I am one of those lucky people who live with both a chronic illness and mental illness.
I have ulcerative colitis, a form of inflammatory bowel disease which led to the removal of my large intestine, and I also have bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), borderline personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
And yes, it can suck living with all these things together.
I was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease in 2015, and bipolar disorder, too. The rest came over the space of the next couple of years. And it’s been difficult.
Living with ulcerative colitis is hard enough as it is. Living with no large intestine means I use the toilet multiple times a day, I have accidents, I deal with fatigue and stomach cramps, and leaving the house can be hard because I’m often worried about finding the nearest toilet and not making it.
Bipolar disorder is hard, too. Having frequent episodes of mania and experiencing depression, with my stable periods being plagued by the likes of emotional instability from BPD, obsessions and compulsions from OCD, and feelings of anxiety from my PTSD — sometimes it feels like my brain really can’t cope.
And when you mix the physical and the mental together, it’s even harder.
When you have both a mental and physical illness, it can feel like they’re both fighting, as they feed into each other.
When I’m having a flare-up of my ulcerative colitis, not only do I feel physically unwell, but the pain and fatigue often leads me to feeling distressed and anxious, which then affects the mental side of things.
I can become irritable and withdraw myself from people around me. I isolate myself because not only do I feel physically unwell, but the amount of stress on me sometimes feels like I can’t mentally function.
When things have gotten really tough in the past, in regards to my chronic condition, I’ve ended up in the midst of depression, with my ulcerative colitis triggering a dark episode.
And this isn’t just feeling sad or fed up.
When I have depression this way, it feels like I’m ready to give up. Like I can’t take it anymore. I question whether my life is worth living — and what quality of life I really have.
Even though there are times when I feel okay and I can do normal things, the darkness takes over and all I can think about are the bad times and how horrendous it is to be glued to the toilet 24/7.
It’s difficult to get out of a depressive episode when you have a physical illness getting you down.
But it goes both ways, too.
Sometimes, my stomach can be okay. The toilet trips lessen and the cramps are nonexistent. But if I’m having a bad time with my mental health, it can trigger excessive trips to the toilet and pain.
It’s a well-known fact that stress can negatively affect your digestive tract, and this is extreme when you have a chronic digestive illness.
Both of these illnesses are difficult because at times it feels like I just can’t win. Like it’s one thing or the other.
With a variety of mental illnesses, it’s very rare that everything is 100 percent perfect. There are the odd days where things are okay, but most of the time it feels like I’m fighting a never-ending battle with both my body and my mind.
It can feel like I never get a break.
If I have a bad time with my body, my mental state is affected. If I have a bad time mentally, it causes my inflammatory bowel disease to flare.
I long for the days when I don’t have to worry about anything.
It can be draining and does mean I have to take extra care of my body, making sure that I’m taking my medication, focusing on mental exercises, and giving myself a break when I need it. I try my best to keep my stress levels down and do what I can to stay out of a flare.
But even mental gymnastics and self-care can be overwhelming when you feel pressured to protect yourself.
There are some positives to having both a chronic mental and physical illness.
I’ve learned to be compassionate and empathetic on both sides. I feel like I have a good understanding of both types of illness and therefore it’s allowed me to be sympathetic to other people’s situations.
It has taught me not to judge what anyone else is going through, and, from my own illnesses being ‘invisible,’ it’s made me remember that not all illnesses are visible and that you never know what someone else is going through.
Living with both mental and physical illness has also made me realize what a strong person I am.
It’s hard living with either, and when you live with both it can feel like the world hates you. And so when I get through day after day, I’m proud of myself for continuing to fight.
I’m proud that I try to make the best out of a bad situation.
And I’m proud that, with all that life has thrown at me, I’m still here.
Hattie Gladwell is a mental health journalist, author, and advocate. She writes about mental illness in hopes of diminishing the stigma and to encourage others to speak out.