Invisible Scars

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls. The most massive characters are seared with scars.–Khalil Gibran

This week, the theme of the Breast Cancer and Social Media community (#BCSM) tweetchat was the invisible scars that come along with a diagnosis of breast cancer. As you can see from the transcript, this topic hit a chord with the chat participants. Tweets were flying fast and furious. The strong response to this topic got me thinking. It’s not just breast cancer that leaves invisible scars. That can be said about any illness (physical or mental) that is serious, chronic, or life-threatening.

I’ve been thinking about invisible scars all week–because this is the area that psychologists and other mental health specialists can provide real help and support. Much of our work in mental health deals with the invisible effects of pain and struggle. The rest of our work deals with the equally invisible issues of strength and coping.

These invisible scars are a critical part of our experience with illness. Perhaps even more than the physical challenges we face, the mental, emotional and interpersonal effects of our illnesses touch our lives every day. And because they are invisible, they often don’t receive appropriate acknowledgement & support.

I am hoping to begin a conversation about invisible scars–because the more visible we can make them, the more likely it is that they will be acknowledged and supported. So, I’m going to share the most common invisible scars that I see connected with illness of all types. I’d love for you to chime in with the invisible scars you have faced (or helped others face).

My “Top 3 Most-Seen” Invisible Scars:

  • Isolation or separation: Many of my clients talk about feeling “set apart” from their healthy friends and family by their diagnosis. This isolation can come from several areas: coping with the daily realities of life after diagnosis, feeling pressure to reassure those who care about you, not wanting to “complain” about struggles.
  • Coping with fear: When you have a serious illness, whether it is chronic or acute, your relationship with your body changes. Headaches and seasonal flu can be triggers for panic about recurrence or complication. Many of my clients talk about fear as a constant companion that may be louder or quieter from day to day.
  • Fatigue: This might be physical fatigue related to your illness, or mental fatigue, “being sick of being sick.” Fatigue can sap your ability to participate in daily life, and contribute to even greater fear and isolation.

I think that we need to increase our awareness and understanding of the invisible scars of illness, because that allows us to better connect and support one another. In that spirit, please feel free to share your own experience with invisible scars in the comments.

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