Mental illness has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. A few years ago, I finally got an accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder. From there I started to get the treatment I needed.
As well as bipolar disorder, I also live with fibromyalgia and arthritis. Fibromyalgia is a chronic pain condition causing widespread pain among other symptoms (You can read more of my work and find out more about living with and beyond fibromyalgia here). Arthritis is a chronic pain condition causing pain and inflammation in the joints. Both physical health conditions can be very difficult to live with.
My mental illness combined with chronic illness was making life extremely tough. I wasn’t coping. My pain was debilitating and I could barely walk across the room without being in agony. My mental health was improving with appropriate treatment, but still wasn’t as well managed as it could have been.
Over time I began to realise that when my mental health deteriorated, it tended to correlate with flares in my chronic pain symptoms. I began to do my own research, quickly discovering that the mind and body are connected, and that one can significantly influence the other.
As I learnt more about the science behind chronic pain, the bigger picture became clear. I started to understand how my mental and physical health were intrinsically connected. This didn’t mean that my pain was any less valid, or that it was ‘all in my head’. All pain is created in our brains, and I came to understand that this discovery could be a powerful tool on my journey to recovery from my chronic pain.
I discovered that as I better managed my bipolar disorder and learnt how to reduce stress in my life, my pain symptoms were much improved. I learnt about the stress and pain cycle, understanding that living with chronic pain can cause stress, but stress can also cause and worsen pain! I found that overwhelming at first, wondering how it would be possible to break a cycle like that. Thankfully, over time I learnt techniques to reduce my stress, and therefore my pain levels.
I utilized cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques, using resources online to teach myself how to replace negative thoughts and unhelpful actions with more positive thought processes and actions. These techniques helped me to proactively manage my pain.
I learnt how to pace my activity, taking rests when I needed it but gradually challenging fears around my pain. I gradually started to exercise again, building confidence and realising that the pain wasn’t actually going to damage me! Over time and with a very gradual approach, I began to enjoy exercise and my pain became more manageable.
I began to get my life back. As I started to become more active, and learnt how to implement other pain management strategies into my day to day routine, I started to regain my level of functioning.
While my pain hasn’t gone away completely, and it hasn’t been a quick fix, I’m at a point in my life now in which my mental health and chronic pain are both well managed. There are still bad days, and I’m still on that journey of discovering, constantly learning about how to manage my symptoms. However I’m now working full time, exercising regularly (and enjoying it), and living a full, active life! There is hope beyond mental illness and chronic illness!