I was thirteen years old when my plight with serious, chronic illness began. It was a terrifying time of medication, infusions, and tests that made me feel like my body was less of a living, breathing miracle and more of an object that needed fixing. But I won’t get into all of the specific details. I want the focus to be less on my life and more on our lives and on the struggles that we all face, whether we are dealing with something terrible that has happened to our mental health, our physical health, or both.
I have found that mental health is often overshadowed by physical illness. There was a certain unspoken expectation that I had to mold myself to fit the “inspirational sick child” stereotype, and because of that, I felt too ashamed to address my mental health difficulties. I began to feel as if my body was not a home. The skin and bones I had known became hostile territory. I felt as if there was something wrong with me when I began to experience grief and depression. I didn’t want to tell others about my overwhelming urge to cry when the doctors searched and searched for more abnormalities to list in the fine print. I didn’t want to tell anyone about how I suddenly wanted nothing more than to rid myself of my body — a vessel that others called beautiful, but that I saw as a shadow of its former glory. I never acknowledged how truly sick my infusions made me feel, and I pushed aside the tremendous fear that I would experience when I thought about feeling that sick again in my lifetime.
Because of that, my mind suffered. I felt myself receding to a dark place. At the time, I didn’t realize how much my mental health was overlooked during my physical health crisis. After all, it is much easy to order diagnostic tests and send a patient away than it is to make sure that patient gets quality mental health services too. The truth is, I felt stuck – stuck in a body that I no longer wanted. I spent so much of my time trying to fix my body’s physical shortcomings that I almost forgot about my mental health. I felt enormous pressure to live up to the expectations thrust upon me, and in turn I hardly realized the most inspirational thing I would ever do was acknowledge the fact that I was experiencing a mental health crisis.
After months of wandering aimlessly in the dark, the light began to come back into my life. I finally seemed to be making progress in my physical treatment, and even though there were still countless doctors to see, vials of blood to be drawn, and difficult days to come, I was out of the immediate storm. I thought I’d be able to move on with my life, but to my surprise I found that my mind still had trauma to sort through.
I tried to rush healing. I told myself that I shouldn’t keep reliving my trauma. I told myself that I should be able to move on from the trauma as easily as the trauma moved on from me. But somehow, I could never shake the feeling that at any moment my life could be ripped from me. When I looked in the mirror, I still saw my frail former self staring back at me. I was haunted by both my past and my future, and I was too afraid to ask for help. Reluctantly, I went to counseling. I began to practice mindfulness and meditation. I let go of my own stigma surrounding getting the mental health services that I so desperately needed. And it was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. Now that I have begun to process the last few years, I have once again been able to immerse myself in the beauty of life and the miracle of existence.
Now, I don’t know your story, but I’d like to encourage you to get mental health services if you need them. I’d like to encourage you to make your mental health just as much (if not more) of a priority as your physical health. I don’t know what kind of trauma you’ve had to endure or where your mind goes at its darkest, but I think we probably share some common ground. Every one of us has been hurt by this world in some way. No matter the source, your pain is valid. And you deserve to feel as if your body and mind are yours.
DBT SKILLS FOR THE WIN
Pain, wherever it comes from is still pain, but it is subjective and often hidden from others. Physical illness validates certain pains, but not all of them. I turned to Self-injury to try and cope with chronic joint pain that wasn’t managed well (and doctors often didn’t believe the severity). My physical pain is closely tied to my anxiety and depression, and in some ways it was easier to get help for the mental than the physical, but like Emily writes here, the physical made me feel like I was in hostile territory, that I wasn’t in control of my own body anymore – a fearful state to be in. Thank you for sharing, Emily, you are not alone in this.
I basically grew up in the hospital. Nurses were like family. Surgery was routine. My last surgery was 10 years ago and few physical effects of those days remain but at 31, only in the last 3 years did I begin to recognize the deep-seated, inescapable mental and emotional effects that all had on me. I deeply resonate with still seeing your old frail self staring back at you and being haunted by both past and future. Tonight….well, tonight I needed this. Thank you.
Great post – thanks for writing this. Dealing with illness and disability is difficult enough without the able-bodied world objectifying us into “objects of inspiration” and dumping yet more absurd exptectations on us. You might like this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karrie-higgins/not-your-inspiration-porn_b_8172842.html
Thank you. I’m so glad I came across this today. Your words made me feel hope.
April B. England
This is an excellent piece. Thank you for your heartfelt writing.
Thank you so much for writing this from the positive and yet honest perspective that you have. I can relate very much, if only partially to the chronic illness but more so to my own form of trauma and the mental health struggle that ensued and plagued me for years afterward. It’s great to see someone coming to terms with their pain and being able to accept themselves, illness and all, regardless of other people’s expectations. Again, thank you.
You’re completely right about the stigma of people, including family, expecting you to be a poster child for resilience and fighting off the effects of mental health issues brought on by chronic pain and health problems. I’ve been in pain 24/7 for 23 years now and thanks to some co-morbid health issues that pain has only increased. Plus, now I’m extremely fatigued daily to the point where I can no longer lead a normal life. Weeks, even months can go by where I’m bedridden. Yet I’m expected tho maintain a positive mental outlook, remembering that things will get better, I will be able to get out of bed some day. There are times when that seems impossible to do. When I wonder why I keep trying when there is no treatment or cure for what ails me. I will never know life without pain and crippling fatigue. Is another 30-40 years of this really worth it? My life may be an unfinished story but if it’s such a sad, wicked tragedy that people will put down the book unfinished, what’s the point in sticking around to finish it?
Instead of going to therapy, I practice meditation. Sometimes it’s hard with all the overwhelming emotional feelings I get, however, there are beautiful moments too. Where you just feel yourself extremely happy, lucky and in peace with yourself. It’s great to feel this way<3
One thing I think is hardly ever written about, is people who have physical illnesses often feel scared to speak up about their psychological struggles, simply because once you get seen as or labeled with a psychological condition, even if it’s stress rather than psychosis, people don’t pay much mind to your physical illness any more. Doctors stop tying to treat your physical illness. It’s such an under spoken about area, and one which really needs addressing.
Thank you for writing this.It gives hope that help is out there if we just have the courage to step forward. I too feel meditation helps repair trauma.Sometimes ones family of origin discounts the struggle of mental illness .Reading your sentence ” your pain is valid” is a comfort .Acknowledging our own pain even if others don’t can be the best first step to healing .Thank you for a compassionate perspective on the struggle to heal from mental illness.
So beautifully written
Like a person who has an old soul with such beauty and depth
Words touched my heart