The diagnosis of a chronic or terminal illness is a major life change, and it impacts the person with the diagnosis as well as the entire family. It can be difficult to cope with the emotional struggles as you begin to incorporate the changes required to manage your illness. Healthcare providers are specialized treating medical conditions and as a therapist, we work with your medical team to address both your physical and emotional needs.
Many people begin experiencing feelings of depression, grief and anxiety. There can be new physical limitations, missed social activities, or a social stigma related to an illness. You may struggle with the fact that your life no longer looks recognizable to you and daily life just isn’t what you expected or wanted. Depression is 25-33% more likely to happen in someone with a chronic illness, so you are not alone if you feel this way.
Adjusting to a chronic illness involves a combination of grieving the life that you once had and learning to accept and embrace the new life that is before you, challenges and all. In some cases, a chronic illness requires giving up a dream, and in other cases, it requires much more work to pursue a dream than the person imagined. There is the fear of the unknown, such as who would want to be in a relationship with someone who has this disease, or a fear that those in your life may leave you. The frustration and anger over a diagnosis can even lead to denial, which causes more ramifications to your health. And for those who have had their illness for many years, there is burnout: a combination of exhaustion, frustration and sadness over managing a never-ending disease that interrupts or prevents you from doing what you enjoy.
Families often see change in the presence of a serious illness and it can take some effort to make sure everyone’s needs are being met. Parents often experience a kind of grief over the loss of their child’s good health, a grief we call “ambiguous loss” because there is not a concrete loss that is experienced, such as when someone passes away. Other parents struggle with the anxiety of giving their child more independence over their disease management (as if raising a teen isn’t hard enough!). Siblings may have difficulty with the loss of attention, or they may worry about their sibling’s health. Siblings or spouses can find themselves taking a backseat if a child’s symptoms flare up or if there are doctor’s appointments or medical treatments needed. Parents often put their child’s health before their own relationship, which can cause a whole host of issues such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness. If you’re an adult with a chronic illness, you may find that your significant others struggles with the demands of caregiving for their partner, or there may be anxiety or depression related to the helplessness that they feel over not being able to do more to help you.
As a medical family therapist and as a person living with a chronic illness, I understand the intricacies of how a medical illness coincides with mental health. Our practice works with individuals and often family members to cope with the adjustment to a variety of different illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer, lupus, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s, and many others. We also work with families who are dealing with a young child or baby with complicated medical health, or for parents who have lost their child due to a medical illness.
Managing the physical symptoms of a chronic illness can sometimes feel all-consuming. If you are experiencing anything that I have described above, or if you wondering if this is as “good as it can get,” please consider seeking support with us at Traverse or with another provider who understands how physical disabilities and illness can impact mental, emotional and relational wellness. Getting support for your journey with a chronic illness can be just as important as the medication your doctor prescribes.