Chronic illness and depression can often strike together. If you have dealt with a chronic illness for any length of time, then you’ve probably dealt with depression.
For some, depression is just another symptom of their disease. It’s an unwelcome complication of hormone or chemical imbalances that, at times, seem impossible to correct. Even if this isn’t the case, though, learning to adjust your life to cope with chronic illness can certainly cause feelings of depression. This is especially true if your prognosis isn’t particularly hopeful. My personal walk with depression has been a long and twisted path. I dealt with depression and anxiety long before I was ever diagnosed with my autoimmune illnesses. Some of the doctors I’ve seen posit that the chemical imbalances that left me standing on the edge of a building contemplating suicide at 12 may, in fact, have been due to my chronic autoimmune problems.
Either way, depression for me is sort of like a shadow. When the sun is shining at its brightest, I cannot see it at all. It may as well have disappeared, robbed of the joy in that moment. The trouble is, the sun always sets eventually. The darkness will come, and the only way to make it through the night is to have a plan. To understand that the sun will come again, and to hold onto your determination so that you can watch that beautiful sunrise.
That is going to be the focus here: making it through those periods of depression that can visit you as you work, to learn how to cope with your chronic illness. Some folks choose to use medication for this and that’s perfectly fine – but it isn’t the only way.
I took medication for years to ease my depression symptoms and I will never ever tell you that it is the wrong decision: the choice to take that pill every morning saved my life. I eventually went looking for a solution that didn’t involve medicine. If you are seeking the same, perhaps my story will help you.
Chronic Illness and Depression: Twilight
Believe it or not, chronic illness may actually make you uniquely qualified to notice the onset of a depressive episode. That little heads up can make a big difference in terms of how successfully you’re able to deal with everyday stressors once your mental state takes a turn for the worse.
The reason is you need to pay attention to symptoms. Anyone who deals with flare-ups is pretty accustomed to checking in frequently with their body:
“What is my pain like today?” “I’m not very steady on my feet this week, better cancel that hiking trip” “I’ve been getting a lot of headaches lately – is that a new symptom?” “I really don’t have enough spoons left to make dinner tonight”
Regardless of your individual symptoms, you are all too familiar with paying attention to every little change in your body because a minute issue has the potential to signify something more serious. If you start doing the same thing with your mental health, you will learn to identify the depression as it creeps in, slowly casting a shadow over your day-to-day life.
Do you feel listless? Maybe your energy levels are low, but you realize you’re also not really “tired” because you can’t fall asleep? Are you more irritable than normal, becoming annoyed by simple interactions with others?
Depressive symptoms can be different for everybody; try to check in with yourself and notice little changes in your way of thinking or reactions towards others. These, just like an increase in your physical pain levels, can clue you into a coming “flare up”. Here is an article about helpful symptom trackers.
Chronic Illness and Depression: Nightfall
The worst part, though, is when night finally, completely, engulfs you. It can make you feel panicked and hopeless as if the light is gone forever. The light is not gone; it is merely dimmed. If you allow these scared feeling to swallow you, then it will just take you that much longer to find the sunlight again.
Sometimes folks who deal with recurring depression get angry at themselves when they become depressed, feeling as if they are broken or weak for being unable to hold onto happiness consistently. To these folks I say: you need to take a deep breath and cut yourself some slack. Dealing with depression and chronic illness, after all, isn’t easy.
You are not a superhero. You are not a robot, either. It is perfectly natural to experience a range of emotional states. Those of us that deal with depression simply get stuck in ditches from time to time. This lesson can be hard to learn, but it is the most important part of coping with depression.
When I first received my official diagnosis, I was overjoyed to finally have an answer. Then I quickly fell into a difficult depression, because part of my diagnosis meant that it would be considered a medical miracle at this point if I were to be able to carry a child through a full pregnancy.
I was 23 years old and devastated. In this moment, I felt that any choice about my future and my ability to create a nuclear family was taken from me. I truly felt broken. The thing is, I’m not broken. I have always had this immune system, always had this illness. Always been this way.
Therefore, it simply cannot be true that I am broken. I did not start from some better, more “whole” place. Even if I did, I exist in the present and not the past. This is simply how I am, right now, in this moment. The same is true of my depression. It is a part of who I am and how I live my life, but I will not let it control my life.
All chronic illness sufferers make this decision. You wake up one morning and you say to yourself: “Yes, this disease limits my life in ways that are new and difficult to work around. No, I will not give up and let it take away my chance at a well-lived life”.
Do the same thing with your depression. Look directly into that darkness that you are afraid of, and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It will pass; nothing can last forever. Remind yourself that it is only temporary, find the quiet place inside yourself, and wait for the light to return.
Chronic Illness and Depression: Dawn
At some point, you will start to notice that the darkness doesn’t seem as impermeable as it once did. Ever so slowly it begins to lift. Things appear more alive and vibrant than they did before. Celebrate this moment. Recognize that things are about to become wonderfully easy again.
To me, it is so important to practice gratitude. We often focus on our experiences when the bad things first happen to us and gloss over the way our lives improve when they’re finally over. Over time, that gives you a twisted perception of your past. You focused so much on the negative that you overwhelmingly remember it over more positive milestones.
I find that it’s helpful to take a moment when you begin to feel better, just to sit in that positive place. Allow yourself to pay attention to the good things and to be grateful that the darkness has passed. If you intentionally create these memories of positive moments in your life it gives you something to hold onto. It may seem like a small thing, but depression has a way of making you forget the good things, so shoring up positivity where you can is always helpful.
You will always have ups and downs with chronic illness. So, if you should find yourself becoming depressed again, that’s just another flare up. Something that can help is noticing when you feel a little bit down and exercising self-care techniques. These are just little things you can do throughout the day to make yourself feel better. If your friends were upset, wouldn’t you make an extra effort to be nice to them, to be supportive? Well, you ought to be nice to yourself as well.
This can mean anything from a hot bath to blowing off that last load of laundry in favour of craft night. It really just depends on what makes you feel good! Or, if you feel like maybe you need a bit more support, consider using a service like WeAreMore or Crisis Text Line. These are sites that allow you to talk to somebody about your struggles without even leaving your couch. For some, that anonymous conversation can help relieve pressure and enable you to more effectively deal with depression.
There are very few wrong answers when it comes to helping yourself better cope with depression and chronic illness. Of course, it is important to be safe and if you feel like you may harm yourself or somebody else you should seek help immediately.
Outside of that, recognize that learning to deal with these issues is a process. Allow yourself the time to become familiar with the challenges involved, and find what works best for you. Most of all, do not lose hope. Hope, after all, is the quintessential light in the darkness that can offer comfort when there is none to be found.
For greater insight into interacting with those suffering from depression and chronic illness or if you would like to chat with others affected by depression and chronic illness, I highly recommend joining the app, WeAreMore.