I can’t catch my breath and my heart feels as if it’s going to beat out of my chest. My trembling body forces me to start pacing and I break into an uncomfortably sticky sweat. My mind is racing and I know it’s happening, so I leave the busy room to be alone. I’m having a panic attack.
Dealing with the physical aspects of a chronic illness is one issue. But learning to cope with it mentally? That’s a challenge that I was completely unprepared for.
When I was 17, about a year after I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, I noticed my behaviour start to change. I became withdrawn and the thought of leaving my house gave me so much anxiety that I just wouldn’t go out.
I don’t know what triggered my panic attacks but it felt like all-consuming fear was swallowing me up into a black hole of paranoia. I became afraid of everything. It started out with being afraid of seeing the doctor, but it slowly seeped into all aspects of my life.
Tae Hart is a psychology professor at Ryerson who specializes in dealing with people who have chronic illnesses. “What separates chronic illness from regular depression and anxiety is a real fear of the future,” she says. “It makes people have to manage uncertainty in a very concrete way because they know what’s wrong with them.”
I started thinking about how my mental state got so out of hand. It all started spiraling down downhill so fast. When I remember my younger-self, the thought I kept coming back to was: “What happened to that happy child? Where did she go?”
I soon learned that dwelling on the past would get me nowhere.
In efforts to launch myself out of this deep hole, I got to a point where I was forcing myself to just “think optimistically.” It quickly started backfiring — I got more stressed because I just couldn’t do it.
“Learning to think positively is a skill,” Hart says. “It doesn’t mean that you never have negative thoughts; it means that you are able to balance between the two.”
By far what has helped me cope was coming out of isolation. Being honest to those who are closest to me removed a weight I didn’t even realize I was carrying.
Stepping out of hiding forced me to change my view and has put me on the path to getting better. I had to fight really hard to not be alone. And that’s where I find comfort.
This article was published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Dec. 2, 2015.