I Used Fashion to Hide a Serious Illness
When I got sick, my style became my illusion of normalcy.
I scrutinized my reflection in the mirror before walking out the door. My shiny black heels matched my pencil skirt. The hem of my crisp white blouse with flutter sleeves fell to exactly the right length. My skin tone was even—glowing, actually—thanks to an expensive primer and foundation I’d picked up at Sephora. My perfectly applied eyeshadow distracted from the dark circles under my lower lids. I ran my hand through my brunette hair. A large clump of hair came away with my hand. I sighed. Then I reached for my comb and painstakingly twisted my lackluster locks into an updo.
Now, no one at work would ever know I was so sick I could barely function.
Four years earlier, during college, I’d been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. My diagnosis followed months of my hair falling out, crippling fatigue and severe brain fog. Unable to keep food down, I’d lost 10 pounds over just a few months. I barely had the strength to hold my head up while sitting in class. And the grueling physical pain of my illness was matched by the emotional devastation of being diagnosed with a lifelong condition.
In addition to the deep grief I felt at losing my chance at a normal life, the reactions of my peers and family left permanent scars on my heart. A few people close to me openly rolled their eyes or even smirked when I talked about the pain I lived with every day. Several family members simply refused to believe me. Speaking openly about my pain didn’t bring me the empathy and connection I needed; it left me feeling broken and rejected. After too many painful interactions, I stopped speaking about my disease almost entirely. Because my illness is invisible and left no marks on my body, I was able to hide it. Afraid of looking sick, I stopped dressing for myself and lost sight of my own personal style. Fashion became not a means to express myself, but a way to shield myself from the world around me.
Each Day I Had to Create the Illusion of Normalcy
I was determined to have a career like any other person my age, even though each morning was a battle. I hit snooze on my phone’s alarm over and over before finally dragging myself up into a sitting position on my bed, where I had to sit for a minute to summon the energy to shuffle slowly to the kitchen for coffee. I’d poured water into the coffee machine the night before, knowing I’d be too physically weak and exhausted in the morning to lift a large cup of water and empty it into the machine’s tank. I sank into a kitchen chair as my coffee brewed, the fog of exhaustion in my brain too thick for any thoughts to penetrate.
I carried my cup of coffee back to my bedroom, then set it on the table beside me as I put on my disguise. While I blasted rock music to try to wake myself up enough to drive to work, I dabbed concealer on the bags under my eyes. I winged my eyeliner more and brightened my eyelids with extra eyeshadow to make me look awake. When choosing clothes, I avoided the interesting cuts and bold colors I liked, instead picking traditional silhouettes and neutrals. The goal was to blend in, not stand out.
By the time I stumbled out the door each morning, the illusion was complete: I looked like a normal 20-something woman, even if I felt like a walking corpse.
My impersonation of a healthy person never failed to disguise the pain I lived with each day. Often, it worked too well.
“You look so healthy,” a woman once said to me as I stood at the sink in the ladies' restroom. “Are you a dancer?” I had just finished dumping my lunch in the stall because I was too nauseated to stand the smell of it.
“A healthy girl like you?” a coworker laughed when I pressed the elevator button. “Why aren’t you taking the stairs?” I stared at my shiny heels, unable to answer.
Hiding My Illness Only Made It Worse
Many of my friends and colleagues had no idea I lived with a chronic illness. I made excuses to not stay out late and avoided any activity that involved walking long distances. Even when standing in the middle of a group of friends, I didn’t feel I was truly a part of any group. There was too much of myself that I was hiding.
The charade came crashing one day when my disease spiraled out of control. In a month, I lost my ability to walk, drive or even have a simple conversation. I abruptly quit my job. My doctor pumped me full of steroids, which made my cheeks puffy, tore out my remaining hair and deposited lumps of fat in random places on my body. I was completely unrecognizable from the woman who had spent such care choosing her makeup and clothes each morning.
All the makeup in the world couldn’t cover my swollen cheeks, deformed from the steroids. No amount of beautiful clothes could hide the fact that I was in a wheelchair. My recovery was grueling. I had to relearn to walk, my leg and abdominal muscles burning as I struggled to lift my feet an inch off the floor. But if there was a silver lining to my episode of severe illness, it was this: I was finally free from hiding.
Accepting My Illness Freed Me
When I was finally well enough, I went shopping with my caretaker. As I searched through racks of clothing, I didn’t look for the most professional-looking pencil skirts or neutral blouses. I chose red flowery skirts and daring asymmetrical tops. I experimented with sparkly green eyeshadow and blue eyeliner. I discovered a piece of me that had lain dormant for far too long. As I relearned how to walk and speak, I relearned what style I truly liked.
Several years after my recovery, my face and body have returned to normal. My hair has grown back. I chopped it into an asymmetrical pixie cut, no longer caring what my colleagues or clients think. I sit at my mirror each morning, swiping on dramatic eyeshadow or a bold red lip. I pluck jeans and a red shirt from a closet full of clothes that I love. Then I step outside, ready to face the world as my true self.