Disclaimer: This post is purely based on my own experiences with chronic illness and mental health. This is not medical advice. I highly recommend the incredible wealth of information at Mind and that if you are suffering from mental health problems you seek help from a trusted resource. You are not alone.
The relationship between chronic illness and mental health
According to Paul Mayberry and a Metro Article on the subject of the relationship between chronic illness and mental health, he states that 49% of those suffering from a chronic illness are also on anti-depressants. This is according to a survey of 1,100 patients who are registered to receive repeat prescriptions.
Meanwhile in the USA, the Cleveland Clinic states that an estimated one-third of individuals with a chronic illness or condition experience symptoms of depression.
Finally, according to the UK Mental Health Charity Mind, approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Of these, in England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem such as anxiety and depression in any given week.
This post coincides with Mental Health Awareness Week, so I wanted to take some time this week to sit down and unload some of the heaviness I have experienced surrounding my own mental health with my chronic illnesses.
Every single day, however, should, of course, be dedicated to raising this awareness. There is much work to be done in the world, to help the numerous people experiencing mental health and chronic illness.
Before I start discussing my experience of chronic illness and mental health I wanted to pause to reflect on the relationship between chronic illness and depression.
First and foremost, serious chronic illness can cause tremendous life changes and limit your mobility and independence.
Secondly, a chronic illness can make it impossible to do the things you might have once enjoyed. Furthermore, chronic illness can isolate you, eat away at your self-confidence and leave you feeling hopeless.
Therefore, it is no surprise that people with chronic illness often feel despair and sadness that leads to mental health illnesses. In some cases, like mine, the physical effects of the condition itself or the side effects of medication lead to depression, too.
Another dimension to chronic illness and mental health can be found in the process of battling for a diagnosis.
I think every undiagnosed, chronically ill person reading this right now will have experienced this or can recall how deeply painful this period of time is.
When you’re chronically ill and undiagnosed, you enter the tortuous world of ‘the waiting game’ that’s, unfortunately, a cycle of endless doctor appointments, misdiagnoses and tentative treatments.
It can be one of the most vulnerable times in your life, and if doctors, friends and family are convincing you, “it’s all in your head” you can start to feel like a stranger in your own body as it transforms beyond your control.
Whilst we navigate these periods, whilst grappling to understand what is happening to us, we can often overlook the symptoms of depression, assuming that feeling depressed is normal for someone struggling with a serious, chronic illness.
Symptoms of depression such as fatigue, poor appetite, reduced concentration, and insomnia are also common features of chronic medical conditions. This makes it difficult to decide if these symptoms are due to depression or to the underlying illness.
I must just state that in all my 10 years of blogging this subject is one I have been hesitant to post about. Not necessarily because of the vulnerability of posting something so deeply personal, but because I have been fearful about striking the right cord between my own experiences and the sensitivity of this subject for others.
However, I believe that erasing the stigma of mental health in our culture begins with sharing our stories and realising that many of us are suffering, and yet we all deeply connected.
Before I discuss my experiences on this topic, I wanted to post a disclaimer that this is entirely my own experience of learning to live with mental health and chronic health.
I hope if you’ve ever struggled with any of the above that the messages in this post can be a comfort to you.
I believe there is power in sharing posts as vulnerable as this in an ability to hopefully touch hearts I will never meet but be united in this.
How chronic illness affects my mental health
In an interview with Chase Jarvis, one of my favourite humans and authors of all time Elizabeth Gilbert tells Chase that: “I don’t know if anyone realises what percentage of my life I spend taking care of my mental health. That’s my full-time job. And writing is a hobby I do on the side….and everything that I’ve learnt that has any taste of wisdom and grace is from the front lines of this [points to head].”
After years of exploring herself and trying to understand how her mind works, Elizabeth Gilbert explains to Chase about how she wakes up ready for the battle of the day (even on the way to the interview with him).
As the interview continues, Chase Jarvis asks Elizabeth Gilbert what some of her practises are for managing her mental health.
With exquisite grace and wisdom, Elizabeth shares a multitude of breathtaking practises for managing and caring for her mental health. One of these practises is writing a Love Letter to herself every single day.
Some of her letters are simply her words poured onto the page and other times it forms a dialogue between her and Love.
As Elizabeth Gilbert explains: “What are the words that I’ve always wanted to hear somebody say? Can I say it to myself?”
This universal Love can tell Elizabeth that: “I am company for you in your darkest hours”. She then goes onto say that this simple loving presence is what has saved her.
