I always wondered how non-terminal illness can drive people to depression and sometimes, to even taking their own lives, till I was gifted a flavour of that experience myself. This is what I have learnt over the last one year of tackling a nagging and resilient medical issue and its myriad manifestations.
Unforeseen illness throws one off-track and disrupts our life. We have grown to experience and believe that sickness happens as a well-defined phase and it passes, courtesy medication, rest and recuperation. So, there is hope and some sense of control over what happens to us, and within us when we fall ill. If employed, one applies for leave, generally based on a good estimate of when one will be able to recover and rejoin duty (e.g., a week for viral fever; a fortnight to a month in case of typhoid and now also for COVID-19).
The situation becomes complicated when your indisposition is not life-threatening and yet inexplicably persistent, unpredictable, and well-set on the way to disrupt your way of life in a permanent manner. Part of your attention is always focussed on the unease arising out of your physical situation and it strains the hell out of you. Once an ailment, big or small, continues for a long time, it loses its gravity for all except you; you hesitate to bring it up in social settings too and gradually create a separate mental cocoon – for you and your illness. How your doctor treats you and your illness also affects you, e.g., if your doctor keeps forgetting you and your ailment and needs to be reminded of the diagnosis and your course of treatment on every visit (as happened in my case, despite an operative procedure involved), it can isolate you further.
So, how does one deal with this? Am a rookie at tackling nagging ailments, but have been thinking and feeling through this singular experience of my life, contemplating while being in it and out of it, by being the subject and the observer, and feel it is time to share what helps me navigate the seemingly un-ending trial.
First, accept it. Generally we consider ourselves more rational that we really are, especially in matters that concern us. Ignoring a condition wilfully, does not help; if anything, denial makes it worse. Articulate to yourself, your physician and anyone close you want to be in the know – “There is this condition which has come visiting…“.
Second, search and settle for a cure or at least a line of treatment for the ‘main condition’. Do not let any condition that is leaving you physically unsettled (except common cold and cough) inhabit you with ease. Make trouble for it, do not let it nest and roost, make it struggle. Be disciplined about the treatment; review your progress and revise course as required. Fight it out, and let your circle know that you are ready to give the condition a bloody nose.
Third, allocate your thoughts around the ailment and its treatment, a definite mental space and time in your routine. Do not let the condition overwhelm you and cloud your day, even when you know it is there to do exactly that. We think with our body and not just our brains, so do not let the ailment get you. You are not in denial and you are on course; you have delegated the task of fighting the ailment to the medicines and whatever treatment you have decided to adopt. So, strive to live your normal life. If possible, augment your repertoire of good lifestyle habits, like yoga, exercise and a healthy diet, to snuffle the intruder even more.
Fourth, do not overlook symptoms of persistent depression, such as fatigue, poor appetite, reduced concentration and insomnia, and initiate treatment for the depression too. I read that while sadness is an emotion, persistent sadness is a mood disorder that requires treatment. Although any illness can trigger depressed feelings, the chances of clinical depression are known to increase with the severity of the illness and the level of life disruption it causes. And, depression is the most common mental disorder, affecting 45.7 million people in India. It has not overcome me so far, but am prepared.
Remind yourself – nobody is equipped or expected to fight all the life’s battles her-/him-self, and certainly not- all the time. And, poor health – physical or mental – has adversaries mounted by the medical advancements of our times. We do not want depression and our other / main ailment to engage in a mutually reinforcing tango inside of us. So if you are feeling depressed while being sick – it is normal, and the depression treatable. Seek help, and there are several options – medication, goal-oriented psychotherapy, social support, de-sensitization techniques, telemedicine and online counselling.
Take care of yourself, prioritise your needs, socialize and never give up.