarah has also struggled with treatment-resistant depression since she was 12, and is now diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, Anxiety, and Attention-Deficit Disorder.  She writes both as a therapeutic outlet and to raise awareness about Bipolar Disorder and mental illness.

You can follow Sarah on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and her personal blog.

2002 Census Bureau
Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005 Jun;62(6):617-27
Booth, A., & Johnson, D. R.. (1994). Declining Health and Marital Quality. Journal of Marriage and Family56(1), 218–223.

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