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The Delicate Tapestry of Mental and Chronic Illnesses

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Most of the time, I write about what it’s like to be chronically ill. It’s easy for me to write about being chronically ill. In 2014, I was diagnosed with hemiplegic migraines, which has since turned into neuropathies, gastroparesis, severe fibromyalgia, a balance disorder and possibly genetic disorders. I know chronically ill all too well.

However, my first big journey with illness started in 2008. It started with depression and panic attacks. It morphed into mania. It continued to grow to rage, until I ultimately ended up profoundly depressed and having suicidal ideations. In 2010, I was forced into the hospital. It started with a diagnosis of bipolar 1 and a host of anxiety disorders.

I learned there is no feeling worse than wanting to die. Being so depressed that you literally want to end your life and maybe even trying to. That is the lowest. That is lowest I have ever been, and everything compared to that I can handle.

Once you have weighed the options between life and death and chosen death, the world changes. Your perspective changes. Death is no longer a “Grim Reaper” standing over your shoulder. It’s the voice in your head talking about your funeral, who would come, who would find you, whether you should write a note and what should you say. That is suicidal. That is the worst feeling in the world.

When I began my chronic illness journey in 2014, I struggled. I am still struggling. Yet, in a lot of ways, my mental illness prepared me for my chronic illness. I’m in constant high levels of pain. I’m at the bottom tonight. Yet for me, this bottom is nothing compared to the bottom of depression.

When my body gives out on me, I can be mad at it. I can see test results and see where my issues are. I can feel when my left side is giving out on me. I can feel when my balance is off.

However, when you have a mental illness, the world is warped. There is no reality. At least no real reality. Your brain lies to you. It poisons you. The thoughts you have are not yours, but your those of your mental illness. It overwhelms you, pounding you over and over like the giant waves in Hawaii.

Yet, in my experience, people have been so much more understanding of my physical disabilities. When I was diagnosed with severe migraines, which then lead down the path to many other diagnoses, people understood that. They could see the changes in my body, hear the stutter when I spoke. They reached out to me for updates and offered sincere condolences on my new found illnesses.

They didn’t understand when I was manic. They didn’t understand when I was suicidal. We barely spoke of it as a family. We still don’t speak of it.

Why is it that you can understand my migraines, but not my anxiety and mood disorder? Where were you when I was going through the highs and lows of constant emotional instability?

It’s how we work. It’s how society works.

Mental illness is spoken about in hushed tones and deserted hallways. The world we live in has come a long way in destigmatizing mental illness in recent years. NAMI has been huge in the promotion of awareness of mental illness and support for persons struggling with mental illness and their families. More celebrities are coming out and talking about their own experience with mental illness. It is becoming a safer place, but it is not yet safe.

So, why don’t I talk about it?

The short answer is: I don’t talk about it because it is not yet safe enough to discuss. The stigma around mental illness is still suffocating. So. Much. Stigma.

I can talk about my physical and chronic illnesses all day long. But mental illness? Not so much.

For many of us, mental illness and chronic illness often go hand-in-hand. At some point, many people with chronic illness will struggle with periods of depression and anxiety. This is a high possibility for everyone who has a chronic illness.

With mental illness, there are often somatic complaints like pain. People with mental illness often face exhaustion, and anxiety can lead to physical symptoms of rapid heart rate and other nervous system reactions.

Chronic and mental illness are so finely intertwined. Like delicate threads on a tapestry, you can’t speak of one without speaking of the other. Chronic illness is easier to speak of for me, but mental illness still has that damned stigma, which really just comes from a lack of education and ignorance about what are serious medical conditions, not just a “weak mind.”

It’s even so much easier for me to write about my chronic illness than my mental illness. I am shy when it comes to my mental illness, but I openly discuss my chronic illness all the time. The stigma has even gotten to me. It has even penetrated my bubble and made me want to hide that side of me.

But, no, I will not hide. I will not stay silent or invisible. I am not a shadow. I’m scared to do this. I’m scared to put myself out there like this, but the conversation has to be had. There has to be awareness and education, for everything, every rare disease, every mental illness and every disability.

Let’s have it.

Let’s talk about the silent shame and judging the world puts on people with mental and chronic illness. The “you don’t look sick, so you must be fine” judging. The notes on cars parked in handicapped spaces. A president-elect mocking a reporter with a disability. The workplace, where you have no idea what you can say without fear of losing your job or ramifications.

You might be thinking, where do we start? The first step is simple but crucial: Awareness.

Being aware of the problem is a step. Being aware that you, whether consciously or subconsciously, are part of the problem is the first step. We all have some role to play in this ongoing debate. All of us, universally, all up and down the spectrum of humans.

That’s it. That’s all I’m asking for right now. That’s the first step.

If you make yourself aware of the biases you may have, then just acknowledge them and think about them for a second. Then, catch yourself the next time you think or speak one.

Think about sharing your story, raising awareness. The louder we are, the more they will listen. Everyone has a role to play in this thing we call life. Black Lives Matter, police brutality, women’s rights, war, electing government officials, Invisible Illness Awareness Week, Mental Health Awareness Month, everything.

They are all human issues. It’s not my issue or your issue. It’s our issue. It’s life. Life. All of life. All of human life. We all play a role, and we all have something to own up to.

I own up to being more open to talking about chronic illness than mental illness because I am more ashamed of my mental illness. I don’t want to be thought of as “that crazy girl” anymore. I had a classmate message me after about 10 years of not talking, and say to me after a few friendly exchanges, “So Cait, are you still crazy?”

I own up to all the feelings I have hurt and broken promises I have made due to both my mental and chronic illness. I own up to taking advantage of my partner because I know he will do it for me. I own up to the fact that while I am disabled and female, I still have white privilege. I own up to being one of those people with an invisible illness and a handicap placard, who one day, just might get a note on her windshield.

What do you have to own up to?

Author’s note: This was my experience and this is no way means that one condition is worse or better than the other. Everyone’s struggle, no matter what diagnosis, is as much as they can handle.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Follow this journey on Living Without Limits.

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Image via Thinkstock.
Originally published: January 11, 2017
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