‘I’m often mistaken for being lazy or spoiled. The dirty looks I get would shock you. I may look like a typical 23-year-old, but I’m not.’: Woman with multiple ‘invisible’ chronic illnesses refuses to let struggles ‘overcome her joy’

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“My name is Elizabeth Atkinson and on the outside I look like a typical 23-year-old girl. I just graduated from Ryerson University and I am looking forward to finding a career that will make my heart sing. However, there is something not so typical about me.

I have numerous invisible illnesses.

I suffer from multiple autoimmune disorders that affect my skin and produce allergic reactions constantly. I just want everyone to take that in for a second. Think of that feeling when you have an itch you can’t scratch. Annoying, isn’t it? Doesn’t it drive you crazy? Imagine living with that every minute of every day for your entire life. I also suffer from fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. To be so young and have these debilitating conditions that affect my movement and my ability to function in everyday life is heartbreaking, to say the least.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Atkinson

I missed out on a lot growing up due to my autoimmune disorders. I missed a lot of school, I missed school trips. I missed out on sleepovers, and any other situations in which I could have an allergic reaction and be too far from someone who knew what to do and how to help me. I know my family is there for me, and missing out on things was just their way of protecting me, but as I’ve grown older I feel more and more alone in my struggle. I know my family is there for me, but they always assume success is my only option. They don’t leave me a lot of room to feel like my shortcomings due to my autoimmune issues are okay. Maybe that is the motivation I’ve needed to get to where I am today.

My motivation is not disabled, my determination is not disabled, my fire is not disabled, but my body is. For a long time this was very hard for me to admit. My illnesses are invisible, therefore, in the eyes of most people, I look completely healthy. I am very often mistaken for being lazy or spoiled when I do simple things like take too long to get down the stairs, walk slowly down the sidewalk, and if I sit on the subway? The dirty looks I receive would shock you.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Atkinson

In addition to the usual daily struggles, the biggest mountain I have found myself attempting to climb lately is work. I do my best to show up every day, despite flare ups, but it is not always enough. Some days I work from home, other days I need to take some time off and leave early. I can practically smell the resentment from my coworkers. Instead of feeling sorry I am in pain, they see it as me taking time off, as if my disabilities somehow give me special treatment instead of huge obstacles. This particularly upsets me, because if they attempted to walk a day in my shoes, I am quite certain they would be begging to stay at work instead of going home in pain.

Another struggle with work is providing the proper documentation for sick days and time off and flare ups. Recently, I was feeling a lot of pressure in my chest and I was struggling to breathe. I know this feeling, and I had a pretty good idea costochondritis was the culprit behind my pain. Costochondritis is when the cartilage surrounding the rib cage is inflamed. In my case, the inflammation was so bad it was affecting my ability to take full breaths.

When attempting to tell my job I could not come in and instead would have to work from home, they asked for a doctor’s note. Fine. Whatever. When I go to the walk in clinic, they immediately rush me to the emergency room. I tell them I am pretty sure it is costochondritis and I just need an anti-inflammatory. However, since it is a problem with breathing, no one will listen to me and I end up spending the whole day in the hospital when I was supposed to be working from home. My boss was not happy with me and when I sent them a note from the doctor saying I can’t work and I am being sent to the hospital instead, I somewhat snarkily asked if this was a good enough doctor’s note for them. Sometimes I know I should keep my mouth shut, but I really can’t help myself.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Atkinson

After spending the entire day in the hospital alone and scared, doing numerous tests, they determine it is in fact costochondritis. They give me a needle in my leg to help with the inflammation and this leaves me almost unable to walk with a giant bruise. I also don’t feel any better at this point because instead of spending the day relaxing I spent it alone in the hospital scared for my health and worried about the state of my job.

This is just one small example of what it’s like to work a normal job with a disability, especially when it comes to invisible illnesses. Everyone assumes the worst, and no one takes into account just how hard I am working just to get by and just to keep up with people that do not have to struggle through a disability. Everyday, I wish things were different. But this is the hand I have been dealt in life. I refuse to let my struggles overcome my joy. I have worked too hard to get to where I am to give up now, and I have people that believe in me I need to make proud. Everyone should love what matters. I just want people to see my needs and my life matters as much as anyone else.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Atkinson

The advice I would give someone suffering from an autoimmune disorder would be a quote that helps me get through each day. It is ‘this too shall pass.’

I try to keep that in mind when I am having a bad flare up it will always pass, and the clouds will clear and things will never be PERFECT, but they will be better. I also keep it in mind to be grateful for when things are going well physically so I do not take it for granted because healthy moments are fleeting.”

Courtesy of Elizabeth Atkinson

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Elizabeth Atkinson of Toronto, Canada. You can follow her journey Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more amazing stories about people living with chronic illnesses here:

‘After a yoga session, my spine slipped forward. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t roll over. I was a vegetable.’: Woman with Spondylolisthesis, chronic illness claims ‘pain is inevitable,’ but ‘suffering is optional’

‘Sit down, sit down!’ I fell, hitting my head on the concrete floor. It’s so hard to deal with and so scary.’: Young woman’s harrowing journey to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome diagnosis

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