I suffer from depression and anxiety, and it started with the diagnosis of my chronic and invisible illness, Crohn’s disease.
It’s important to mention that while I do suffer from a couple of mental health conditions, I am not the spokesperson for everyone with a mental illness. Experiences vary for everyone.
When someone learns that I have depression, the question I get most often — when everything is seemingly fine — is: “What do you have to be sad about?” The answer is probably nothing.
A lot of people think depression adds the feeling of extreme sadness to someone’s life. In reality, depression can take away other feelings like joy and excitement. When I’m lying in my bed at 3 pm, and I have things I need to do, it isn’t because I’m really sad and I can’t pull myself together. It’s that depression has taken away a lot of my motivation and has made me feel like there isn’t a point.
With anxiety, the all-too-common question is, “What are you so afraid of?” The answer is usually, “I don’t know” or “I can’t explain it.” Anxiety isn’t just a fear like being afraid of heights or spiders.
With anxiety, your pulse quickens, adrenaline starts flowing, and your body is prepared to either fight back or run like the wind. This is called the ‘fight or flight response.’ Anxiety is a disorder where your brain confuses normal, everyday situations with stressful ones that induce this physiological response.
I started to really notice the anxiety when I went back to school nearly seven months after my diagnosis. I clearly remember waiting outside the counselor’s closed door and through the window, he motioned for me to wait. Suddenly, I had no control. I knew I was about to have an anxiety attack, but I couldn’t stop it. I immediately ran to the bathroom so I could have my meltdown without an audience. To this day, I still don’t know why my body responded that way. This incident was long after I got sick, and it was completely random and irrational — typical of anxiety.powered by Rubicon Project
Looking back, I had many run-ins with anxiety and depression when I first got sick. I vividly remember my bedtime routine in the hospital. Every night, I would shower and my mother would french braid my hair, which was actively falling out and breaking off. She helped me put cocoa butter on areas of my body where the swelling from all the steroids were giving me stretch marks. Often, I would glance in the mirror and tears streamed down my swollen face.
I didn’t recognize myself or my life anymore. It was all I could do to keep myself from falling apart. When my IV’s were constantly failing, I had anxiety attacks with each and every needle stick. All it took was for a nurse with an IV kit to walk through my door, and I would start to hyperventilate.
I was in the hospital for 37 consecutive nights and even with my repeated anxiety attacks and obvious onset of depression, I only saw a counselor once — three to four weeks after being admitted. He came in my room to talk to me and, in that moment, I was in relatively good spirits. He told my doctors that I seemed to be doing alright and that he would be there if he was needed.
He’s been my counselor ever since and has helped me tremendously over the years. However, my visits with him are when I feel that I need them and it’s up to me to make that call.
My hospital is incredible, and I am blessed to live near an innovative facility with such talented and compassionate doctors and nurses. But, when it comes to my mental health when admitted, they’ve dropped the ball more than a couple of times. It’s been nearly seven years of hospital stays, medications, labs, surgeries, etc., and I have better learned how to cope. But most of that was done on my own and it shouldn’t have been.
Outpatient mental health assessments during routine doctor visits are also inadequate. At my hospital, it’s protocol to ask four questions only once per year — all having to do with self-harm. But depression and anxiety are on a sliding scale. I have days where it takes everything I have just to get in the shower, but that doesn’t mean I want to hurt myself.
Hospitals are seemingly concerned most with suicide risks, but that concern should also include those who are depressed or anxious — whether the person engages in self-harm or not. This “all or nothing” approach isn’t working and in cases where a person has an invisible illness, their mental health can be just as important as their physical health.
So, what can we do to begin to make sure our minds are taken care of just as well as our bodies?
Actually return the survey the hospital sends you
You know the survey you receive every time you’re discharged that immediately gets thrown away? Filling that out will make a difference for the next person whose mental health isn’t taken as seriously as it should be.
Have an honest conversation with your doctor and discuss what your options are. Make it clear to them how you’re feeling. The more they know, the more they can help you.
Keep a journal
With many invisible illnesses, mental stress can exacerbate symptoms. Write down what is going on in your environment, how you feel mentally, and keep track of any physical symptoms you may be experiencing. This will also help at appointments with your doctors.
Have someone to lean on
Having a good influence in your life to keep you grounded will help immensely. When I’m freaking out, I can always run to my best friend.
And if none of the above are working for you…
Please, seek help
It’s okay to need help — everyone needs help from time to time and there’s absolutely no shame in that. When your depression or anxiety is overwhelming, confide in someone. Self-harm is never the answer. When you get the help you need, you’ll be glad you did.
If you or someone you know are contemplating suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available at 800-273-8255.
Liesl is a 23-year-old student in central Illinois working toward her degree in nursing. At 17 years old, Liesl was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. The disease was so severe that she had to have her large intestine removed two weeks later. Since then, she’s had more than 15 major operations and is now living with a permanent ileostomy. Over the last seven years, she’s become dedicated to honestly documenting the ups-and-downs of her life as a young woman with an invisible illness, hoping to be a voice for others. You can find her studying at the library, playing with her dog, or driving with the windows down, music up, singing at the top of her lungs.