Chronic Illness & Mental Health: An Inevitable Combination
My name is Joel and I have lived with arthritis for most of my life. This started with a juvenile form when I was 11 years old, then Ankylosing Spondylitis in my teens. I was finally diagnosed with Psoriatic Arthritis in my 20s.
In 2019, I started a blog to share my experiences, raise awareness and to be an advocate for those with arthritis and other autoimmune conditions.
Pain gets its claws into everything
Living with any chronic condition is tough. It’s relentless, tiring and can be all-consuming. Often your plans are dictated by the behaviour of the disease rather than your desires. From the small things such as your plans for the day, to heavily influencing your life story. For instance, your career choices.
For me, alongside the uncertainty of arthritis, it is the pain that has such a big impact. I have had years in remission with completely pain-free days. However, like during my current flare, I am in moderate to severe pain most days and nights for many months. It’s exhausting.
Pain affects your mood, sleep, relationships, ability to perform your job, basic tasks around the home and even your ability care for your children and loved ones. Each day I have a balance to strike between pain management and function. It’s about trying to manage the pain, whilst retaining a level of lucidness, depending on my responsibilities for that day. It’s a constant mental struggle and I tend to be my biggest critic.
Impacting your mental health
Inevitably, living with a disability and high levels of pain does take a toll on your mental health. If the constant pain doesn’t wear you down, the lack of sleep, loss of confidence or worries over job security and finances will. However, this is completely understandable and reasonable, I just couldn’t see that over the years.
I spent far too long believing that my poor mental health was a weakness, that I should have learnt to cope better or I somehow wasn't strong enough. I was embarrassed that I still couldn't manage at times, despite having my condition for years.
It took being a parent for six months to realise that I had lived with numerous episodes of depression, anxiety and low confidence over the last 25 years. Also, they all coincided with flares in my chronic condition.
I used to be able to play sport, the guitar and run. However, during a flare up I suddenly had no hobbies or social life, with this happening in a matter of weeks. I went from playing rugby to not being able to walk unaided some days within a month. Not including the aforementioned factors of chronic pain: being off work, lack of sleep and so much more.
The real strength is knowing when to ask for help
Becoming a father changed my perspective on life. I sought help from my GP and local wellbeing service. I learnt that it wasn’t what I couldn’t do that mattered, but what I could do in those periods of disability. The simple things with my son. Time spent as a family. More importantly, it taught me two appreciate what I accomplished when I was in better health. I completed RideLondon 100 and ran the Great North Run for charity. These are not the actions of a weak person, but the mark of someone who pushes back the boundaries of the hand they have been dealt with. I make the most of what I can do, when I have the capabillity to do it.
I wasn’t weak, I was surpassing expectations and anyone would have difficulty in adapting and living with the pain and periodic limitations. Everyone has a limit, it’s recognising and knowing what to do when you approach it that matters.
In my experience, chronic illness and mental health are intrinsically linked, but with the right support, mindset and knowing when to be kind on yourself can help. It’s ok not to be ok and knowing when to ask for help is a sign of strength.
What have you overcome with your disability? What are your experiences with chronic illness and mental health and what are your tips for managing living with a long term health condition?