17 May 2019
How Living With Chronic Conditions Like Arthritis Can Affect Your Mental Health
Article by Leigh Walmsley for the Huffington Post, to support Mental Health Awareness Week 2019.
I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t have some form of arthritis. I was first diagnosed with osteoarthritis after I had a cycling accident at age 11. There was major trauma to my lower leg and after a long, slow rehabilitation, it was never quite the same, not to mention, lots of scars that gave me some anxiety.
I already had low self-esteem, as many girls my age did, but I took great pains to keep my lower leg covered. I rarely wore shorts or skirts, but if I did, I wore socks or thick tights to cover the damage to my leg. It was bad enough that I had a noticeable limp and was instructed to wear heavy, ugly practical shoes as a teenager, so I didn’t want others to see why.
I don’t define myself by my condition and accept it’s just one of the many things that make me who I am, but that doesn’t mean I don’t falter.
As I got older, my pain and stiffness started to get worse. I knew that I had developed osteoarthritis from my accident, but in my 20s, I found I could do less than my friends and because of how my leg looked, I felt awkward and unattractive. By 28, my GP began to suspect rheumatoid arthritis, but it still went undiagnosed. When my then employer mentioned that I seemed to be slower than I had in the past, and I was cancelling plans with my friends and colleagues at the last minute more often due to increased levels of pain and fatigue, I finally approached my GP. She ran a spate of blood tests and the results showed that I had a positive rheumatoid factor, so I was referred to a rheumatologist.
I tried my best to function as normally as possible, but it was becoming obvious that I couldn’t keep up and it knocked my confidence and self-esteem even more. I accepted my diagnosis and was grateful I knew the cause of my condition, but it was the loss of mobility and crippling fatigue that affected my mental health the most. I didn’t want to have to use mobility aids, joint supports or walking sticks because I didn’t want to give in to my condition.
Fortunately, my friends and family were supportive and never made an issue when I needed to take a break when we were out, or had to walk slower or shorter distances. What changed for me was accepting my limitations and discovering all the ways I could adapt things in order to take part in the activities I love, as well as pacing myself. If I’m honest, at times I don’t follow my own advice and push myself a bit too far, but as long as I remind myself that I am not my arthritis, I tend to be ok. I stopped defining myself as my condition and accepted that my arthritis is just one of the many things that make me who I am. I keep a walking stick handy and I found mobility aids and supports I could customise that made them feel like an accessory instead of a hindrance.
There are, however, times when everything becomes too much and my mental health falters. The good thing is that I have a fantastic support network that I can turn to when all else fails and they remind me that it’s okay to feel bad as long as I don’t set up camp and wallow in it. Another sure fire remedy is the volunteering I do for Arthritis Action. Being able to share my experience and help others gives me purpose and provides a motivation to break through the dark times.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, I would encourage others to not give into their arthritis. It is one small part of who you are even if at times you feel it is all that you are. There is light at the end of the tunnel and by finding ways to help you continue participating, your arthritis will become background noise that you can tune out. Do what you love doing and that will drive you forward and bring joy to your life.
Article originally posted in Huffington Post on 16/05/19