Invisible Illness Week
Dealing with a chronic illness isn’t new for me. I’ve been dealing with autoimmune arthritis for a third of my life.
What is new (and terrible in ways I did not expect) was how it interacts with mental illness, in my case anxiety and cyclothymia. Cyclothymia is a rare mood disorder similar to but not as severe as bipolar disorder; it has noticeable shifts in mood that swing up and down from your baseline.
I am slowly clawing my way out of both a long depressive swing and an extremely painful flare that left me unable to do things like lift my arms above my head, walk more than a block or two, and sleep for more than 30 minutes or so uninterrupted by pain. Even though I’ve dealt with this before, autoimmune diseases will also find new and fun ways to make your life difficult; in this case, it was severe tendinitis in the left side of my body. Good times.
My anxiety told me over and over that this was my new normal. That I would never feel any better than this. That I would no longer be able to do so many of the things I love: running, painting my nails, taking my dog for a walk. That I would continue to be a burden on everyone around me for the rest of my miserable life. And the depression cycle of my cyclothymia made me believe that there was no way I could live like this and that nothing could be done to make it better. It made the pain worse, in some ways, because I could not for the life of me see a way out. I would always hurt. I would always be unable to bear it.
My brain was lying to me.
It took longer than I wanted for me to realize that.
I was trying to get ready for work, slow going when you can’t lift your arms higher than waist level, and I became completely overwhelmed by the idea of putting on clothes and makeup, driving to work and pretending everything was fine. I sat at my vanity in my pajamas and cried for a long time. “I can’t go on like this,” I told myself—and for the first time in months it occurred to me that I didn’t have to. I called my doctor and left a message seeking an appointment—the nurse who called me back must have heard the tears and desperation in my voice because she apologized that I’d have to wait a day to get in, that I couldn’t get in right that moment.
But I did get to see my doctor, and she had options for me: new medications and a cortisone shot to get my tendinitis to calm down to manageable levels.
And it helped—I feel better, if not perfect. This much pain I can manage, especially given the likelihood that it will continue to improve. Once again, I know my anxiety isn’t telling me the truth. Once again, I want to do the things I love, even if it’s not for as long as I’d like to do it. Once again, I know that I am more than my illnesses.
These past few months have been a perfect storm: depression making me feel worse, pain feeding my anxiety, both giving way to an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and despair. Sometimes there are no easy answers. But I am alive, and I am glad to be here. Right now, that’s enough.