Read or Die

Review of Meghan O’Rourke’s THE INVISIBLE KINGDOM

The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness by Meghan O’Rourke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ms. O’Rourke sets out from the beginning to grant a voice to people with invisible illnesses. And through her personal journey, she brings to light the struggle everyone endures when they start battling for a diagnosis (diagnoses) or even basic recognition as an ill individual. The myriad steps and failures each of us takes in the medical systems (traditional, alternative, integrative) are laid out in chapters that provide equal time for scientific and popular knowledge.

Underlaid beneath the silenced screams for acknowledgment.

And I have to give Ms. O’Rourke credit: She grants equal attention to both sides of this battle. Despite their constant failure to see and treat patients with chronic diseases, she offers an olive branch to doctors. It’s “too little too late” for those of us who’ve spent decades bouncing from practice to practice and specialty to specialty, struggling for answers. Still, even I took a moment to pause and consider the fact modern medicine has set up physicians for failure in the realm of chronic illness. I wanted a more substantial hand with the hypocrisy of long-COVID gaining more attention with the infection of the medical community, though. Instead, she allowed a single page to do the work. It raised my blood pressure and left me gripping the pages at the indignity.

On the negative side, while the title and even the Introduction promise a voice for “chronic illness,” the book leans heavily on autoimmune disease. You unintentionally find yourself (again) excluded from the party for anyone who falls outside of that categorization- for instance, fibromyalgia. Fibro’s mentioned a whopping four times throughout the book, neglected due to its indeterminate state. The stars of the show are Lyme, long-COVID, and the other autoimmune diseases that offer SOME quantifiable testing. For the rest of us, left in the “diagnosis by exclusion,” reading leaves you feeling ostracized. “Chronic illness matters – provided someone can find a blip on your lab work,” the chapters seem to scream. For someone whose results constantly show up clean, it stings.

The chapter on women also left me longing for MORE. The medical industry notoriously scorns the female sex struggling with invisible illness harsher. Hysteria and hypochondria stay on the lips of physicians when women present with vague symptoms – even in the 21st century. The few pages O’Rourke left to the topic made me wonder why she bothered. As a woman, I asked where she left her righteous fury.

Or did she never encounter the dismissal so many of her sex face every day?

Overall, though, Ms. O’Rourke lays bare the experience chronic illness patients endure to be SEEN. And her call to arms is unmistakable. I can’t fault that. Indeed, I thank her for shining a spotlight on the part of the population often left in the shadows.

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