I originally wrote this post in July 2019, and published it a few weeks after I (first) left my 9-5 and built my website.
July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. As this health awareness month comes to a close, I felt compelled to share my experience with chronic illness and mental health as a Black woman.
Those of you living with mental illness may understand the challenges with keeping up appearances of what you “should do” when inside you feel like you’re breaking. And if you’re like me, maybe you struggle with an invisible chronic illness too, masking your physical pain with a smile.
I get it, it’s not a good feeling. I’m not here to tell you what you “should do” or what you are “supposed to do” by society’s standards. In the spirit of taking care, I’m going to share my struggles with invisible illness in hopes that a message resonates with you.
This past year has honestly been the hardest of my life. From the outside looking in, things probably seemed pretty damn good. I did everything I was “supposed to do”: graduated with my Master’s degree, got engaged to the love of my life, started my career in public sector management consulting, and went under contract on a new home. Little did everyone else know I spent my days struggling with anxiety and depression exacerbated by my and other undiagnosed gastrointestinal (GI) issues.
Doing “what I’m supposed to do” has always been my thing. As a people pleaser and recovering perfectionist, my inner psyche thrived off approval. So, for over five years, I kept up appearances, living in denial of the sickness I was experiencing.
Many people living with an invisible illness, including myself, struggle with the inner perception of not being “sick enough.”
I would think things like: “Why can’t I just managed my stress better?” Or, “I have some physical symptoms but it could be so much worse, I mean some people are facing cancer! Who am I to struggle to deal with GERD?”
After all, it was just acid reflux.
Tip #1: Choose Positive Thoughts
Dealing with any chronic illness is hard. There’s no need for comparison or quantifying your illness to determine your worth. Whether you are battling anxiety, depression, ADHD, celiac disease, GERD, irritable bowel syndrome, PTSD, bipolar disorder, fibromyalgia, or any illness, invisible or otherwise, your struggle is valid. Not every day is going to be great, but your mindset in the face of uncertainty and fear is key.
Mindfulness-based stressed reduction techniques are effective for reducing feelings of anxiety and chronic pain, according to some studies.1 Personally, I know incorporating mindfulness and meditation into my daily routine has been tremendously helpful. For me, being sick made me feel so guilty since I am so empathetic towards others going through similar or worse situations. I didn’t feel that I had the right to be sick since everything else in my life seemed so “good.” I mean, how could I possibly be sick enough or struggling when by society’s standards I was so successful? These negative thinking styles often send my anxiety into overdrive. Learning to accept and grow from these thoughts supports me moving forward in this situation.
As time pressed on, both my mental health and physical health symptoms became more severe. I struggled to get out of bed, overwhelmed with sadness about my physical ailments, and dealt with severe nausea, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and stomach pain.
I was internally beating myself up about it. “You’re such a failure for not being able to just get up and get ready for work?” or “Why can’t you just eat 3 times a day like a normal person?.”
And it doesn’t help when you throw in the opinions of your physicians, family members and friends into the mix about being anxious or not feeling well.
“Well have you tried [insert home remedy here]?” or “If you just managed your stress better, you wouldn’t be dealing with all of these physical symptoms.”
Not. Fun. At. All. Learning to let go of that negative self-talk (and sometimes, the negative opinions of others) is a daily battle, but one that is so worth it. You don’t have to look sick to be considered “sick enough” to ask for help, advocate for yourself, or take good care. But, mistakes make for good stories, right?
As I made my illnesses invisible, I made myself invisible as well. I struggled to get out of bed, was constantly overwhelmed with anxiety and sadness related to my GERD and other symptoms. I was constantly crying, getting ready, on the way to work, in the bathroom at work, and on my way home. Sometimes, even the smallest thing – like forgetting an office key or a cup of tea – sent my anxiety into overboard. With my GI symptoms, I avoided eating most days because I was either too nauseous to eat, or too afraid to eat because I didn’t want to be any more nauseous.
This unpredictability of my invisible illness made it harder to keep up with friends and co-workers with regular lunch dates and happy hours. It’s not exactly easy to tell people that restaurant food and alcohol leaves me feeling terrible with food explosively coming back out one way or the other.
