How My Chronic Pain and Mental Illness Play off Each Other | Guest Post by Kate Harveston


Think back to the worst pain you ever experienced. Maybe you had a bout of pneumonia. Perhaps an overzealous goalie broke your tibia with an ill-placed field hockey stick. Recall your mental state. You probably felt considerable anguish. Now, imagine living with that pain — only every day of your life. You don’t get to take a vacation. You hold out hopes for a cure, but you have to accept that you may never improve. Add to that external societal and economic pressures, and you have a recipe for poor mental health.

Pragmatic Problems Create Severe Pressure

Here’s one thing few people tell you about chronic pain — it takes time to reach a diagnosis. First, you need to get your primary care physician to take your complaints seriously, especially if you’re female — more on that momentarily. Then comes rounds of specialist appointments, which can take months to schedule. Most physicians don’t have office hours on evenings and weekends, which presents an additional problem — what do you tell the boss when you need to take off early for a doctor’s appointment again?

I have chronic migraines, which means that people who don’t have the disease confuse my ailment for “just a headache.” It’s not. Migraine disease involves a full spectrum of symptoms, and head pain is often the least disabling of them all. Symptoms can include nausea and vomiting, debilitating fatigue and visual disturbances. People with some rare variants experience partial paralysis, loss of consciousness and even coma in severe cases.

When I started experiencing new symptoms, I had already wracked up sufficient absences to put my job in jeopardy. Missing more work to attend appointments didn’t bode well for my career prospects. My resume began to resemble Swiss cheese, with all the positions I’d take, only to lose them or have to leave them when my health issues became a problem. If you think losing job after job doesn’t take a toll on your self-esteem as well as your finances, think again. Most of us derive our sense of worth from our careers. I know I did — when I lost that pride, I felt worthless.

Another problem besides maintaining steady employment to pay your bills is the fact that people need their employers to cover health insurance in America. This model means, if you’re too sick to work, you can’t treat the very ailment that’s disabling you. You’re more likely to get sicker if you can’t afford preventative care. Those without preventative care are more likely to require hospitalization for health issues that doctors could prevent by catching them early. At points in my life when I wasn’t covered, I had to get creative and resort to desperate measures to afford my medications.

I’ve lost savings and maxed out credit cards to afford care. It’s tough enough to start with nothing. It’s even more challenging to try to recover later in your career when your disability impacts your employment prospects. The daily pressures of trying to recreate some semblance of a life and at least a vague sense of financial security overwhelmed me. I fell into a deep depression.

The Battles to Get People to Believe You

Another struggle people with chronic pain face is getting people — even their doctors — to believe them. This issue proves particularly tricky if you’re female and young. Doctors continue to dismiss women’s pain and often offer options like practicing yoga instead of more aggressive treatment plans. I’m a fan of natural healing, and I adore yoga — but that’s not why I’m breaking down in tears in your office, doc!

Friends and family members can adversely affect the mental health of the chronic pain patient they love, too, even if it’s unintentional. Your loved ones can’t see how abjectly awful you feel, so they may not understand when you tell them you can’t attend an event due to pain. At various points in my life, I’ve felt even my closest friendships slipping away because I lacked the energy for a social life after dealing with my illness and necessities of daily living. This absence made me feel exceedingly lonely.

Talk About It? It’s Not That Easy

People always tell you that when you’re hurting — physically, mentally or emotionally — you should reach out. However, in my experience, doing so can be difficult. My disease is a significant part of my life, but I feel ashamed to talk about it because of the unpleasant reactions I’ve received from others. At times, I’d love to share a tidbit with a sympathetic colleague — but I’ve learned the hard way that many people just don’t want to hear about that stuff.

Sometimes, I want to cry to my best friend. However, her shoulder has worn so many of my tears that I hesitate to burden her again. Fortunately, I have formed many friendships in online chronic pain support groups — but most of us live on opposite ends of the globe. Travel comes with a whole new set of problems.

People with Chronic Pain Need Mental Health Support

Members of the chronic pain community face tremendous struggles that can jeopardize their mental health. We can do more to support those in our lives with problematic conditions. All patients deserve access to affordable care and coverage, as well as a safe place to speak their minds and be heard and respected when they