It only makes sense that my mental health was declining as much as my physical health.
In December 2014, I was rapidly diagnosed with a severe form of ulcerative colitis (UC), specifically ulcerative pancolitis--a type of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) that affects the entire colon. I began to experience symptoms in October 2014, and was misdiagnosed as having hemorrhoids. I knew that this diagnosis was inaccurate, and was seen by a gastroenterologist (GI). The GI verified the diagnosis of UC, and explained to me that I will now have these symptoms for the rest of my life. All of these new words such as 5-ASA compounds, biologic therapy and autoimmune disease did not set in until I began doing diligent research myself, almost obsessively. I soon found out, at the age of 24, that I would live with a life long disease that was incurable. To this day, I still have difficulties with adjustments I have to make my “new normal.”
I work as an addiction’s therapist a local non-profit agency in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Part of my work as an addictions therapist is to engage clients in self-care interventions. Many clients who walk through my door live with chronic illnesses, chronic pain, and physical disabilities. I observed these individuals having a lower quality of life when diagnosed with physical conditions that then exacerbated mental health symptoms. I began to analyze myself, noticing that my quality of life was suffering post-diagnosis. When someone goes to the bathroom over 30 times a day, on various chemotherapy drugs to manage symptoms, loss of appetite, side effects from the toxic medications, and almost losing your life due to your immune system attacking itself, it only makes sense that my mental health was declining as much as my physical health.
At this point, I challenged myself to engage in the same interventions and advice I would give my clients on how to better their lives. After becoming sick, I lost many friends, experienced heightened anxiety and depression, and had stress that surmounted higher than ever as the medical bills kept piling up. Professionally, I see first hand the correlation between physical and mental health, but when you are personally in that position yourself, it can be more difficult to make the connection.
Just recently I have included spending time with my therapy dog Winston, and going on two small walks in the mornings to keep my joints moving (my UC diagnosis also came with a diagnosis of IBD arthralgia that severely affects my joints). I also make it a priority to keep stress low at all times (yes, easier said than done). Coloring and drawing have become my two new hobbies. I am not the “exciting” person I once was, however I have learned that art therapy is a life saver.
In order to keep my psyche on a “healthy” level, I had to find a balance in all aspects of my life. And just as my clients who are in early recovery, I also have to take the “one day at a time” approach. Living with a chronic illness, especially one with embarrassing symptoms can be an emotional roller coaster. I would encourage every person living with IBD to make a self-care regimen and practice it daily.