When My Mental Health Overshadowed My Chronic Illness

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I have dedicated so much time and energy to focusing on the physical symptoms of my chronic illnesses: daily moderate pain, numbness and tingling in my legs, spending nights curled up on the bathroom floor with nausea, vomiting and heartburn, and debilitating fatigue. These are just a few of the symptoms that I consistently experience while living with Sjogren’s Syndrome and POTS. So focused, that I was completely caught off guard when I started experiencing anxiety.  Chronic illness takes a huge toll on the body physically, mentally and emotionally. Anxiety and depression are often seen in those with chronic illness because of the trauma, burden, and isolation that chronic illness can create.

My anxiety seemed to sneak up on me, but it didn’t slowly creep up behind me. Instead, it seemed to smash me back of the head so I couldn’t miss it. It couldn’t and can’t be ignored. It’s not the kind of nervousness you get before you take a final exam or speak in front of people. This is agonizing and paralyzing anxiety. It’s an intense and constant state of worry. It’s the kind of anxiety that my typical coping mechanisms of writing, adult coloring books, and guided meditation couldn’t handle.

Sometimes I wish I could turn my brain off instead of enduring the rapid fire of thoughts. I will play out every scenario to every situation in my head, even meaningless tasks. I think about all the potential consequences of a new treatment. I think about all of the potential outcomes of a procedure. I worry about if a reaction from an infusion could kill me or how sick I will be after a procedure. I worry about how much work I’ll miss and how I’ll manage school. Sometimes I will fall so far down the rabbit hole of nightmare that I forget that what I was thinking about didn’t even happen or isn’t real.

I also suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from a traumatic procedure when the medication used to numb my skin had minimal effect and I painfully felt every stitch to close a two inch incision in my chest. The symptoms of my PTSD come in cycles. I have a triggering event that will send me into a downward spiral of flashbacks, nightmares of paralyzing fear that can last anywhere from weeks to months. I have flashbacks, where I vividly remember every painstaking moment of the surgery. I have nightmares, where I would wake up screaming with my chest hurting, as if I was reliving that day. That constant up and down that leaves me beyond exhausted.

At first, I wasn’t going to seek help. I didn’t want someone to perceive that my mental illness symptoms minimized the physical symptoms that stem from my very real chronic illnesses. I didn’t want my doctors to think that the symptoms of my chronic illness were solely due to my mental health problems. I didn’t want to deal with the stigma associated having mental health problems. I didn’t want to find out how my friends and family would react to my problems or my desire to seek treatment. However, the overwhelming mental health symptoms were starting to take a toll on my physical health.

It got to the point where I was desperate for help. I was in a battle with my own mind and couldn’t control my irrational thoughts. Almost every single waking and sleeping moment was spent in a constant state of worry. I was my own worst enemy. The three weeks that I had to wait between making an appointment and seeing the therapist for the first time were the most excruciating. It was almost a relief when the therapist confirmed that I suffer from anxiety and PTSD.

For those dealing with mental health problems and chronic illness, you’re not alone. If you have chronic illness, make sure you take care of your mental health in addition to your physical symptoms. I am now in therapy and on medication to help keep my mental health symptoms at bay. Some days are better than others. I have learned that I have to take it one day at a time with one step at a time. We are all works in progress.

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