I've been wanting to write about my experiences of having both mental illness and a physical disability for some time but I've found it quite difficult to articulate what I wanted to say. I have cerebral palsy, which is predominantly a physical disability, and I also have anxiety and depression. Over the past year or so I've gained valuable insight into how both my physical disability and mental illnesses overlap and interact. I confess that I used to think that they were totally separate from each other and were two distinct problems. I've really come to understand that they're interlinked and do share a relationship. I'd like to share with you what I've learned.
The biggest thing I've realised is how the pain and fatigue I experience because of my CP impacts on my depression. I suffer from chronic pain because of my disability and experience a lot of fatigue and this really feeds a low mood, and also anxiety. I've found that since my GP has given me adequate painkillers my pain is a little bit under control so it's not hammering my mood as much. I think pain triggered my anxiety because I felt like it was spiraling out of control and so I was catastrophising. Now it's a little bit more controlled it's lessened my anxiety considerably. The fatigue is harder to manage because you can't just pop a pill and feel better. Instead, I've had to make myself realise and accept that fatigue is part of CP and that I'll just have to adjust my life around it. Rest days are just another form of treatment, like wearing splints etc.
I do think being ill with depression really affected my ability to cope and manage my disability. I've only realised this since I've started recovering from depression. When I was really ill with depression, I thought goals since learning to drive, getting a job would be unachievable because of my disability. Depression really hammers your self esteem and often makes you believe you can't achieve things. This is the case of people with depression who aren't physically disabled too. I can't deny that my disability makes goals more difficult to achieve, I need a lot of support and often have to find alternate ways of achieving them. Depression honestly destroyed my self esteem so much that I didn't have the ability to figure out how I could achieve things and I thought I was totally incapable. Looking back, it was quite distressing, as I've always been a determined, ambitious person, and depression masked that. I just felt like my life was going to be a failure. Take learning to drive for example, I know it will be more difficult to do, I will need adaptions etc. When I was really ill with depression my way of thinking was 'CP will make learning to drive more difficult, you will probably fail, so to avoid feeling like a failure, it's best not to even attempt to learn to drive'. I had completely written it off before I'd attempted it because depression eats at your self esteem. Since my depression has improved so has my approach to my goals and my way of thinking. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I feel like depression really impacted on my mental ability to adapt to the challenges of my disability.
I've spoken a few times about how people with cerebral palsy are at an increased risk of mood disorders, although the reasoning behind this isn't clear. I have come to accept that my mental health problems are likely just another part of my CP, and so I've stopped thinking of my physical disability and mental illnesses as separate entities. It's really helped me to accept my MH problems by viewing them as just another facet of my disability. My anxiety can definitely be attributed to my hemiplegia because I had behavioural and emotional difficulties as a child, which is a known complication of hemiplegia. I think my anxiety is just an extension of the same problems I had in childhood. Accepting my MH problems are part of my CP has really helped me manage them better because I've stopped fighting them and trying to 'cure' myself. Instead, I've concentrated my efforts on strategies to manage them better. I also view my MH treatment no differently to the treatment I receive for my CP.
I do think these realisations are important in the sphere of my recovery and acceptance of both my physical disability and MH problems, and being able to move forward with my life. I think it takes time to understand how physical disability and MH problems interact, and by understanding them both better it makes them easier to manage.
Thank you for reading,