One In Five: Feeling invisible with an invisible illness

Mackenzie Lynn Acheson is a second-year psychology and criminology major from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. She enjoys reading, music, running and collecting plants.

My first year at St. Thomas University was not going according to plan.

The random aches and pains I’d been accustomed to for most of my life became more pronounced in September. By December, I ended up in the emergency room.

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at the end of January 2019. The diagnosis flipped my life upside down.

Fibromyalgia is a disorder of the central nervous system that causes widespread muscle and bone pain, chronic fatigue and “fibro fog,” which affects my memory and ability to concentrate.

Nothing felt right anymore. When I looked in the mirror, a sick stranger stared back at me. Once an active runner and frequent gym-goer, I was hardly able to get out of bed without pain and exhaustion. I felt lost, confused and isolated. My mental health began to deteriorate. I was no longer the outgoing and bubbly person my friends had come to know. I just wanted to sleep the pain away and I spent entire days in bed. 

I wrestled with my mental and physical health. Going to class became a task and I struggled to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It was as though I was looking in on my life from the outside. I was living with a chronic illness no one could see and a large part of society didn’t believe existed. It left me feeling invisible.

Even though I had an arsenal of friends and family offering their support and a best friend who has the same chronic illness, I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about what was happening to me. I worried they wouldn’t understand my point of view. My mental health was on a downward spiral that was progressing faster than it had in years. I couldn’t find an easy path or a quick fix like yoga to pull myself out of it.

Fortunately, a solution came with several visits to the doctor and late-night talks with my best friends. Together, we formulated a plan.

I would take my medication, 1000mg of naproxen and 300mg of gabapentin, every day and maintain a well-rounded diet. I’d participate in group activities like weekly gym sessions to help get myself back where I’d been in September. As my physical health slowly improved, so did my mental health.

On top of what the doctor prescribed, I found an outlet. I opened up about living with an invisible illness published in The Aquinian in February 2019. It gave me a platform to speak and made me feel as though people were listening. Peers and professors offered words of encouragement and the positive reinforcement I so desperately needed.

For the first time since receiving my diagnosis, I no longer feel invisible.

Now, in the early stages of my second year at STU, I’ve made peace with my diagnosis. I’ve let it become a quiet part of me rather than the ruling factor of my personhood. I’ve stopped ignoring its demands. I rest when my body tells me to rest. I listen to what it needs. Both myself and my fibromyalgia coexist in this body one day at a time. By making peace with it, I’ve found the necessary balance in its effect on my mental health.

While things aren’t all sunshine and rainbows in the world of my chronic illness and I am still no stranger to pain, I can now function most days. At the very least, things are looking up for me.

One in five is a bi-weekly column focused on students experiences with mental illness. If you would like to contribute, please send an email to features@theaq.net.

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