Today is World Diabetes Day and this week is Mental Health Awareness Week. We are excited to have an incredible blog here by Heather Gomez; when we asked Heather to write a blog for us about her struggles with diabetes, we had no idea how much it would tie into our series on Mental Health Awareness week in addition to bringing awareness to diabetes. I am very excited to share this with you – check out Heather’s bio and website below as well!
By Heather Gomez
I spent the majority of Christmas holidays of 2005 curled up in a ball on the living room couch, tears streaming down my face. I felt empty, purposeless, isolated, and hopeless. My parents, concerned that I might be depressed, took me to my family doctor who ran a series of blood tests to first rule out anything physical. It was only days later we got the news that something physical was indeed wrong; I was diagnosed as a Type 1 Diabetic at 16 years old. The doctors I spoke to were of the opinion that, with the correct dosage of insulin, I should be feeling better in no time.
Six years later, I sat numb and partially sedated in front of a psychiatrist in the mental health ward of my local hospital, detailing the crushing crescendo that had evolved from those same feelings that began back in high school. I spent three weeks in the psychiatric ward, heavily medicated and glassy-eyed. When I emerged I had five new medications and a formal diagnosis – Major Depressive Disorder. I was referred to a 12-week outpatient therapy program through the hospital, where I was followed by a psychiatrist. Medications were tweaked and weekly dialogues with a therapist ensued. Depression and diabetes were becoming a reality.
Eventually I was referred to an eating disorders clinic, where I attended group therapy sessions twice a week, and regularly saw a counselor, psychiatrist, and dietitian. My time at the eating disorders clinic was extremely enlightening, and I developed a keen sense of self-awareness through candid discussions. As I shared my frustrations, anxieties, and stressors week-to-week with the group, I noticed my diabetes would frequently take center stage. I had never thought of my diabetes as a particularly “bad” part of my life – it was just who I was. Yet when I openly and honestly shared, I found myself referencing my defunct pancreas and its related demands on not just my body, but also my mind, heart, and soul.
As I began to piece together my experiences with mental illness, I discovered other anatomical parts of my body – not just the organ floating in my skull – were part of the bigger picture. Yet for so long I had quarantined the two issues – body and mind – from each other. If my blood sugar was high, I would take more insulin. If I was feeling suicidal, I would practice positive self-talk. Of course, neither of these are bad things, but they were only addressing one fraction of the puzzle in each case.
Unfortunately, this partiality was, and is, common practice among my healthcare providers. When I visit the endocrinologist, I am treated as a diabetic. During my time in the psychiatric ward and during appointments with therapists, I was treated as a mentally-ill patient. Rarely have I been treated as both simultaneously, and this is where the problem lies. In my specific case, diabetes and mental health are not mutually exclusive.
The depressive symptoms I encountered throughout high school and university had been augmented by my diabetes. Likewise, the challenges of self-care for a chronic illness had been exacerbated by my depression and eating disorder. If I am not managing one sphere of my health well, the other will also suffer. Likewise, if I am making healthy choices to manage one illness, the other will almost certainly reap benefits as a result. It was in understanding this that I was, and am, able to achieve the greatest level of care for both illnesses that I live with.
Chronic illness is not merely a physical battle, nor are the effects of mental illness strictly resigned to the mind. If I have learned anything over the past eight years living with both diabetes and mental illness, it is that I can’t manage one without managing the other. Periods of depression will always negatively exert themselves on my will to properly self-care, just as the daily grind of blood testing and carbohydrate-counting will mentally exhaust and discourage me at times. I can’t undo either condition, but I can consciously choose to do my best to manage the deficits of both body and mind. As I do, I am striving to raise awareness among healthcare workers and fellow patients about the link between mental health and chronic illness. It is my hope that our healthcare system will get to a point where both body and mind, the physical and the mental, the seen and the unseen, are delicately considered despite the nature of a diagnosis.
Thank you so much, Heather, for your contribution to Ugly Ducklings! You can find out more about Heather and her journey by visiting her blog Bigger Than My Body.