The reason I am sharing this interview is that Elizabeth Gilbert’s words always makes me reconnect with the deepest parts of myself. And in turn, this helps me understand my own mental health more intimately.
Whilst I have a habit of searching for light, hope and meaning in the things I post here, it would be dishonest to both myself and you, my beautiful readers, to say that the implications of living with various chronic illnesses haven’t affected my mental health over the years.
Like Elizabeth Gilbert, I know so intimately what it is like to suffer from the heaviness of the beast that is depression. Without realising it before I watched the interview with Chase Jarvis, I now understand that like Elizabeth Gilbert, it is also my full-time job managing it.
And just like Elizabeth Gilbert, I try to take this depression, the ‘darkness’ as I call it, and I look to how I can balance and manage the light and dark, in my everyday.
In fact, in many ways, the ‘light’ I often refer to here is actually my ‘whimsy’. And as Elizabeth Gilbert makes a daily practice of writing her Love Letters, my daily practice is searching valiantly for my light and whimsy in every single way I can.
This search for light and whimsy is my daily practice. Because, truthfully, I have really known depression all my life.
From as young I can remember I have been in pain, both intensely physically as well as emotionally. I can still vividly recall experiences of being in and out of hospitals and specialist offices as a child and that has left a huge mark in my heart.
To accept that modern medicine cannot restore you is an ongoing grieving process and one I learnt very early on in childhood.
Moreover, as a very highly sensitive child, and then adult, the world, I learnt very early on, can be a bruising place for someone so deeply emotionally.
Being an idealist in a not so ideal world where there is illness, genocide, poverty, racism, greed, environmental collapse, corruption, lies, destruction, and persecution has always felt so heavy on my heart and soul.
As an idealist, I view the world as having a vast potential for goodness, beauty, and ingenuity and therefore I spent a lot of time in my head disconnecting to the external world around me.
However living in my mind and daydreaming 24/7 leaves me with a lot of time for personal contemplation, and self-reflection. This can be a positive thing: as a dreamer, I am able to translate these visions into my art, to my blog, and to everything else in my life.
Although, a huge part of my mental health problems is that, for me, escaping into a dream world is more preferable than navigating the real world. Simply put: I like my imagined world better than the real one.
I can escape for weeks at a time to pursue this internal world. This, however, leads to shame, alienation and isolation that feels all-consuming when I return to the external world. As I write this, in fact, I’m finding my way back to the external world after weeks of hiding away.
My elaborate inner world is my everything, and many times it is my only thing. It’s an addiction to retreat there. So, just like Elizabeth Gilbert, my daily struggle is how to implement the outside world, and let it into my thoughts and feelings without severely wounding my sensitive heart and my tender imagination.
Now that’s not to say that being a dreamer makes me depressed per-se, on the contrary, it helps me find a more authentic way of living and relating to the world. It’s naturally healing. For storytelling, art, and feeling. I also helps me process my darkness, conflict, shame, and wounds, to find resolution and to maintain a connection to my own story.
I would never want to try and make this constant search for light and daydreaming in amongst the above to seem shiny and inspirational. On the contrary, the choices and compromises I experience with my chronic illnesses often make me feel resentful and like life is punishing me.
However, as I sail deeper into adulthood and self-honouring, I find myself becoming more and more comfortable with honouring both lightness and whimsy, but also holding space for grief, darkness and the permission to invite reflection due to the effects living with chronic illness has on my mental health.
Tools and resources that help my mental health
The final part of this post is on the subject of chronic illness and mental health where I am sharing a list of tools and resources that allow me to be more connected to myself and the world around me. They nurture both the internal and external balance I seek.
This is a very individual thing, and of course, if you have any symptoms of a mental health illness it is so vital to seek support for your individual needs.
However, I find a very simple question to ask ourselves is: What brings contentment, peace, and beauty to your soul? Because when I am in alignment with my true identity and needs, it allows me to search for the light and hope I seek daily with more ease and flow.
From my own experience of battling with both chronic health and mental illness, an examination of the best tools and resources to experiment with takes an immense amount of compassion, grace and patience.
For some people having a bath with salts and oils might help them become grounded and alleviate some pain for a while. For others, it might be medication and going to see a therapist every week.
Remember that nobody knows your mental health or illness better than you do. It’s important that you do things that feel like they’ll truly benefit you, not just because other people do them.
Here is a list of some of the methods I choose to soothe me and help me deal with chronic illness and mental health:
- Vulnerability: I’ve battled with the false-belief all my life that the world is not a safe place for my truth and with my illnesses and sensitivities. But as I sail into adulthood I want to reclaim my vulnerability in all ways. As Brene Brown says in her famous TED Talk: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging and love”. This whole post itself is a huge expression of vulnerability! And vulnerability is scary. But it’s also necessary. I have so much more work to do on this. However by balancing vulnerability and surrender it allows me to be seen, heard and gives me access to help when I need it.
