3 Women On What It’s Like Living With An “Invisible” Condition

Despite having no outward signs, they can be brutal on the body and the mind. Here’s how each woman deals with having illnesses others often don’t understand.

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Six in 10 adults have a chronic disease, and four in 10 struggle with two or more chronic diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But not all those suffering look sick. For example, people with fibromyalgia, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis (MS), don’t always exhibit externally visible symptoms. That’s why these chronic illnesses—and others with no outward signs—are referred to as “invisible” conditions.

Invisible conditions are not always well understood by loved ones and are often discounted or not taken as seriously as visible diseases, according to the Invisible Disabilities Association. Patients may struggle to “prove” their illness to others, and this lack of understanding can lead to feelings like anxiety, depression, and anger, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

To help spread awareness of invisible conditions and help those suffering feel less alone, we asked three women to share their stories. Read on to learn how their conditions impact their emotional and mental wellbeing, and what helps them cope.

Kimmy Delahunty, 26

Capistrano Beach, California

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(Image credit: Hearst Owned)

Her diagnosis

In 2008, Kimmy Delahunty was diagnosed with Addison's Disease, an adrenal gland disorder where the body doesn’t produce enough of the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. Then, six years later, she learned she also has Lupus, an autoimmune disease that attacks the immune system, resulting in inflammation and pain in the skin, joints, and organs.

As a young professional working as a virtual assistant and social media manager, living with two invisible illnesses has impacted her career, as well as her physical and emotional health. She says her conditions make her feel “out of it” anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. “This can be incredibly isolating, as sometimes I’m stuck at home or in bed for days at a time,” Delahunty says, adding that she’s struggled with depression and anxiety due to her conditions. “I often look ‘fine,’ but as someone who has lived with pain for many years, I have learned to mask it well. I have become an expert at pushing through pain and putting on a brave face.”

What she struggles with the most

Delahunty says one of the most frustrating things about living with an invisible illness is getting unsolicited health advice. “I often get suggestions for different treatments, vitamins, and diets from total strangers. It can be so frustrating when people with little knowledge of your illness ignorantly diminish the complexity of living with illnesses by suggesting the answer is simple, or that someone is choosing to be sick by not ‘curing’ themselves,” she says.

Her advice to others

Delahunty has found that opening up about her struggles with her invisible illnesses has helped her feel more understood by others, and recommends others going through something similar do the same. “I encourage friends and family to ask me questions so they can better understand what it’s like to live everyday life with an illness,” she says. “I also started writing and sharing more about living with chronic conditions on social media. It feels empowering to me to take a bit of ownership over that and to help those around me understand me better.”

Ashley Cicala Feyrer, 32

Hackettstown, New Jersey

ashley cicala feyrer

(Image credit: Hearst Owned)

Her diagnosis

Since 2009, Ashley Cicala Feyrer has lived with multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease that attacks the nervous system and can cause permanent deterioration of nerves. Receiving this diagnosis as a budding 22-year-old dancer was incredibly difficult, and ultimately forced her to step away from training three years later. “Others didn’t understand because they saw me being able to work out, take class, and walk normally,” Feyrer says. “But they couldn’t feel what I was physically dealing with, and they didn’t see me crash behind closed doors.”

However, MS didn’t stop Feyrer from being involved with dance. She now co-owns and co-directs the North Jersey School of Dance Arts. “Living life with an invisible illness can be daunting, but I refuse to let it stop me from living my life,” she says.

What she struggles with the most

Feyrer receives an infusion every six months to slow down the physical progression of her disease, but tending to her emotional wellbeing is something she works on daily, and it doesn’t always come easy. “It’s impossible not to feel anxiety and bouts of depression, especially when dealing with a chronic illness,” she says. “It is a daily feeling with constant reminders.”

One way she’s prioritizing her mental health is by being more honest with loved ones about how she’s feeling. “I internalized my emotions for many years. I wanted to be looked at as this super strong, super inspirational person,” Feyrer says. “But I wasn’t being honest about what I deal with on a daily basis. No one knew how much I was struggling, which was no one’s fault but my own.”

Her advice to others

Negative emotions exacerbate Feyrer’s symptoms, so she tries to look for the silver lining in every negative situation. “I like to focus on what I do have control over and the positive things in my life,” she says. Make a list of what you’re thankful for, spend time with someone you love—do whatever you can do to put the positive aspects of your life top of mind.

Roxy Stewart, 43

Covington, Louisiana

roxy stewart

(Image credit: Hearst Owned)

Her diagnosis

After giving birth to her second child, Roxy Stewart started to develop spasms in her body. After undergoing a multitude of tests, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder where the immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues, including joints, skin, eyes, lungs, heart, and blood vessels. She was also diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder involving chronic inflammation of the thyroid.

What she struggles with the most

For many years after she was diagnosed, Stewart felt embarrassed about being sick and misunderstood. “People, including family and friends, couldn’t understand how I could be sick if I looked healthy,” she says. “Many did not take me seriously. Ultimately, I became exhausted by explaining my diseases and how I felt.”

This experience negatively impacted her mental health. “For a long time, I felt very isolated, and I suffered from severe depression and anxiety. I also felt guilty—for not being active, for not being able to function well, for wanting to sleep all the time because of my illnesses,” Stewart says. After 10 years of living with both conditions, she started to think about what she could do to heal her mind and spirit.

“I started to feel compassion for myself and started to practice self-love. I made extreme changes to my diet, and also started meditation, yoga, and visualization and emotional release work,” she says. Her passion for healing led her to become a health coach, where she’s found purpose helping others through difficult times physically and emotionally.

Her advice to others

Remember that others may not understand the pain and struggle that a person with an invisible illness is going through—and educating them will likely benefit you in the long run. “While it might feel embarrassing to constantly explain to people that you’re suffering, I’ve learned how valuable it can be,” Stewart says. “By bringing awareness and standing together, we can make big changes for the future, where the invisible can become ‘visible’ to others.”

Emily Shiffer

Emily Shiffer is a former digital web producer for Men’s Health and Prevention, and is currently a freelancer writer specializing in health, weight loss, and fitness. She is currently based in Pennsylvania and loves all things antiques, cilantro, and American history.