You Can't Pour From an Empty Glass
Caregiving with Mental Health Issues
My husband has Crohn's Disease. He was diagnosed in November 2017 after a year-long battle with the illness that left him 60 lbs lighter, missing 14 inches of the small intestine that was taken out—because it was necrotic—following a colostomy, and an ileostomy, both of which have since been taken down. His surgeon described his GI tract as "looking like a bomb went off inside him," and stated that he wouldn't have been alive by Christmas 2017 if they hadn't caught it when they did. We had been dating for two months at this point.
On New Year's Eve of 2016, we met and started talking. He was stationed in Maryland, and I was in college in Oklahoma. He wasn't able to travel, or willing to have me come see him, because of how sick he was. In March 2017, he got orders to move back to Texas where were both from. The change of medical professionals allowed him to get better care, and start to figure out what was really wrong with him. A referral to a GI specialist got him treated for constant nausea, the ulcers in his esophagus, and other symptoms, but the Crohn's couldn't be confirmed with colonoscopy or endoscopy due to its location in the ileum of the digestive tract.
By the time he was getting on track to a true diagnosis, my health was declining. I've struggled with depression and anxiety for as much of my life as I can remember. In 2009, I wrote out a suicide note, and attempted to take my life toward the end of my eighth-grade year. By my senior year of college, the suicidal thoughts and ideation on top of daily anxiety attacks, nightmares, and flashbacks had me in a darker spot than ever before. I knew I needed to make a change if I was going to stay living, so I went to see the family doctor who has treated both of my parents' mental health issues since I was a toddler. Treating my mental health with medication meant more than simply taking pills daily for me, however. I went to college on an Air Force ROTC scholarship.
When in Air Force ROTC, you report any medical changes to the command. I knew from seeing it happen to others that reported being on an anti-depressant was an instant disqualification from Air Force ROTC. I had the choice of letting my mental health continue to deteriorate, or keeping the career I had spent the last four years of college training to begin. I chose my health. On April 12, 2017, I was officially medically disqualified from ROTC, commissioning, and general military service. I was supposed to commission as a 2nd Lieutenant on May 13, 2017. In my last month of college, I had to figure out a new life plan.
ROTC gave my life stability, focus, purpose, and support. Without it, not even medication could stop the spiral that ensued. I attempted to go to grad school, but I seemed to only be getting worse. When my then-boyfriend was diagnosed with Crohn's in November 2017, I took a week off from classes to help him recover from his surgery. By December 2017, I was unstable enough that I was looking into admitting myself to a hospital. My parents, then-boyfriend, and I had a trip planned to California for New Year's though, and I didn't want to ruin that. My now-husband proposed on that trip. I attempted to start my second semester of grad school, but by February 2018, I withdrew from my program, because I was once again having regular anxiety attacks, and I was unable to get out of bed. February 25, 2018, I got married to my husband, and moved to the town in Texas where he lived. While working part-time, I was able to seek therapy, and be diagnosed with PTSD. No wonder only treating the depression and anxiety with medication wasn't making my life livable!
Since then, I have continued therapy, and made progress with managing my own illness, though PTSD never goes away. There are days I feel what I imagine normal feeling like, and there are days where the only thing that gets me out of bed is taking care of my husband and our dogs. Being a household with two chronic illnesses, one mental and one physical, is not an easy tightrope to walk.
In any relationship, communication is the key to success. When illnesses are added into the mix, you have to rely on communication even more. It's easy to build resentment, and get burned out when caregiving while having your own illness. My therapist has helped with this a lot, because I have a designated and regular time to take care of my own health.
I recommend any caregiver have a therapist or someone who will be sure to make the time about you, but I especially recommend this if you struggle with an illness yourself. It's easy to get wrapped up in taking care of others and neglect yourself, but as the saying goes, you can't pour from an empty glass.