Hi. My name is Vicky and over the course of my teens I was diagnosed with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). I’ve also experienced a handful of panic attacks and some pretty intense social anxiety. I feel much safer communicating like this! Fast forward a decade and I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis (UC) – an incurable autoimmune disease. Yay, right?! I quickly learned that being told that your body is attacking itself and always will be isn’t great when you suffer from mood disorders. To be fair, it’s probably not great at any time. In fact, some studies find that approximately 50% of people with certain chronic illnesses suffer from a mood disorder. Others need further exploration, but I’m willing to bet that the numbers are similar. And I’m guessing that if you’re reading this then some part of my story rings true for you too.
I’m relatively lucky that when I was diagnosed with UC I was in a stable, though somewhat delicate, place in terms of my mental health. It was a 15+ year process to get to that point and still took work daily, but I was ok. That all changed the day my doctor told me what is wrong with me is incurable. I felt like the floor fell away from under me and I sank into a deep state of grieving. See my post 3 tips for coping with a chronic illness diagnosis. The stages of grief include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I spent the longest time in the phase of depression. Today, however, 3 years after diagnosis, I have finally reached a state of acceptance. Most days at least.
What follows are techniques and tips I learned along my journey back to good mental health. I hope they help and make your journey to acceptance a little shorter and easier.
Keep taking your medication
This is so important. When I was first diagnosed with UC I had so many pills thrown at me. Add those to the ones I was already taking for depression and anxiety and I felt like I was swallowing an entire pharmacy every morning, noon and night. I was angry at my body and the world and I considered throwing all those pills in the trash and letting my mind and body do whatever they wanted to. But I didn’t and I’m so glad – I have tried to stop taking my mood medication before and it always ends with me going off the deep end, which is the last thing I needed with this new fight. Bottom line, you are probably taking a lot of medications now. I can be overwhelming. But, if you take medication for your mental health, suddenly stopping taking it is NOT going to help. You need that support now more than ever, so please fight the urge to take it to the trash can.
There are people and resources available to help you through this. Blogs like this are one place you can go to get ideas on what might help you and to know that you aren’t the only one going through this. Your doctor can give you medical help if you need it, or direct you to the mental health services appropriate for your situation if you aren’t already using them. Private counselors or life coaches might be helpful if you can afford their services. There are many charities that offer support to people with specific illnesses and mental health issues – a simple google search should show you what’s available in your country/area. Or maybe you just get online and find people going through something similar to commiserate with and support each other.
Find a support group
Speaking of finding support online, I strongly suggest that you find an online support group related to the issues you are facing. I all but guarantee that Facebook has a group that has been set up to talk about the issues you are facing. Just put some keywords in the search bar and see what pops up. I belong to a number of these groups and their support and understanding have been fundamental to my mental and emotional recovery. In these groups, I have found everything from practical advice on how to deal with specific problems, emotional support and encouragement when I’ve been at my lowest, people who understand to celebrate the little wins with, and sometimes just other people to agree with me how crappy life can be sometimes! Every other social media platform has communities that discuss these types of things though not necessarily formal groups. Charity and foundation websites also almost always have forums for members to support each other, and some have in-person support groups in bigger cities. If you can’t find any support groups (physical or online) that you like – and you feel up to it – why not set up one yourself? It is really easy to start a group on Facebook and they will walk you through it step-by-step. Meetup.com is an awesome website for setting up (or finding) in-person groups for just about any reason and their app is also simple to use.
Learn as much as you can
It’s an old saying, but knowledge really is power. When I was first diagnosed with UC my anxiety shot into high gear. There were so many unknowns and I felt like I had no control. So, after the initial shock and denial wore off, I started reading about my new condition. I read books, research papers, blog posts, everything I could get my hands on, and even listened to podcasts. During all this reading I did discover a few things that didn’t help my anxiety about the future, but overall, I began to feel so much calmer and in control. I learned what was actually going on inside me, what I could expect – thus dramatically cutting down on the unknown factors, and what I could do to help myself. And whilst I didn’t start doing much to help myself straight away, knowing that I could made me feel like I had a little bit of power and control back in my life. There are still plenty of things I don’t really know or control now but there is a lot I can control, and I will keep learning.
Don’t push people away
One of my first impulses, when I was diagnosed, was the same as when I get hit with a major depressive episode – isolate myself and push everyone away so they don’t see what a mess I am. I don’t want the shame of them seeing me or to hurt their lives. I think a lot of people dealing with depression and trauma (and being diagnosed with a chronic illness IS a trauma) feel this drive. But please fight it. You certainly don’t need to – and probably shouldn’t – tell everyone you know the details of what you are going through, but please let someone in. Even if it’s only one person you really trust, don’t force yourself to fight this fight alone. Try to maintain your social contacts as much as you can. You may not be able to go out with friends as much as you did, but maybe arrange to have a friend come to your house for coffee and a movie every couple of weeks or even every month, or something like that, if going out is too much. Use those social groups I mentioned earlier. Don’t shut yourself away from the world. It may not seem like it now, but you need the world and the world needs you.
Take care of yourself
I have struggled the last couple of years with feeling guilty about sleeping more, doing less housework, going to fewer social events, etc. I’ve felt like I’m letting people down. But what I’ve realized is, I need to take care of myself. I need to listen to my body. It needs more rest and care now than it used to, and that’s ok. I’ve also learned that if I push myself too hard I pay for it the next day or the next week, and then I’m no good for anybody. Now, I am still getting things done and moving forward, just at a slightly slower pace. I also had to reevaluate my priorities so that I use the precious energy I do have on the right things. I recommend you do this too – listen to your body, figure out what is important to you. But don’t let being sick become an excuse for not moving forward. Go as slow as you need to, but keep going.
Celebrate the little wins
It can be super helpful and motivating to celebrate the wins along this journey, no matter how small. Didn’t cry today (or maybe just this hour)? Woohoo – have an ice-cream! Your pain medication started working at last? Tell your support group and do something you haven’t been able to do for a while. You get the idea – this journey is long and tough, so you need to enjoy and make the most of the progress you make along the way. And, if you are having a really bad day, it might help to look back at how far you have already come and all the obstacles and problems you have already conquered.
Don’t give up
There is a light at the other end of the tunnel, and you will reach it eventually. Things may never be the same as they were before you were diagnosed, but things can and will get better. It may not seem like it right now, but you still have too much life left to live and joy to feel again. You are a warrior and you can do this.
 Chapman DP, Perry GS, Strine TW. The vital link between chronic disease and depressive disorders. Prev Chronic Dis [serial online] 2005 Jan [date cited]. Available from: URL: http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2005/