I’m not who people see. None of us are, but I’m really, really not. I’m disabled, though looking at me you’d never think so. I have fibromyalgia, one of hundreds of “invisible” disabilities, and one that I and others are calling on acupuncture to address. Migraines, respiratory illness, multiple sclerosis, depression–the list of nonobvious medical conditions goes on and on. My mother taught me never to assume those I encounter are having an easy time of it; almost every day I’m thankful to have learned that lesson.
Fibromyalgia is characterized by pain and fatigue. Hard to see those. A counselor once asked me how friends would know I was in pain. “I would gasp, or moan, or yell,” I said. It had never occurred to me to simply tell people.
Invisible disabilities are isolating.
If I sit in the disabled folks area when I get on the bus I risk getting the stink-eye from those who presume I’m as healthy as they are. Or healthier. My doctor had no way to gauge my pain till I saw her for an ear infection. She examined me and got a visual point of reference for the scale of my suffering. Her sudden sympathy made me cry, though most of the time I’m able not to.
Most of the time I grit my teeth and go on.
Going on is easier lately because I have hope. Hope in something invisible. It’s hard–in fact, pretty much impossible–to see the meridians acupuncturists use to treat patients. Charts show lines with names such as “Triple Warmer” netting diagrams of bodies (usually male). On these lines are strung–like beads–points helpfully labeled “D-7” and “Gv-24” and so forth. Acupuncturists feel these lines and points. The charts are visualizations of a nonvisual phenomenon.
Maybe I should make a chart of what’s wrong with me. But it comes and goes. It changes. I’ve compared fibromyalgia to living an episode of “I Love Lucy.” “I’ll stub my left toe,” I complained to a woman at the Y, “and 15 minutes later my right one hurts.” Pain is my default setting. Unlike some other invisible disabilities such as certain kinds of arthritis or neurological disorders, conventional medicine can find no firm basis for what I and my fellow sufferers go through.
Acupuncture diagnoses focus on energy imbalances revealed by symptoms. There’s an explanation for my invisible disability, and it’s rooted in understanding a model of an invisible system within my body. That makes sense to me.