Ten things they don’t tell you about life with chronic physical and mental illnesses

I live with physical illnesses that cause chronic (ie long term) pain and fatigue. I also have several mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. For all of my adult life, I’ve been regularly seeing doctors and counsellors and therapists and physios and nurses and social workers… all of them somewhat aware of my long lists of diagnoses and treatments. Here’s the important stuff that none of thought to tell me:

1. Becoming physically ill from a mental illness or mentally ill from a physical illness is really, really common.

PTSD can cause chronic pain. Chronic pain can cause or further exacerbate depression. Depression usually comes with anxiety. Chronic fatigue and pain are common symptoms of depression… Basically, human brains and bodies are complex systems and disruption in the functioning of one part will often have repercussions elsewhere. I am not, as I’d feared, somehow especially weak and unable to cope with one illness without developing more – I’m experiencing something fairly typical for people who live through certain kinds of trauma.

2. The brain is a part of the body and mental illness can be whole body illnesses. Likewise, whole body chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia and ME can and do affect the brain and so the mind

While medical professionals talk of me having several different illnesses (with overlapping symptoms) it often makes more sense to think of my mind and body as experiencing one great big illness that sometimes needs tackling at the level of its component parts and sometimes needs to be treated as a whole. Sometimes fatigue and pain and despair need to be tackled as just that, without worrying too much which part of my illness is causing them right now.

3. Being chronically ill, mentally or physically or both, makes it really, really difficult to tell when you’re acutely ill and need to see a doctor
When you wake up feeling like you have the flu every day it gets kinda hard to tell when you actually have got the flu. When nausea, weight gain and a tremor are all symptoms of your illnesses and possible side effects of your medication, it’s easy to ignore them when you should maybe get them checked out (I eventually did, got more pills for the nausea, some disapproving looks about the weight gain and a diagnosis of “benign essential tremor” for the shaking).

4. There is no surefire way to determine whether you’re actually really tired from fatigue or demotivated from depression

The only way to find out is to try to do something, if it hurts and you get post-exertion malaise, it was probably fatigue

5. Depression and anxiety can physically hurt; fibromyalgia and ME can make you cry with fear, pain, despair or anger

6. You cannot deal with only one illness at once, even if that’s how doctors, the dwp, your family and, well, everyone else, seems to think you should deal with it

PTSD flashbacks can steal lots of energy. So can strong emotions from depression and anxiety. Panic attacks can hurt and make your fibromyalgia flare up unexpectedly. Depression will use your new slower, sleepier pace of life against you to call you lazy or insist that other people are talking about it behind your back. Self-harm becomes easier than ever when your body feels pain at every touch and missing a dose of painkillers can guarantee agony. My body and mind are experiencing massive malfunction and problems in one area cause problems elsewhere. Most of my treatments are just fire-fighting as problems spring up everywhere.

7. People will try to tell you you’re just mentally ill or that you’re not mentally ill
Both assertions are unhelpful and reductive. You are ill, both your body and your mind are affected. It’s not your fault but you can’t treat just the body or just the mind and expect the problems to all go away.
8. The illness(es) you’re experiencing is not your fault
No one has ever said this to me and I’ve often wished they would. I didn’t do anything to deserve this – and if you’re ill too, you didn’t either.

9. “Incurable” doesn’t mean “It will always be exactly as bad as it is right now”

I really, really wish someone had explained this to me and I hope you remember it. There’s a huge, huge space between “how bad it is right now” and “how well people generally feel”. Incurable just means you will never get (back) to “well”. You can and will live in the space in-between. You can feel better, you’ll just never be well. I know that still sounds really difficult and scary but it’s more survivable than “I will feel this awful forever”. Mental illnesses like to extrapolate futures full of acute awfulness and I am telling you that’s not quite how it is.

10. A surprisingly large amount of pain and suffering is survivable and can become a “new normal

I know this doesn’t sound like much of a positive but bear with me. As well as medicating my symptoms, which lessens my pain / fatigue / anxiety / panic / despair / involuntary thoughts but never stops them entirely, i have found that as the years go by, previously unendurable symptoms start to seem like normality: like how music and chatter in a shop can fade to background noise. With no real choice but to get used to pain, fatigue and involuntary thoughts, I have settled into accepting levels of all three that would previously have brought be to tears.

 

And one extra:

11. It IS really and truly possible to be happy *and* ill.

I am happy. I love myself, I love my friends and family and, yes, I love my life. I can’t always keep ahold of the knowledge that there is more to my life than pain and fear and fatigue and despair, but I often can and then I am happy. It is possible. I wish someone had told me that. It’s possible to be okay- and more – whilst living with multiple illness, physical and mental.

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3 thoughts on “Ten things they don’t tell you about life with chronic physical and mental illnesses

  1. I think not knowing when to take it to the doctor is a big one. A few months ago, Mr Goldfish tried a new drug for the pain. It made him feel very unwell, his tongue and joints began to swell up, his throat began to tighten but – despite lifelong experience of allergic reactions – he was completely relaxed about it and even I wasn’t that worried, although I did insist that I be allowed to phone the doctor on his behalf. I phoned on the third day, and the doctor said, “Well, if he is still breathing after three days, he’ll probably be okay. But put the drugs out of his reach and next time his tongue swells up, call an ambulance.”

    That having said, there are probably ten instances when I’ve taken something to the doctor only to be told it’s part of my illness, a side effect of drugs or a complete mystery to every one where there’s something they can do something about it. However, do you remember in high school biology they defined a living creature as something that can move, respond to stimuli, breathe, eat, excrete, grow and reproduce? You may well be done growing, but I think anything that threatens to interfere with any of the others (or changes the degree to which you can do those things) needs immediate attention.

    Another thing they don’t tell you, and maybe you already know, but there may be repeated periods of grief over things lost. I’ve been sick more than half my life, I have long ago come to terms and I really do have a happy life, but I still get this. My health slips back. An opportunity arises which I cannot take up. Friendships still suffer and fade out. There are still times I can’t be part of things I desperately want to be part of. And it continues to get easier in many respects, but some of those things still hit me hard.

    Oh and one more thing – as well as apologies for the epic comment – remission, or improvement of any kind, is really weird. You want it to happen and it ought to be wholly good, but as with any period of uncertainty and change, it can be pretty confusing and scary.

  2. Pingback: Second Blog-iversary! | yetanotherlefty

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