This week’s post is by a guest blogger, Ashley L. Peterson. Typically a guest post would be uploaded the last week of the month, but with moving, a new job, new medication, and other responsibilities piling up and toppling on top of me, I haven’t been able to get around to it. I just haven’t had the spoons. I didn’t want to leave you guys hanging again, and I want to thank Ashley not only for writing this post but also for her continuous work on mental health advocacy on her own blog, Mental Health at Home. Go have a look after reading this. On with the post!
I have a mental illness, specifically major depressive disorder, but it’s not really all that interested in staying mental. It likes to get physical, too, something that’s common across a broad spectrum of mental health disorders. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, given that the brain is the control center for the entire body. In this post, I’ll describe some of the different ways that my own illness has wreaked havoc on my body.
My gut likes to get really hands on involved in my illness, often in unpredictable ways. Stress and anxiety may produce cramps and diarrhea, while at other times depression slows things to a crawl and I get very constipated. When the depression is really bad, I lose my appetite altogether, and it’s hard to eat much of anything.
Speaking of losing my appetite, when I get really sick, I get skinny. I’m doing better(ish) on my current medication cocktail, but a side effect of those otherwise helpful meds is weight gain. There’s an approximately 70 pound spread between sick, skinny me and better, medicated me. As if that wasn’t enough to adjust to on its own, I get people complimenting me when I lose weight loss, which effectively translates to them complimenting me for getting sicker. It doesn’t feel very good.
One of the symptoms I get sometimes with my depression is psychomotor retardation, a fancy term for slowing of thoughts and movements. I walk at the pace of a slug. It gets hard to put complete sentences together coming out of month. I can’t walk very far because a) I don’t have the energy, and b) there’s just not enough time in a day to make it there.
The fatigue of depression is whole body. Getting out of bed to go to the bathroom can feel like an hours long hike. It’s not just a lack of mental energy either. The body just doesn’t want to move.
Depression affects other seemingly unrelated body phenomena. My menstrual periods can fluctuate wildly in frequency. The eczema on my hands flares up more often when my depression is worse. My skin gets drier.
I don’t have an anxiety disorder, but anxiety is one of the things depression throws in sometimes to spice things up. It’s usually not mental anxiety; it’s all physical, with chest tightening, heart pounding, and butterflies doing the macarena in my tummy. The tremor that I already have gets worse. I’ve learned that for me, this is what anxiety looks like, and I just have to sit with it until it eases up.
That tremor comes as a side effect of lithium, one of the most important medications in my multi-drug cocktail. It’s not so bad at rest, but when I’m doing things with my hands they shake. It’s bad enough that other people notice it and sometimes even comment on it, saying I should slow down. I’m always a bit concerned that clients at work will think I lack confidence or competence because of my tremor. Along with the tremor, lithium impacts my coordination. I’m prone to tripping and falling, and have fallen in the midst of crossing the street. Both my shin and water bottle have dents from a fall down stairs.
Also because of lithium, my mouth is always dry. I carry a water bottle with me everywhere, and if I run out of water, it can be difficult to speak clearly because my mouth gets so dry.
It can be hard to know what’s causing what in the body. How much is the illness, how much is the meds, and how much might be a separate physically based illness? My natural inclination is to assume odd bodily goings on are a result of depression, since I know how much it affects my body. Yet that assumption isn’t necessarily the right one all of the time.
What I’ve really struggled with lately is trying to separate out dizziness from derealization. I don’t have a dissociative disorder, but as part of my depression I sometimes experience mild derealization. I conceptualize it as looking at the world from farther back in my head through a layer of clear jello. I have a hard time distinguishing my jello layer wobbling from vertigo, and not knowing the source of the problem makes it harder to figure out how to address it.
Because mind and body are inextricably intertwined, I believe that to support mental health it’s important to target the body as well. Regular massage therapy is an important part of my wellness plan, as is restorative yoga. While the benefits may be harder to quantify than the greater impact that comes from my medications, I still believe the body-based strategies are an important part of the whole picture.
The brain is by far the most complex organ in the human body. There’s really no reason that anyone should be surprised that mental illness rarely just stays up in the head.
Written by Ashley.