It was a beautiful spring morning as my partner and I were getting ready to get the train to the London Coffee Festival. A jacket that I can easily carry around with me? Check. Painkillers? Check. My most supportive trainers? Check, check, check. Oh hang on, the tickets! I check my email account to look for our e-tickets.
“Print these tickets to gain entry to the festival”
My stomach dropped. We didn’t have a printer and our tickets were only booked for the morning session. I was suddenly overcome by self hatred so strong for having ruined our day. Why am I so stupid? Why didn’t I print them at work yesterday? I ran to our bathroom, sobbing, past my confused partner and locked the door.
“You are such an idiot. Why are you like this?” It’s hard to explain how I feel when this happens. The only way I can describe it is a feeling so intense and overwhelming that it’s unbearable and you will do anything to stop it. My main coping mechanism in these moments has always been to self harm. It was the only thing that would relieve me, the feelings quickly seeping out of my body as I returned to a state of calm.
Why did I get so angry at myself for making a small mistake? This can’t be normal. Surely other people don’t get so overtaken by rage for forgetting to print something that they have a full meltdown?
For as long as I remember I’ve been beating myself up - physically and mentally. Every little mistake, getting constantly frustrated by my own so-called ‘stupidity’. Since the age of 12, I have suffered from Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder, and have been using self harm as a coping mechanism since the age of 14. I was also diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, which is a form of inflammatory autoimmune arthritis, at the age of 28. My mental health conditions and my AS aren’t linked, but they do like to feed off each other.
What I didn’t expect was that my arthritis diagnosis would actually be beneficial to my mental health. Don’t get me wrong, living with a chronic condition is still very challenging mentally and many of these conditions come with anxiety or depression as an additional symptom. But for me, my diagnosis made me confront something that had been a problem for a long time.
The first step came six months post diagnosis when I was prescribed Anti-TNF injections to manage my condition. This is biologic medication that suppresses your immune system, meaning that I’d be more susceptible to infection. Starting any type of immunosuppressant medication is scary and I was particularly anxious as I didn’t know how my body would react. What if I self harmed and then the cut got infected and I’d have to have my leg amputated? That is what Cognitive Behavioural Therapy would call ‘catastrophizing’. But it was the push I needed to stop hurting myself physically. The day of my first injection, the nurses came to my house to help me through the process. As I proceeded to complete my first injection myself, I quietly told myself I had to stop now. This was it.
You might be thinking ‘if it was that easy, why didn’t you just stop before?’ - a good question. I wanted to stop for many years before I did. I’d been using an app that supposedly helps you quit things by tracking the length of time you go without it and I’d even made it to six months at one stage. But when that heavy fog encompassed me, it always won the battle. I relented. It was only the threat of physical danger beyond that act of self harm that was enough to ‘scare me straight’. In my mind, it became something I couldn’t do, no matter how much I wanted to, and the urges did come. Many times I have found myself pacing in the bathroom until I’m calm enough to leave without harming. And it’s now been 825 days since I last self harmed.
What about the mental beration? Often these things are ingrained into our subconscious so deeply that it’s difficult to know how to approach them. My mind is a tricky fortress even with several rounds of therapy and counselling under my belt. But having a chronic illness has forced me to take care of myself - both physically and mentally. Stress would often send me into a painful flare and should be on the ‘avoid’ list as much as sitting in a car for a long journey should. Our mental and physical states are interlinked and so it became just as important for me to take care of myself mentally.
My friends would say I’m a kind person, but I am not very good at being kind to myself. Since my diagnosis, I’ve made a conscious effort to be kind to my mind and my body. I deserve love and care as much as anyone else in my life. It’s still something that I’m working on day-by-day and occasionally I do still get frustrated with myself for spilling a drink or forgetting something important. But the more I actively practice kindness towards myself, the easier it becomes and the happier I am. I aim to care for myself as I would someone I love and focus more on what makes me an amazing human. Fostering a positive social media community has been an essential part of this - particularly the chronic illness community - as we all remind each other that we are brilliant just the way we are. It just took inflammatory arthritis to get me to see that.