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Richmond invisible disabilities workshop helps people navigate tricky conversations

Finding the right words can reduce the sense of isolation.
The Richmond Centre for Disability is holding a workshop on May 12 for International Invisible Illness Day.

Invisible illnesses keep some people in the shadows as they try to avoid awkward social situations.

“You (tell someone you) have something, and all of a sudden, someone would get really excited – ‘Oh, my friend’s brother’s cousin’s hairdresser tried magic blue fossils planted under her skin, and now she’s fine! Try it!’” said David Thomson, the community outreach coordinator at the Richmond Centre for Disability (RCD).

Well-intentioned suggestions often do the opposite, overwhelming those with chronic conditions, Thomson explained. It can ultimately affect self-confidence and cause them to retreat into their shell.

On May 12, the RCD is celebrating International Invisible Illness Day by holding a workshop to help people get out of these awkward situations.

“A lot of chronic illnesses can hit very hard, and they can change your life very quickly,” explained Thomson.

Thomson was diagnosed with fibromyalgia more than two decades ago, when chronic pain and fatigue changed his life.

“I basically turned from a 35-year-old-man to a 65-year-old-man in less than a year. It was just like getting tossed into a big ditch to crawl back out again. You have to re-establish friendships; you’ve lost all your work friends. It’s like you’re a whole different person. And you relate to them differently now,” he added.

Apart from seeking treatment and trying to adapt to life with a chronic condition, the one thing people with invisible illnesses often struggle with is talking about their ailments.

“How do they get out of sticky situations or when everyone keeps asking about their illness and they really don’t want to talk about it?” said Thomson.

“A lot of times, people can’t figure this out. They’ll just say ‘no’ to every single invite, and they won’t feel comfortable going out. And at some point, you have to figure out how this works for yourself,” he added.

One of Thomson’s tricks is to be humorous when describing his illness.

“Usually people go, ‘Oh my god, I couldn’t imagine that!’ Right? The first thing I used to tell people, ‘Imagine taking a dead body and tying it to yourself and then going about your day,” he said.

Thomson explained that people might feel uncomfortable, but it would be enough to either keep the conversation going – or it would serve as a segue out of the topic.

The goal of the workshop is to help people feel less isolated by suggesting responses to awkward questions and by providing tips to navigate these situations.

At the end of the day, support is more important than unsolicited advice.

“It’s about just believing in that person and what they’re going through, and not trying to fix them every single time,” said Thomson.