Getting diagnosed with a chronic illness is one of the most challenging experiences in life. The illness may bring with it daily pain, as well as the frustration of dealing with potentially newfound mobility issues or managing medications that are now necessary to feel half as good as you used to feel. For these reasons, it is common for chronic illness to cause sadness and even depression.
Some diseases even cause physiological reasons for depression. For instance, a disease may alter the chemicals in the brain, resulting in depression, or depression could potentially be a side effect from the medications used to treat the primary illness.
No matter how the depression comes about, the fact is that chronic illness and depression seem to go hand in hand, and this marriage can make life feel unbearable.
But it doesn’t have to feel this way. Here is your step-by-step guide to handling chronic illness and depression.
Learn about your disease.
It’s important that you learn as much as you can about your illness. Knowledge really is power, and the more you know, the more you can take an active part in your health and treatments. Knowing exactly what’s going on will help you keep a sense of control in your life, and that’s very important for your mental and emotional health.
Have the right healing team working for you.
When you have a chronic illness and depression, it’s extremely important that you have the right team of doctors working on your behalf. You need doctors who you can speak openly with, meaning having someone in your corner you can trust and who listens to your concerns.
If you don’t feel comfortable with your current doctor(s,) you don’t have to settle. Get a second opinion or ask for a referral from friends and/or family. Granted, it’s not always easy finding a doctor who is in your network that you like, but spending a little bit of time and effort up front will pay off down the road when you don’t have to dread doctor appointments.
Gather real support around you.
A medical crisis is one sure way to find out who really cares about you. You may find people who you didn’t consider to be close friends will step up and offer tremendous support, while those you thought you could count on totally fail you. This is inevitable.
The best thing to do is make full mental notes of who, among your loved ones, is actually supportive of you and your illness. These are the people you can be honest with when they ask, “How are you feeling?” Anyone not in this group, simply smile and say, “Fine” and move on. You’ll save yourself valuable time and energy.
Accept help when you need it.
One of the biggest difficulties of a chronic illness is having to ask for help—perhaps for the first time in your life. This need and dependence can make many people feel ashamed. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with needing help—it is simply a notion that we have assigned as human beings.
When someone in your circle of support asks if you could use some help, say yes! This is a win/win. You get the help you actually need (a ride to an appointment, laundry done, grocery shopping) and your loved one can actually LOVE you. Love isn’t just a word or feeling, it’s an active verb. Let your loved ones help you in your time of need.
Remember to care for yourself.
When we’re depressed, it becomes all too easy to stop caring about much of anything, particularly our own health. But now is the time you’ve got to care about yourself. If you have children, you know you would do anything for them, even when you’re not feeling physically or emotionally good. You need to treat yourself as if you are your own child.
If your child is sick, you will not let them eat garbage, smoke, drink too much or not exercise or go to bed at a decent hour. So why do you let yourself do these things? The most effective treatment for chronic illness and depression is self-care and self-love.
It’s possible that before you were diagnosed with a chronic disease, you were always the person who ran 5 miles a day, worked 60-hour work weeks and was the best mother in the world who could go-go-go. But now you have some limits to what your body can handle. Do not let these new limits define you. You must redefine yourself.
If you can no longer run 5 miles a day, what can you do? There can be tremendous value in doing things differently and acting differently. Perhaps you hurt too much to run anymore, but you have found you have become a better and more empathetic listener. So, okay—your legs aren’t what they used to be, but your ears work better!
Maybe you can’t be the parent who is always volunteering to drive students on this or that field trip or bake 15 cakes for the annual fundraiser. But you can now be the parent who makes time on the weekends to write stories with your children or teaches them how to bake scones instead. And someday, when your grown children meet their significant other and impress them with a homemade scone, you’ll share a beautiful memory.
Don’t let your chronic illness define you. Redefine yourself.
Join a support group.
Though your loved ones will want to understand what you’re going through, they most likely won’t be able to unless they themselves have dealt with a chronic illness and depression. For this reason, it’s a great idea to join a local support group. Being around other people who are going through a similar situation won’t make you feel so isolated. Isolation breeds depression, so be sure to surround yourself with others who can identify with your own struggles and frustrations.
Speak with a therapist.
Dealing with depression is a very individual journey. While some people may do well on medication alone, others may feel they need to speak with someone. If you feel you need professional help, there is nothing to be ashamed of. The stigma of “seeing a shrink” has long gone. There are many wonderful professionals who can assist you in dealing with your depression. Consider asking your primary care provider for a referral, or ask a friend or family member if they know someone. There are also online resources that can help you find a mental health professional in your area.
Continue to have goals and dreams.
Being diagnosed with a chronic illness does not mean your life ends – it means it changes. Though you may have to make some adjustments to the goals you’ve set or dreams you had, it’s incredibly important that you still have them.
Though these steps won’t magically make your chronic illness go away, they will help you get the care you need from friends and family, your health team, and most importantly, yourself. Remember to ask for help when you need it and take life one day at a time.