Living In the Shadows – When Things Look Fine on the Outside


As Houston continues to recover from the impact of Harvey we are starting to be able to celebrate some successes; our schools have started to re-open, most of our highways have re-opened, many people have torn out the flooded contents of their homes and the debris is starting to be picked up and the piles are starting to diminish in some areas.

As this work continues, the outward signs of damage will start to fade from our city. Homes and buildings will look more normal from the outside, people will start to replace some of their clothing and will start to look outwardly more and more like they did before the storm – but this doesn’t mean that everything is alright on the inside. Inside, many or our homes are still needing repair and inside our hearts we are still in shock, grieving and in need of healing.

Some of us living with losses that are becoming harder for others to see may start to experience some emotions similar to individuals with hidden disabilities like epilepsy, diabetes, hearing loss, heart disease or any of the other medical conditions that are serious but not immediately apparent just by looking at someone.

Our culture tends to reinforce the idea that appearance is everything – the ultimate measure of a person – but appearances can be quite deceiving. We can look perfectly “presentable” and still be managing an array of complex problems or living with emotional pain and loss. What makes it more complicated is that the culturally acceptable response to the question, “Hi, how are you?” is “Fine, thank you, and you?” – the trouble is that in this kind of interaction we have exchanged no real information.

Many people who live with hidden disabilities describe at one time or another experiencing some sense of shame or embarrassment at having to ask for help and feeling that others are judging them because they “look fine.” As a result, those with hidden disabilities may need some kind of accommodation or help but be too embarrassed to ask. Individuals with hidden disabilities sometimes feel that the struggle over deciding whether to conceal their disability – or reveal it to others – creates an added burden to the condition that they live with. Keeping a secret like that – living every day pretending you’re something you’re not – can for some be tremendously debilitating.

As a result of some of these struggles, individuals with hidden disabilities may withdraw isolate themselves. It can be hard enough faking it through the things you have to do—like work – that at times it may not feel worth the effort to fake your way through what should be pleasurable experiences like getting together with friends or going to parties and social gatherings.  It can become a vicious cycle where withdrawal and isolation contribute to depression which in turn makes it harder to get out and socialize and enjoy the things that used to bring us pleasure.

Immediately after the storm, the community rallied around those in need. It was easier to see who was in distress or in need of help – people on their rooftops waiting for rescue, people in shelters in need of food, comfort and medical care. As the outward sides of the storm start to go away – it will be harder to see on the outside who is still hurting, who is still in need of rescuing.

In the days and weeks ahead, it may be useful to think of yourself and others in our community as having a hidden disability – of being the “walking wounded.” It may be helpful to try to remember that what we perceive from the appearance of a person is not the whole story;  to remind ourselves that there is always more to know about someone than we can tell by looking at them. Going forward, let’s try to remember to stop a minute and ask ourselves, “what hidden burdens is this person carrying?” Then, if we see someone we work with, live with, or care about having difficulty, we can take a breath, slow down and inquire about what is happening. We don’t need to take on solving their problems for them; if we remember the powerful healing power of presence, we can just be there for them and perhaps give them a little extra space and time to do what needs to be done.

When we encounter someone who is having trouble getting through the day -perhaps the person is simply tired that day but perhaps there is a deeper, more longer lasting problem, a hidden disability -we cannot know unless we ask. Using open-ended questions without assumptions or judgment embedded in them is a good place to start. For example, rather than saying something like , “Why is it taking so long? ” we could ask, “What do you need to accomplish this task?” By doing this, we might learn a lot more than we think.

Not all disabilities are physical or visible and not all are permanent. Shock and grief can temporarily impair a person’s ability to function at their usual level of performance and a little extra support can go a long way in helping us all heal and move along the road to recovery.

There is a wonderful Irish blessing that goes something like this,

May your joys be as bright as the morning, and your sorrows merely be shadows that fade in the sunlight of love.”

Let’s commit to not living with our burdens in the shadows so that together we can walk in the sunshine of each other’s caring.

If you appreciated this post, you may also want to read The Healing Power of Presence


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