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Cartoon shows a woman in a face mask. She looks concerned and is in a haze of colors

There is no doubt this pandemic is having a ripple effect on many of my emotions and overall well-being. After a couple of months, the pandemic continues to make me uncomfortable in ways I am anxiously wanting to remove — but can’t. It often feels like a nightmare I can’t wake up from, with a new horrific chapter beginning each morning. Speaking of nightmares, those have been more common these past few months.

Living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), I have my own serious chronic illness to deal with on top of all the new issues and changes the pandemic is causing. I cannot dismiss how this unprecedented time is impacting my mental health. And I cannot ignore how my mental health impacts living with rheumatoid arthritis.

A Long History of Mental Health Issues

I have been living with anxiety and depression since I was a child, so I have developed a few coping skills to tackle this beast over the years. Here’s a hint: alcohol, emotional eating, or boys aren’t going to make you feel better in the long run. I used a lot ogf trial and error to patch up the hurt I felt inside — until I finally reached out for professional help. I’ve seen both psychiatrists and social workers since being diagnosed with RA.

My mental well-being ebbs and flows. I have good periods and more challenging ones. Right now, I’m struggling to balance life when everything has been abruptly changed and the grief process hits yet again. Being mostly stuck in my apartment with my 7-year-old son has allowed my thoughts to go rampant, escalating down a rabbit of self-pity and bad memories. It’s easy for me to become a Negative Nancy.

If I had to wrap words around my range of emotions right now, I’d say I am feeling, in no particular order:

  • Deprived
  • Frustrated
  • Restless
  • Bored out of my mind
  • Confused
  • Lost
  • Irritable
  • Afraid
  • Uneasily lonely

My Emotions Are Sapping My Energy and Motivation

It’s hard to escape this range of emotions. They leave me unmotivated, lost about what day it is or what time it is. For the sake of me and my son, I am sticking the best I can to a routine, yet I am constantly having to retreat inside to recoup my mental and physical well-being. Sadness and fatigue are taking a hold of me. I feel trapped inside my foggy head and in a body that is constantly hurting.

Did I mention that those of us living with chronic illness also have to deal their illness on top of all this? My RA symptoms have increased since I made the decision to self-isolate more than two months ago. It’s natural I feel this decline, but that doesn’t mean I am any more prepared for it.

When it comes to existential angst, I feel pretty helpless. I can’t change the world. I’m just a single mom with rheumatoid arthritis trying to hold it together and take care of her kid. I can, however, utilize my time wisely — in between getting the rest my body tells me it needs and being a homeschool teacher to my son. So how am I moving forward?  Let me explain my steps.

My Mental Health and Self-Care Game Plan

1. Recognize my emotions and share them with loved ones and professionals

Expressing myself to those close to me or reaching out for mental telehealth services can really boost my spirits or just help in vocalizing my emotions. It is important for me to confide in someone I trust and feel comfortable with, like my close friends or family. However, they can’t answer all my questions and concerns, so there is of course the help of health care professionals and medication.

To escape my negative thought patterns I am giving cognitive behavioral therapy a try with help from my clinical social worker.

Bottom line: There is no shame in reaching out for help in the way you need. You can safely do it in the privacy of your own home now, which is kinda nice when you live with chronic fatigue.

2. Follow my tried-and-true self-care

Taking care of myself with rheumatoid arthritis is incredibly important when dealing with all symptoms of the disease: joint pain, fatigue, cognitive dysfunction, and my emotions.

I have to take the time to exercise (even if gentle) and fill my house with healthy food choices so when I over snack I feel a little less guilty about it. Sometimes I need to just pause, take a deep breath in silence, and trust that my body will tell me what it needs. Since the pandemic started, I have been focusing on going for long (safe, socially distanced) walks exploring my city’s parks and strength training at home.

I am grateful for the new self-care techniques I’ve developed since my RA diagnosis. They certainly are helping me now after a few adjustments.

3. Reframe social distancing and isolating at home

I remind myself I am not stuck at home; I am safe at home. I am doing my part to keep my family and others safe. I do feel guilty that I cannot be on the frontlines helping, but I know I can do my part in keeping others safe by practicing social distancing, and that matters.

When I do need to go out I experience a lot of anxiety, so I feel a lot safer going out early mornings when less people are around or asking a friend for help when they are going to the store. Lately I’ve felt grateful that more people understand my concerns as someone with a chronic illness. I am hopeful that this empathy sticks after the pandemic ends.

4. Volunteer and involve myself in research for a better tomorrow

Volunteering gives me a greater sense of self-worth and purpose, which is important because I am no longer able to work a full-time job because of my disabilities. If you are unable to work because of the coronavirus, maybe you can find ways to volunteer in your community, like making face masks or involving yourself in research or fundraising. I felt quite deprived when all the events I was looking forward to attending for the next six months were cancelled, but adapting to these new ways helps me move forward and feel useful.

5. Educate myself and my son

It’s not always easy to see it like this, but I know the pandemic is an amazing opportunity to focus on growth and creativity. I am taking the extra time with my son to help him in his school work and in my free time watch documentaries or YouYube or how-to videos on subjects that interest me. Years of living with chronic illness has equipped me well for spending for long periods at home, so I know how to entertain myself.

6. Write out my feelings and symptoms

It’s a cathartic experience in a dark and confusing time. I find tracking my symptoms can be a major benefit in understanding how my body works. It is also helping me understand if my recent switch in medications is impacting how I feel.

My symptom journal has helped me recognize that there’s about a week each month where I seem to gain 30 pounds overnight, crave everything that’s bad for me, am more moody than usual, and tend to feel completely doomed and as though the world is against me. This is the week when I cry a lot more than usual, I’m more fatigued than usual, and my joints flare more. Not surprisingly, this also tied closely to my period and menstrual cycle — hormones can be such jerks. Seeing this pattern helps me know I will feel a bit better in a few days.

In addition to my symptom journal, which is just for me (and my doctor), I blog about my journey with arthritis, which has been very cathartic for me. Writing helps me organize my thoughts, emotions, and symptoms while in some ways forcing me to plan how to move forward and grow as a person, mother, and advocate.

I realize that my body and my mind are going through a traumatic experience right now. I am trying to focuse on gratitude and the silver linings I can find during this difficult time because we have to get our happiness today where we can.

And honestly, sometimes on those really bad days where nothing seems to help, I recognize I’m dealing with the shitty committee here. I give it one big arthritic middle finger — and keep on keeping on the best I can.

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