Can a Therapist Actually Improve Life with Chronic Illness?

I recently wrote about some staggering statistics of living with Chronic Illness, specifically, Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. One of the most resounding facts of all? Fibro suffererers are TEN TIMES more likely to commit suicide than those in the general population. And this does not include those already struggling with an underlying Mental Health issue. That’s a pretty sobering number and one I’m sure doesn’t surprise many of us that live day to day with some pretty tough illnesses. So how many of us actually focus on our Mental Health and the toll that getting physically ill has on our psyche?

For years I had sought that Provider that could help, the one that magically had answers that none of the others did. I lived from appointment to appointment, gradually worsening and getting no further with each new one than I had before.  All the while, I was ignoring the panic attacks I had begun to suffer from. I was wracked with guilt over getting sick and inferiority for not than being able to “make” myself better. I desperately missed my old life and sought any way I could to get it back. I was terrified of the future and as a result, had stopped making any plans or thinking long term. I was surrounded by people who were unsupportive, some who even accused me of faking. Without ever realizing, I had effectively ceased to live and now merely existed from day to day.

So when my Physical Therapist suggested seeing a Psychologist, I finally relented. That’s when I stumbled onto Psychology Today, Find a Therapist. Here’s the link: Find a Therapist. Using this website, I was able to choose a provider in my area that accepted my insurance carrier. I was able to hone in on those that specialized in Chronic Illness. I could see their picture and read their Bio. This helped me choose someone that I thought I was well aligned with and eliminated randomly picking one.

In the beginning, I went home crying every week. I would cry the whole way home. And with each visit and each sobbing drive home, it became clearer and clearer that this was the one piece of my care that had been overlooked. I was fortunate enough to score an awesome Therapist on my first try, which made this process only slightly easier. Four weeks in, I was diagnosed with Anxiety and PTSD. Both a direct result of becoming Chronically Ill and losing the life I had always known.

We slowly began attacking the issues at hand, one by one, determining their root causes and then devising coping strategies when they arose. As much as the coping strategies helped, so too did understanding what the issues stemmed from.

The panic attacks, which were new, resulted from my deep seeded feelings of vulnerability. I had gone from someone who was fiercely independent and self-sufficient, to someone who needed help with everything. Being in public meant there was an audience if I suddenly fainted, had agonizing pain strike or got so dizzy I couldn’t leave. Feeling so desperately out of control resulted in feeling desperately incapable. While we used Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, tried drugs and implemented emergency plans for when they did hit, my most valuable take away was “derailing the train”. When the insidious thoughts start and the strangle hold begins to take effect, I mentally “stop” them and imagine the train of terrifying thoughts derailing. While it took practice and sometimes takes multiple attempts, I have had a lot of success in using this method.

I had never considered that I would get sick and people, even family, would accuse me of faking. People we thought were friends would say “well, God, how sick can she really be?” This created self-deprecating thoughts and guilt; instilling the false beliefs that maybe I wasn’t doing enough to get better. My Therapist helped me to let go of these people and to instead embrace the very small circle of friends and family that were positive and supportive. After all, if someone can’t even believe you’re sick, are they really worth having in your life? While initially it was heartbreaking to become estranged from those people, I have come to find that it was profoundly healing. I can’t say that I have found new friends or replaced the ones I’ve lost, but I practice gratitude, constantly, that I have a few rock solid friends and my own Husband and children to rely on.

I had stopped living and thinking of the future. I was always in such profound pain or reeling from other symptoms, that I stopped making plans, setting goals or ever considering my future. When I did, it terrified me, because all I could see was a future of unending pain and how incredibly bleak that future was. I learned to stop trying to craft an entire future or a map for how my life was going to go and to set fluid, attainable goals. She taught me to set goals such as making my bed or cooking dinner. Once I finally set goals that I could achieve and celebrate, I finally started thinking about tomorrow again. It maybe wasn’t the exact tomorrow I had painstakingly crafted, but it was still a tomorrow.

Over the summer, I had a particularly debilitating flare. After weeks of suffering, the Primary Care prescribed Prednisone to break it. I had taken Prednisone dozens of times, so days into the cycle when I began to experience a profound depression, I never even considered it being medication induced. I went from just being in pain and ill to asking my Husband for a divorce, wanting to sell my house and all of its contents and at one point, contemplated suicide. I couldn’t see through any of the haze of desperation or wanting to crawl under a rock to die. Thankfully, I reached out to my Psychologist who immediately recognized that I was suffering from a profound depression which was a side effect of taking steroids. She implored me to call my Primary Care Provider and together, the three of us worked through the side effects. My PCP, whom I’ve had for years, profusely apologized. After all the times we’d used steroids, I had never experienced this side effect, so it slipped her mind to even mention it. I’ll always be grateful that I was under the care of someone so competent that she recognized and immediately worked with me to avert what could have been tragic consequences. By the way, my poor Husband did forgive me and didn’t divorce me, thank God.

