My Journey Through Chronic Illness and Depression

By Michelle Kats

My Journey Through Chronic Illness and Depression

Most people who know me know that I have a lot of medical issues ranging from chronic renal failure to mobility problems resulting from renal disease. Not as many people know that for most of my life, I’ve also battled mental illness.

I can remember having my first big bout of depression and suicidal thoughts at age seven. As an adult, it’s hard to look back at that seven-year-old who felt so hopeless that she contemplated jumping off a balcony.

I’m now 23, and I’ve had three major depressive suicidal downswings that required intense therapy and medication. Otherwise, I’ve managed. I never thought that my mental health was as important as my physical health. My mental health took a back seat until it compromised my physical health: I’ve been in a year-long battle with severe depression.

I’ve been doing intense therapy, working with my medical team and with my loved ones. If you’ve ever dealt with depression, whether situational or chronic, you know what it feels like. I tend to have more bad days than good ones. Even when I’m happy, this dark barracuda-type monster inside me eats at that happiness, and my head is filled with darkness. It’s not something I can control. This downswing didn’t happen overnight or over one thing. It was systematic. Shortly after I received my second kidney transplant, my life turned around. I’d gotten to that magical point, gotten the gift I’d waited so long for. I turned 21 a month later, and two months after that I was in a relationship. At the same time, I knew that it wasn’t enough. A week after I left the hospital, my beloved cat died. Months later, my wonderful great-grandmother, who’d been my inspiration, also passed away.

But at the same time, I was right where I belonged in life. I was becoming the kind of adult I could be proud of. (In many ways, I still am.) But things just didn’t add up.

I knew I was sad, but I figured that if I just kept going, the problem would resolve itself. I started getting anxiety attacks that increased to four or more a day. I ignored my body because I was convinced I could push through. I’ve battled worse, right?

Not quite. I failed to listen to my body. Anxiety attacks aren’t trivial; they’re your body’s physical response to your feelings. I knew this, but deep down I felt ashamed and guilty that despite the gift of life and all these good things, I was still unhappy. I wanted control and perfection. I worried that my depression and inability to master my feelings would make people disappointed in me.

I simply never thought that my mental health was as important as my physical health. Before my transplant, I had to meet with a psychiatrist and was aware that transplant medication can cause or exacerbate depression. But depression plays tricks on you; denial is one of them. It wasn’t until my health was at risk that my doctors and I saw how bad things had gotten and depression came to the forefront. I was terrified of food. It often made me feel sick to my stomach. My reaction was, “If I don’t eat, I won’t be sick.” When I got blood work done, my panic attacks were unmanageable. I have problems with my veins, and drawing blood is always a production. All of this left me feeling depleted and completely hopeless. I often asked myself, “Why am I still here? I wish I could just fade away.” Those thoughts became more frequent and more immediate, turning into, “How can I put this into action?”

That’s when depression became an issue. Right now, I’m still dealing with it. I’m turning shame and guilt into positivity. It’s taking all I have to let go of my fears and walls, to reach out and ask for the help I so desperately need. When I think about it like that, I can’t see it as a weakness any more. I see it as self-preservation—self-care. I have to treat it as I would a physical issue.

I also practice Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. I meditate; I do my best to focus on even the smallest amount of positivity that enters my day. I take time to care for myself and listen to my body, resting when I need to or just reading a book. I’m making social changes in the form of deciding whom to spend time with and making my needs and boundaries clear. This sometimes means that I have to step away from people who will compromise my mental well-being. I let the people in my life know what my needs are and what they can do to help. (Sometimes, it’s simply meeting up with a friend for a cup of tea or dinner or ordering in with my partner and watching a movie.) Sometimes it’s asking for an encouraging word, because we have to hear that we’re needed, that we matter.

As for self-esteem, I’m learning the difference between selfishness and selflessness and trying to understand that I can’t please everyone all the time. I no longer buy into preconceived social ideas and take pride in living my life. I refuse to be ashamed or put down. No one has the power to make me feel inferior. I’m confident in the people in my life and mostly in myself, because at the end of the day, I have to love myself.

To others dealing with depression, I want to say that it will trick you into believing that it’s hopeless. It’s not. Remember that you matter; you mean something. And, most important, remember that “if you’re going through hell, keep going.”

About the Author
Michelle Kats was born in 1989 with birth defects. She had a kidney transplant in 2001 that lasted until 2004. After six years on hemodialysis she received her second transplant in 2010. A long-time patient advocate and disability activist, she lives in Boston.

Article last updated July 16, 2013

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