Unseen
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Unseen

Jacinta Parsons

Jacinta Parsons was in her twenties when she first began to feel unwell - the kind of unwell that didn’t go away. Doctors couldn’t explain why, and Jacinta wondered if it might be in her head. But she could barely function, was frequently unable to eat or get out of bed for days, and gradually turned into a shadow of herself. Eventually she got a diagnosis, but knowing she had Crohn’s disease wouldn’t stop her life from spiralling into a big mess of doctors, hospitals and medical disasters. With chronic illness her constant companion, she had to learn how to function in a world set up for the well.

What’s most extraordinary about Jacinta’s story is how common it is. Nearly half of Australians live with a chronic illness, but most of these conditions are not obvious, often endured in secrecy and little understood. They are unseen.

With compelling candour, Jacinta trains a microscope on the unique challenges of living with an invisible condition. She lays bare the struggles with shame, loss of identity, the threat of mortality, and the profoundly complex relationships between the chronically ill and their own bodies, as well as with those around them. It’s a story of trying to fix an unfixable illness, getting beaten down then clawing back up, and how that experience can shape a life.

Review

About 9.5 million Australians live with a chronic illness. Many of these conditions are not outwardly visible, so symptoms and side effects are often experienced by sufferers in solitude.

Unseen is a powerful memoir about chronic illness by ABC broadcaster and 3RRR alumna Jacinta Parsons. Diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in her twenties, Parsons details her journey from diagnosis, to treatment, and, eventually, to acceptance.

Parsons’ memoir is an honest and engaging account of how a chronic illness impacts our ability to navigate the workforce, maintain personal relationships, and develop a sense of self. It’s grounded by extensive research, expert opinion, and first-hand accounts from other people personally affected by chronic illness. By situating key moments in her journey in a broader context, Parsons transforms the personal to political. Supported by comprehensive evidence, she acknowledges some of the complex intersections of chronic illness with race, gender, and socio-economic factors.

Unseen shares some similarities with Gabrielle Jackson’s Pain and Prejudice: a personal memoir about endometriosis and an incisive exploration of how women’s bodies are often misunderstood and mistreated in the medical discourse. There are two very recent Australian releases that may also be of interest to Parsons’ readers: Show Me Where It Hurts by Kylie Maslen and Hysteria by Katerina Bryant.

As someone with a physical disability that is relatively unseen owing to decades of surgery and physiotherapy, I felt a deep resonance with Parsons’ experience of isolation and disconnection. While there is, of course, immense privilege in seeming well and ‘healthy’, it can also mean that your experience is minimised or erased entirely.

Unseen is a compelling antidote to damaging misinformation and limiting stereotypes about chronic illness. With chronic disease as the leading cause of ill health, disability, and death in Australia, this is essential reading for all of us.


Flick Ford works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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