We wrestled through my guilt of no longer financially contributing to our household and my desires to work. I miss making a difference in the lives of others. I miss my career. I miss feeling proud of my hard work and having a sense of accomplishment. Her take? Go 30 days without feeling bad once. If I could successfully make it 30 days without needing to lie on the couch three times in a day or stay in bed all day, then we could talk about my returning to my professional life. Needless to say, I’ve started Blogging instead. I have yet to even make it a week with 7 consecutive days of feeling good.

After a year and a half of therapy, I’ve finally decided to take a break because my Goddess of a Therapist said she didn’t really know what else she could do to help me. She can’t help with constantly feeling awful and she certainly can’t improve it. What she has done is vastly improve the quality of the new life I live. For that, I am deeply grateful. I can’t urge anyone to see a Therapist or even suggest that they should. What I can say is that it finally feels good to know what and why I suffer, mentally. I now have some tools in my toolbox for when things creep up to strangle me. Mostly, though, it feels the best to be validated, to have had someone else eliminate all questions of what I have being psychosomatic. To know that whatever I’m feeling is genuinely what I’m feeling. No one gets to say otherwise.

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Fighting with Fibro and Living With Purpose. Mom, Wife, Blogger and animal lover. Fighting with Chronic Illness on a minute by minute basis; sometimes winning.

6 thoughts on “Can a Therapist Actually Improve Life with Chronic Illness?

  1. I would say that if you find a good, skilled and compassionate therapist, it will definitely help!
    I had seen a couple of therapists in the past that were of little help. Like you Stacey, I found an excellent therapist on Psych Central that really fit my needs. She is awesome! Saw her every week for a year (dealt with PTSD) and learned so much about the mind/body connection and tools to deal with the anxiety and depression. I got to a point that I felt so much better and thought I had the tools and mindset to handle chronic pain and a limited lifestyle and had developed a new attitude.
    I did well for a year, then anxiety and fear of the future (being totally incapacitated at some point and having no one to help me) crept back in. Finances have become really tight and worrisome. So, I have been going back for a ‘tune up’, but less frequently due to financial constraints. Our plan is to build up an arsenal of tools… self care notebook/planner for mental and physical relief, guided meditations, planned exercise, etc. Other therapists in the past were content to just listen to me talk and take my money, but did not offer guidance or work WITH me.
    Finding a good therapist who is well trained and willing to jump in there with you in the mess,and discuss and help guide you in decisions and plans going forward, is invaluable. I have gotten more from my therapist than I ever have from my group of specialists at a renowned University teaching hopsital system that is supposed to have top of the line physicians. Often times, I think we need therapists to help us from the damage of others in our chronic pain journey. Those that don’t believe us, and doctors who really don’t listen or try to help but feel they’ve done their job to presribe medications willy nilly just to get us to leave their offices, and they can feel like they have done their job. It has been my experience as well to have serious side effects from meds because doctors don’t think about drugs they prescribe interacting together in a harmful way to our bodies.

    Yes Stacey, it is remarkable how many of us with chronic illness share experiences!

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    1. Oh gosh, Gail, I think all of us with Fibro fear the future. For now, I try not to think about it, but we do have plans to leave our two story for a ranch in ten years. If we make it that long. There was a time we thought we were going to have to sell immediately. I think having a tool box is great, as is knowing you needed to go back to her again. That’s super intuitive of you. It’s funny after just writing that post, I’ve decided that things have been a little much for me, as of late and I also plan to return to therapy. The tools and coping mechanisms, while not fool proof, are invaluable. I think, too, knowing what you’re up against and realizing it in the heat of the moment has been really helpful too. Before, I didn’t really know what was strangling me. Now I can identify it and use the tools we developed that best serve each issue. I’m so happy you commented and shared!! Thanks so much!! Warmly, Stacey

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  2. Try a Somatic Therapist. I have many of the same issues you do, mine were related to childhood trauma. I would have been the first person to jump down someone’s throat for suggesting this, but it has helped. I would also suggest reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Von de Kolk.

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    1. Wow. Okay Jessica, thanks for those suggestions. While I’m temporarily on leave from my Therapist, I’ll look into this when I return. I’ll look that book up, too. Thanks so much!! Glad you have found something that helps!

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