After a few ruined happy hours and parking lot vomiting experiences, avoiding food became the easier choice. Most of the time it was subconsciously, I was too busy with meetings to eat, or was hungry with no appetite for what I packed for lunch so I ate nothing at all. Combine starvation, anxiety, and 12-hour days in management consulting and you get what? A Hot. Mess.
In these hard times, I thought about going to therapy, cause I mean things were pretty terrible. I felt that I was at my breaking point and totally burnt out. But, I didn’t know where to begin looking for a therapist. After being overwhelmed with the number of options on Google and my insurance company’s website, I gave up and chose none.
I mean, did I need someone that specialized in work/life balance? Or maybe anxiety? What about managing chronic illness? It was all too much for me.
In such times, learning from other people’s stories, especially women, proved helpful, encouraging me to think positively. For instance, personalities like Belinda Stronach, who have also battled and overcome an illness, are great sources of encouragement, even from afar. They’re out there breaking down walls and shattering those old stereotypes that hold you back. With their dedication, they push you to see things from all angles, no matter your gender. Keeping yourself grounded in such motivating stories can help you fight those invisible illnesses and stand tall despite the struggles.
Tip #2: Don’t Be Afraid to Talk About It and Ask For Help
So, as millennials do, I picked up my iPhone and texted one of my friends. I remember catching up with her over lunch earlier in the summer and she told me about how great therapy was going for her. I did something that is often a scary thing to do, but the right thing to do, I asked for help.
For me, asking for help meant asking one of my close friends would introduce me to her therapist if she was available for new clients. Going to therapy is the best decision I’ve done for my mental health to date. For you, asking for help may mean asking your boss for reasonable accommodations, asking your spouse or partner to be patient, or asking your parents to be understanding.
If you feel burnt out, you may be experiencing some symptoms of clinical depression as these psychological phenomenons often overlap.2 It could be worth talking about it to someone and/or getting professional help.
Living with physical and mental invisible illnesses has really made me take a step back and think about what I value in life and how I want to live. It’s so easy for me to pretend that everything is okay, that I’m just as normal as anyone else. But what is normal, anyway? All I can do is try to be the best version of me, which means taking care of my physical and mental health. As I share my story with more friends and family members, I am surprised to learn about similar struggles with mental illness. Being authentic often opens you up to so much more authentic connection, and sharing my story has allowed me to cultivate deeper relationships with friends and family.
Tip #3: It’s Okay to Take a Break
The most important thing I’ve learned dealing with all of this is that you have to do what is best for you, even if it means going against society’s standards or what everyone else “thinks” is best. So what if I quit my job with only a half-formed plan for the future? The alternative literally felt like I was dying. I reached my breaking point. I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t eat, I had no more spoons and they weren’t replenishing anytime soon.
Now, I have a mortgage, medical bills, and no job. The only thing I’m really sure about is spending the rest of my life with the man I love, who is so supportive of me during this time. And honestly, I’m okay with that and couldn’t ask for anything more.
Although your version of “break” may not be this extreme – maybe you take a day off, go out to eat for once instead of cooking for your family, or take a little vacation. Maybe, it’s just setting 30-minutes for yourself to take a hot bath. Whatever “break” means for you.
So now that I got all my mess out of the way, friend, I leave you again with these 3 things that I’m working on to cope living with these invisible illnesses:
- Choose positive thoughts. Don’t let that negativity think in. You are not a failure. You are not your circumstances. You are beautiful. You are enough. You are perfectly you. Sometimes, you make mistakes, or life doesn’t go as planned. But that’s okay! Learn from it, grow from it. It’s all going to be okay.
- Talk about it! I know it’s scary but if I can do it, so can you. You’d be surprised how many people around you are going through similar things.
- It’s okay to take a break. You aren’t any less than for needing one. You work hard, you deserve it! Matter of fact, you earned it. Focus on taking it day by day. Remember that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Know that this too shall pass.
1Cherkin DC, Sherman KJ, Balderson BH, et al. Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Usual Care on Back Pain and Functional Limitations in Adults With Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2016;315(12):1240–1249. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.2323
2Bianchi R, Schonfeld IS, Laurent E. Is it Time to Consider the “Burnout Syndrome” A Distinct Illness?. Front Public Health. 2015;3:158. Published 2015 Jun 8. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2015.00158