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6 Things People Should Know About Living With Both Physical and Mental Illness

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Living with one chronic illness has its own challenges and difficulties. Many people, myself included, have more than one illness. In my case, I have three: fibromyalgia, major depressive disorder and panic disorder. I do my best to manage all of them with medication and therapy. It’s not easy, but once in a while I’ll have what I call a “tolerable day.” There are some things that I’d like people to keep in mind and try to understand about living with chronic illnesses.

1. One illness frequently affects another. For example, if I have a panic attack, I will most likely be in a lot of pain later or the next day. Anxiety or severe stress are triggers for fibromyalgia. Or, if I’m in a fibro flare-up, it can cause my depression to come to the forefront. Being in chronic pain can certainly make a person depressed. It’s a vicious cycle.

2. The chronically ill live a different way of life. Management and planning are crucial. When I have to go somewhere, I have to think it through very carefully to stay away from triggers. If I go to the store, I have to go at a time when it’s not busy (usually a weekday morning) and make sure it’s a familiar place close to home. I must make a list to bring with me so that is my only focus. Going early also means getting a close parking space so I don’t have to walk far. If I’m invited to an event, I need to think it through before I commit. Who is going to be there? Will it be loud? Will it be crowded? How long will it last? Will I be uncomfortable? We go through a lot to avoid triggers.

3. Small tasks are a big deal. There are days when I can’t get out of bed due to severe pain. Some days it’s because I’m very depressed. Or anxious. Or all three. Self-care is difficult with the combination of mental and physical illness. Taking a shower is physically draining. (It is literally my least favorite thing to do). Choosing an outfit, doing hair/makeup is hard with depression and low self-esteem. Oh, and cleaning and cooking? Let’s just say they don’t happen as often as they should.

4. It’s not easy to talk about having a mental and physical illness, especially when they’re both in the “invisible illness” category. It can be hard to find the right words to describe mental and physical pain, and all too often, people say the wrong things that make us feel even worse. Some mean well: “You look good!” (ugh), some think they’re know-it-alls: “My aunt takes x, y and z and she feels great” (*eye roll*), and others are purposely demeaning: “It’s all in your head.” Some phrases that won’t make us feel worse: “It’s great to see you!” “Call me anytime,” “Thinking of you,” “We’ll do whatever makes you feel the most comfortable.” Giving advice, trying to relate (when you don’t have our illness), and being downright rude doesn’t work well for those who are chronically ill. Please be kind!

5. When plans are canceled, it’s necessary. I know it can be frustrating and disappointing, but it is for us too. Try to put yourself in our shoes for a moment. Say you just had a panic attack at the grocery store, and your plan for later on was to go to a concert with thousands of people — do you think that would be a good idea? No. It’d be terrible to push your already-anxious self to go to an event that will do nothing but send your anxiety level through the roof and trigger another panic attack. How about if you woke up in such severe, throbbing pain that you could hardly walk, and you were supposed to meet up with friends for lunch later on? Pretty sure you’d want to rest and reschedule the lunch. Please remember that we can’t help how we feel and we’re not purposely trying to inconvenience anyone. We have to take it one day at a time.

6. Maintaining relationships is one of the most difficult things for people with any chronic illness. This is kind of a continuance of my previous point. Support is so important for us and a crucial part of treatment, especially with mental illness. Unfortunately there are people in our lives who slowly drift away. Some people are completely ignorant and think we’re not actually sick. Some don’t even try to understand our illnesses. Others are just the “out of sight, out of mind” type. Personally, I’ve learned that my support system is much smaller than I thought. All I can say is, if you truly care for someone who has a chronic illness of any kind, it doesn’t take much to “be there.” A phone call or text message once in a while to say “Hi, thinking of you” means a lot.

Originally published: August 31, 2016
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