“For many, chronic pain is depressing, period. It colors their day. It takes away their joy in life. It makes them feel helpless,” says Ouellette. “Even when the pain is gone, they’re waiting for it to come back. It becomes the central issue of their life.”
As a result, you may deprive yourself of daily pleasures, like going to the movies with a friend or going to a beloved niece’s wedding, because you’re so afraid that’s when the pain will return. That leads to social isolation — and even more depression. “Eventually you can’t tell which came first, the pain or the depression, but it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is you need to break that cycle,” says Ouellette.
Antidepressants may help, but they’re far more effective as part of a complete mental health program. Another part of that program is allowing yourself to grieve for what you’ve lost. Ouellette notes that for many people, having peripheral neuropathy means that something has died: their functionality, maybe even their ability to be independent. To move on, those losses must be recognized. According to Ouellette, “It’s all right to be angry; just don’t let the anger take over.” When you are ready to look forward, Ouellette suggests saying to yourself, “OK, something in my life has altered. Now, how do I deal with it?”
Mental health enhancers
For Mims Cushing, who has had neuropathy from unknown causes since 1999, part of dealing with it is putting her regular activities on hold when she feels her symptoms worsening. When you are having a lousy day, she recommends, find a way to take time out and do something you enjoy. “My book has a whole chapter on hobbies; escape your symptoms through distraction. We do hobbies because we love them, and what could be more uplifting?” (Cushing cowrote the book “You Can Cope with Peripheral Neuropathy” [Demos Health, 2009], with Dr. Latov.)
Cushing also offers this advice: “When you’re having a terrible day, don’t fight. Accept it. