Chronic illness shirt: when a tee is more than just a tee

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Chronic illness shirt: a person is standing in room next to a window wearing her favourite chronic illness t-shirt. The white t-shirt has the word - inclusive - printed on it in black upper case letters. The word is spread over three lines: INC, LUS, IVE.

Chronic illness shirt: when a tee is more than just a tee

Even though old and threadbare, my favorite chronic illness shirt remains that one item of clothing I refuse to part with.

Buried at the bottom of many a chest of drawers or stuffed into the smallest crevasse of too many wardrobes, lay an item of clothing that is as aged as its owner or as worn as cheap socks. We all have one; that one item of clothing that we refuse to part with.

Nostalgia, laziness, or general forgetfulness are, typically, the main culprits, but nostalgia always seems to reign supreme. This item, whatever it may be, either never sees the light of day, or it’s granted the odd, albeit rare, opportunity to stretch its legs. I have such an item.

At 14, bored, depressed, and diagnosed with a chronic illness two years before, building an epic shirt collection became my ‘thing.’ 

Clearly, my body wouldn’t allow me to return to school anytime soon, so dressing for general life quickly went out the window. 

Naturally, I became the queen of comfort dressing, and the shirt-building began. The item I bought, unknowing at the time of its later significance, was a black Ramones shirt at least three sizes too big. My attachment to the Ramones shirt grew as my body decayed.

Over time that shirt became known to my family and me as the “chronic illness shirt.” Today feel an odd sense of comfort in the fact that the chronic illness shirt, now has suffered almost as much as I have or, at least, witnessed it. 

The chronic illness shirt hung off my body as blood was taken from me; scrunched in-between my fists during painful procedures, and lay, huddled, beneath my overcoat during routine doctors’ appointments.

My chronic illness shirt was the first item I reached for to get dressed after an operation. I used to wipe away an ocean of tears, and it was often part of my attire for midnight chocolate runs to Tesco (picture this: Ramones shirt, harem pants as pajama bottoms, crocs, and an overcoat)!

Eventually, Johnny and Dee Dee began to fade, a corner of the motif began showing up on my bedroom floor, more and more holes appeared due to my cats’ inability to sleep anywhere other than on my stomach, and a faint pink hair dye stain now exists on the collar. The chronic illness shirt became a comfort, a wearable security blanket, my armor.

Later, when I was finally able to attend university, the shirt became my identifier; ‘the curly blonde in the Ramones shirt.’

I was never one to divulge my medical history to just anyone and for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who had no idea of my past struggles. My chronic illness shirt hung from my shoulders, baring all to my unknowing classmates as my years of struggles and pain laid before their eyes. As my time as a student passed, it felt only right that the shirt received a long-overdue break. It now lies, perfectly folded, at the bottom of my chest of drawers with newer, less significant shirts piled on top.

My chronic illness shirt has traveled far and wide. From the US to the Middle East. From a UK doctor’s office to a UAE operating theatre. This one chronic illness t-shirt reflects my history and though invisible, I am ingrained in its threads. 

Before I finally retired my chronic illness shirt, I bought another of the same shirt, in the same size and from the same brand; however, despite its brighter appearance, I found myself still reaching for its weathered counterpart. The newer version, perfect looking in every way, lies at the top of my shirt collection, untouched.

Whether the Ramones miraculously come out of retirement remains to be seen, but I know for sure that this is one item - my chronic illness shirt - I am not letting go of. We’ve been through too much together. But for now, though, like its owner, it deserves a rest.

Article by
Lorna Codrai

Lorna Codrai, the author of "Chronic illness shirt: when a tee is more than just a tee," currently works as a freelance writer in the UK.


My attachment to the shirt grew as my body decayed. I feel an odd sense of comfort in the fact that the shirt, now, has suffered almost as much as I have or, at least, witnessed it. | ©Alena Ozerova / Adobe Stock