(My) Mental Health and IBD

It’s World IBD Day! It’s Mental Health Awareness Week! I hope both of them are good to you. It’s quite an intersection of ‘awareness days’, isn’t it, considering the mental toll IBD exacts? So there’s no better time to write about when the two collide spectacularly! Here’s my tale…

It’s World IBD Day! It’s Mental Health Awareness Week! I hope both of them are good to you. It’s quite an intersection of ‘awareness days’, isn’t it, considering the mental toll IBD exacts? So there’s no better time to write about when the two collide spectacularly! Here’s my tale…

I’ve always been an anxious child. I was so carefree when I was young, but after my diagnosis I think I suffered under the strain of the ill label and tended towards introspection and worry. Abruptly, there were all these adult concerns in my world: fears for my future, worries about how my constant hospital appointments would clash with my dad’s work, the strain and resentment that my illness was putting on my brother. These are weighty considerations for a 9-year-old. And while I knew that they weren’t necessarily for me (“It’s my job to worry about money, not yours,” my mum would always point out), I knew that one day they would be. Nobody stays a child forever.

That’s the last time I felt truly untroubled: those halcyon days of early childhood, where the biggest concern was completing an hour’s worth of homework every week. Things started to worsen from there, but slowly, insidiously: a slow creep that you don’t notice until it’s too late.

When I started therapy, I made myself try and pinpoint the time my mental health started to become an issue. It was about six years ago, when I was 12. Not coincidentally, that was also the time of my first major flare after diagnosis, and I was terrified. I was still young enough that I was in no way an active participant in my own care: things were done to me, whether I understood them or not, and refusal was not an option (more to come on my bitter dislike of my own paediatric experience later!). It was harrowing in the worst way: I was in unbearable pain and had no idea if it would ever go away. And so I started to derive comfort from worrying about mundane things, things I could control. Is the door locked? Check it. Locked? Good. A brief sense of relief, of respite. But as coping mechanisms go, that’s not the healthiest. It quickly spiralled out of control, and I’d come home from school and cry for hours about how now I wasn’t only being controlled by my own broken-down body but also by this phantasm lurking in my head.

Things eased up once my Crohn’s started to be treated. The problem didn’t go away, but it was easy enough to ignore for the next few years, and focus on other things, like my GCSEs and A-levels and the first year away at university.

This last year, things coalesced. My anxiety over even the littlest things skyrocketed, and it was paired with a dreadful apathy that sucked every emotion of out my life – except sadness. There was either emptiness or crying. I preferred the blankness, because then I felt less weak than when I was crying, but I lost hours every night, staring into the darkness and wondering why this haze was hanging over me – and hating myself for not being able to push through it. Absolute self-loathing manifested in those months, and I threw away both eating and sleeping properly to give myself over to my studies, the only thing that still let me feel any sense of pride.

It took me much longer than it should have to ask for help. I finally gathered up the courage to do it in early February. If anyone is reading this who is nervous about asking for help with their mental health, I can only say this: please do it. That first step is the hardest, but there is so much support out there and you do not deserve to keep suffering. You’re worth more than that. Let someone know you’re struggling, and let them help you. I’m now taking an antidepressant (quite a low dose, but I didn’t want to start high!) and have just finished a course of psychodynamic psychotherapy. Therapy was amazing for me: a chance to take some time out of my day to reflect on my thoughts and feelings and their root causes, and to understand that my anxiety is not an evasive, shadowy monster looming over me and controlling my thoughts – it stems from within.

I have also learned that I need to find my self-worth in something that isn’t work, and that I am not at fault for my disease preventing me from working, socialising, living. I have been blaming myself for every second of it for the last decade, and it needs to stop. Crohn’s disease is an awful thing to live with. It has stripped me of every ounce of my confidence, made me a recluse, torn me away from my friends and made me hate myself with a vehemence I would never inflict on anyone else. I can’t do anything about the disease itself, but I can to learn to love myself, to combat its mental effects. That’s what I’ve been trying to do these last few weeks. Whether it be appreciating the way my hair falls on a certain day, thanking myself for cleaning up, or simply standing in the sun and feeling grateful for being alive – all of these help reinforce that I am not my own enemy. This is helping (at least, for me) to prevent my depression regain its foothold.

So where am I going from here? Onward and upwards, I hope. Of course I still have bad days. But there are also good days, and fantastic days. Things don’t seem nearly so bleak as they used to, and I’m grateful. Sure, my body is in a worse condition than it ever has been, and of course I’m stressed and afraid about that. But mentally, I have an opportunity to start healing, and I’m going to take it, no matter what obstacles Crohn’s throws in my way.

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