A note from a student with invisible illness

To whom this may concern,

I want to say that “seeing is believing” isn’t appropriate or necessary in many situations. From the time I started to receive excruciating migraines in 7th grade, the number one thing people needed to verify was that I wasn’t “faking” it.

All I ever wanted was to be accepted for my invisible disability, instead of having to constantly explain myself to peers and teachers.

“I wasn’t in class the last two days because I couldn’t move my body from a migraine. What did I miss?”

A big part of migraines is the effect they have on you both mentally and physically. By the time I started receiving migraines, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD), chronic depression, SEVERE insomnia and IBS. I’m not writing for sympathy, but to simply inform you of the fact that none of these illnesses have ever been taken seriously in an academic setting. This is absolutely unacceptable and I have dedicated my whole life to fighting this stigma, especially against women.

migraine co

I was forced to grow up very fast, and had to be able to stand up for myself. If I did not, I would not pass my classes or have very many friends. My adolescence was defined by doctors telling me they couldn’t figure out what was “wrong” with me, my teachers telling me I would not be able to keep up, and friends acting like I was skipping school because I was just sad. Graduating from my high school felt like freedom from a prison of ignorance. Surely, college will be better right?

“I don’t know how you will survive out in the real world.”

“You don’t need to compensate for missing class with your voice.”

“Can’t you just take medication and come to class?”

“Maybe it’s best if you take a year off.”

These are all real comments I’ve received over the past couple years from professors and ODS staff. I am a 21 (soon to be 22) year old woman now, who has had these illnesses since I turned 12…You would think if I got into James Madison University and have made it this far, that I would get a little more respect, right? I graduate in May 2020 and I can confidently say that only a few professors on this campus have given me the respect I deserve due to my medical absences. All of them female.

Females with disabilities have almost always been regarded as ” hysterical or emotional,” and labeled as weak due to the institutionalized oppression of women in the healthcare system. A great article by Sunny Sea Gold explains this historical phenomena and how “doctors find women to have more “psychosomatic” illnesses and “complaints due to emotional factors” than men”. I’ll never forget a male doctor whispering to my mom in the hospital and then coming up to me asking, “Are you sure you’re actually feeling this? Your mind could be playing tricks on you”. I cannot express the psychological damage that has been caused due to people’s disbelief of my “invisible” pain.

My sophomore year was a time of defeat for me. I dropped a class each semester because I was unable to keep up with the class attendance rules, despite the fact that I was completing all my work. The Office of Disabilities had suggested I take a semester off for my migraines to “calm down”. To say that this was a slap in the face is an understatement. If I had the mentality of waiting to “get better”, I would not have made it to college. It has been a decade of this relentless pain, and it has not “gotten better”.

Until I met my advisor, Kathryn Hobson, in the Spring of 2017, I had lost hope that I was going to make it through college. Almost every professor that I encountered did not believe in me or my ability to persevere. Dr. Hobson accepted me and gave me hope in ways no one had before due her having similar chronic issues too. I thought to myself, if she had earned her doctorate degree with people doubting her abilities, I could do that too. It only took 20 years in the education system for me to finally find someone who understood what I was going through and believe in me.

I have accepted that life will always be an uphill battle with my illnesses that aren’t “visible enough” for people to believe in, but I am happy to report that it has gotten a lot better. After so much research on mental illness in academic settings, I found a student run organization called lostgotfound. This organization asks college students around the country to become campus representatives to advocate and spread the word about invisible disabilities (I am one of them). I highly recommend visiting this site to learn more about the various experiences of those struggling with these illnesses because I am one of millions of these people who feel invisible.

So, the next time you try and underestimate someone else’s pain, think again. Getting out of bed with depression is like running a marathon. Anxiety feels like an inescapable dark shadow, a little devil on your shoulder telling you, “you can’t do it”. Migraines are the equivalent of paralysis and delirium for me and for many others… But you can’t see it, so it does not exist, right?

I will not be silenced anymore. I will not be told that my pain is not an excuse for absence. Your broken leg will heal, but my mind will be scarred forever with the experiences of my pain not being “enough”. For anyone that needed to hear this, I stand with you, YOU ARE ENOUGH AND I BELIEVE YOU.

One day I’ll show the world what I’m capable of despite my illnesses, just like my advisor showed me. I am one step closer to making this a reality just by posting this. Thank you for listening.


One student out of millions who are silenced.


3 thoughts on “A note from a student with invisible illness

  1. I am so sorry that you have had to experience this. It is extremely unfair and I’m so glad you said something about it! I’m sure many people have experienced issues similar to this and no one has given them a voice. It is extremely brave of you. I hope JMU will change this so no one else will have to experience this or be told half the horrible things that you have had to endure. I hope you find the healing and peace you deserve and thank you for speaking up and letting your voice be heard. This needed to be said.


  2. I LOVED this piece. I find it funny how people feel as though they have some right to judge whether or not a person has an illness or not. I am sorry that you had to experience this during a time when life is already stressful and confusing. Your power and strength exuded through this piece!


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