Guest post written by: Seren Kiremitcioglu
My experience with mental health came long before my chronic illness diagnosis.
At the age of nine, I developed severe clinical depression and anxiety. Rather than monsters under the bed, my head was battling with entirely different demons. My teenage years were wrought with habitual self-harm that I hid beneath my sleeves, and a constant presence of suicidal ideation.
When my chronic illness waded in, triggering a wide range of lifelong conditions, I should have been prepared for the mental onslaught. But it hit me like a brick in the face.
The day I was diagnosed with EGPA Vasculitis, I was elated. For so long I had lived confused and undiagnosed with so many random and episodical symptoms. I joked with my then-boyfriend, Charlie, about the long name, Eosinophilic Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis, and laughed at how the prescription would have me rattling like a pill bottle. It was only a few hours later that I crashed.
As I looked at the long stretch of recovery and the permanency of disability ahead of me, clinging onto hope felt futile. I knew that day that any hope for getting better was now quashed, like breath to a flame. My life had changed irrevocably – for what I thought to be the worst – and the feeling of devastation drowned out any joy I felt at finally having the answer to what was causing my severe illness.
The medicine quickly overwhelmed me. My weight ballooned with the steroids I took to recover, but because I was still so unwell while taking them, my muscle tone completely disappeared. This made walking an agonising experience, and I remember having to crawl up my staircase on one occasion.
With lung involvement being the epicentre of my illness, stabbing pains across my chest were a regular feature, like an internal firework show. Everything I could once do with the kind of ease only a teenager knows, I could no longer do at all. My love for sailing was compartmentalised, collecting dust with the wetsuit I haven’t fit in since being treated with steroids. My energy and lust for life evaporated.
Who am I?
But out of everything, the hardest part was that I didn’t even recognise who I was or who I’d become.
I resented this new version of myself; all I could think of is how much I’d changed for the worst. My fat body repulsed me, and I tortured myself over my inability to carry out daily tasks. As the old Seren floated far into the distance, I sank deep into depression and anxiety.
I didn’t like myself – I couldn’t face who I’d become. My anxiety took over when I left the house as I was so anxious about what people would think of my sudden weight gain. Each time I struggled with a daily task, I would ruminate over how futile everything felt, which only gave my depression more power. I berated myself for being a university student that couldn’t drink alcohol and couldn’t stay awake past 10pm – unless I had bouts of insomnia – in which case I would lie awake, tears of hopelessness streaming down my face. I couldn’t walk up the stairs, couldn’t breathe right. Couldn’t look in the mirror, couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.
That’s when I realised what I was doing – defining myself by what I couldn’t do, rather than focussing on what I could.
Time to change
My illness had cast a cloud over my life, but it was up to me to change the narrative. Okay, I couldn’t do a lot of the things I used to do without a second thought. But I could still love with a huge heart, still complete my degree (despite the hospitalisations, operations and procedures), still enjoy various things I love such as reading and writing.
As I poured my energy into reading and writing, it clicked just how powerful words could be in day to day life. Instead of feeling embarrassed that I “couldn’t” drink, I decided to feel empowered that I “could” make the informed decision to be teetotal.
This made me start thinking of the things I could do post-illness that I’d never been able to before.
Before Vasculitis, I found it impossible to put my mental health above the demands of those who took so much from me mentally. Now that my health is the priority, I feel the power to establish boundaries and put myself first – something which I’d found impossible until the age of 22. What my mental illness had initially taken from me in terms of self-esteem and self-care, my chronic illness gave back. I never thought I’d have that power, so for my illnesses, I am grateful.