After about fifteen years of of RA and two of fibromyalgia, I can certainly understand how these conditions can cause depression, but in my case mental illness came first. Depression isn't fun, but I'm thankful that it was my first chronic illness. It taught me lessons that have helped me cope with RA and fibromyalgia.
1. The disease is real and help is available.
I started feeling crazy during my junior year of high school, but didn't aggressively seek treatment until after I had my first baby at 25 years old. I kept thinking it was a passing thing. When I talked to my family doctor during college, he blamed everything on stress. I gave up on doctors for a few years after that.
Ultimately, I sought treatment because I read an article about the effects of maternal depression on children. Even then, getting help took a lot of effort. I worked up the courage to make an appointment with the EAP program at work, then found out that they didn't provide counseling, just a list of psychologists and psychiatrists I could have found on my own. Finally, I went to my doctor (a different one), and told him I was depressed.
Getting diagnosed with RA was almost as bad. I didn't have the obvious joint problems at first, just the flu-like symptoms. I visited my family doctor several times over a year because this virus she thought I had contracted wasn't going away. Blood tests proved I was fighting something, but she had no clear answers.
It took a whole year before my vague symptoms became defined enough for my family doctor to send me to a rheumatologist and almost another year before I figured out how to communicate my needs and get treatment. (Over a decade later, this same specialist added fibromyalgia to my list of illnesses--a problem many other doctors refuse to believe in.)
2. It isn't my fault.
Before I got treatment for depression, I kept making excuses for it. Maybe if I got more organized, got married, got a better job, exercised more, had a baby, prayed more, etc., I wouldn't feel miserable all the time. When the next accomplishment occurred and I still felt miserable, I would also feel guilty. How could I be so ungrateful for all my blessings? If I were a better person I would feel happy all the time.
When drugs worked almost immediately, I was able to accept that the chemistry in my brain is wonky. Period.
In a culture that values self-sufficiency, we can also blame ourselves for physical pain. Did I catch RA because I ran a half marathon without training enough, or because I did or didn't eat particular foods?
No. There is a hereditary tendency and for no particular reason my immune system flipped out.
3. Drugs can help.
I used to avoid medication. I didn't take so much as Tylenol during either pregnancy.
But kale won't cure depression or RA.
Generic Prozac keeps me from crying all the time and reduces my suicidal impulses. If it doesn't work for you, talk to your doctor and try something else.
I take several handfuls of medications and supplements now, all doctor recommended. I see myself as an old car and the meds as the duct tape and bailing wire that keep me in one piece and running, but at least I am running.
4. Self care is essential.
Kale won't cure you, but good nutrition, exercise, sunshine and rest can take the edge off. So can good books, movies, and company.
I am an angry depressive. Whenever I found myself getting grouchy in the classroom, it was time for a day off. They offered several hundred dollars each year as a bonus for teachers who didn't use their sick leave. I never qualified and never regretted it.
Now that I'm done with full time work, I can focus on taking care of myself. I try to exercise every day. I try to make my home a pleasant place to live. I try to write and reach out to the world. But I accept that there are hours and days when I just need to sleep.
I wasn't sure I would be posting knitting today, especially this piece, because my depression is definitely weather-enhanced and the weather lately has been grayer than this natural shetland wool.
But today the sun came out. Gray is a favorite color, when it isn't raining, which is probably why I got out of control with this shawl. It is very wide, maybe too wide to wear without wrapping around twice. But it would be gorgeous on the back of a sofa I imagine owning in an alternate, cat-free existence.