- Gratitude: To me, gratitude is the true elixir of life. Because through this darkness, it has without a doubt provided a contrast that illuminates the wonderfulness of the gratitude I feel in life to dig deeper into everything I am. I’ve learnt that if I can see the darkness, then it makes the light brighter. Moreover, I feel that gratitude can send a message to the universe. For when I block it, it always comes back to me in deep resentment or feelings of unworthiness.
- Self-Compassion: Having compassion for ourselves is a medicine to the soul on its own. This is such a huge topic and practising self-compassion comes in endless forms. From saying something nourishing and supportive to ourselves, setting boundaries or simply offering ourselves compassion and support. Or lately, as I am experiencing during a bad flare, it means giving myself mercy for the time I need to rest and stop worrying that I am letting people down in the process. It also means radically accepting the way I am put together; illness and all. And it means loving on myself and trusting my intuition.
- Letting Go: Letting go is a part of life but with chronic illness and pain that teaching acquires a whole new depth. As heartbreaking as it is, letting go is often the most healing action you can take. Whether that’s letting go of any pain that isn’t your own or letting go of our own pain that keeps us weighted and weary. Moreover, it’s necessary to immediately let go and disengage with things in our external worlds that cause us pain. I talk about this deeply with friendships and relationships in this post here.
When I feel the darkness, or if you prefer to imagine, my shadow, creeping up on me I don’t suppress it like I used to. I accept it, nurture it and then I lean into the above.
As I’m writing this post right now it’s a Sunday afternoon and it’s a day I take a lot of medication for my pituitary tumour. As a result, I always feel low and foggy. Days like this ask me to tend to my most basic needs, slow down, cultivate the art of rest and listen to my intuition.
During the process, of writing this post, when I feel too emotional or feel the dark cloud wash over me, I will pause, save my words and find pleasure. This is often found by nourishing my creativity in some other way.
This includes playing the piano, painting or simply journaling. Any form of creativity is a balm to my soul but of course, it’s important to tune in to what our body is telling us she needs.
You are divinity
Living with a mental health illness is a long road, one with many variables and actionable steps, but we can start by talking and also by taking comfort that we are connected to divinity.
Over the 10 years of the intensity of living with chronic illnesses, I’ve found that there is incredible satisfaction in finding your own euphoria. A force. A divinity.
On a stunning online retreat just last week with Dr Sarah Coxon I learnt deeply about finding our own strength and sense of purpose through divinity.
Connecting to divinity helps me work through the darkness by arriving at a place in my mind that when things get tough, that I am not separate from nature or the Universe. That we are all an expression of Mother Nature herself. That we are all here for a reason and held so deeply.
Through this retreat, Sarah discussed that there was an increasing body of research that suggests that Earth operates as a single living organism. James Lovelock coined this ‘Gaia Theory’.
‘Gaia Theory’ approaches planet Earth as a living system and treats humans as a seamless continuum of that system. The Gaia Paradigm uses the powerful metaphor of ‘Gaia’ to take into account that all human beings are part of a living system.
I feel this connection to the universe and divinity amplified so intensely in my life. For when the darkness creeps in, it illuminates any blessings so vividly for me when I tune in and receive them.
For me, I find divinity in simply being grateful for being able to take a walk after being bed-bound, enjoying food again after a flare of gastroparesis, and so it goes on. These feelings and experiences are euphoric and I am so much more appreciative of them.
In fact, each and every divine thing I get to experience is a treasure to be prized and cherished as the gifts they are. And so, my feelings of thankfulness and delight by simply living and being held by the Universe shine more intensely for me.
As this post comes to an end, I hope there is something in here that comforts you to know you are not alone with both your chronic illness and mental health.
Just one final thing to note is that it also truly goes to show in my case, and for every single person you encounter, to always remember someone is fighting a battle we may not know anything about.
Not everything online will give you an accurate representation of reality. One picture will always tell an incomplete story. One single act of kindness can make this world a much more manageable place.
And just know once more how special, divine, and unique you are always despite living with mental health and chronic. You have no idea how much this world needs you just as you are right now.
Although our journeys may be different, I truly believe that humanity, beauty, and the power in being vulnerable can change the world.
Thank you so very much for taking the time to read this and engage in any way you can. Your love and support is the strength that I use to create impossible things.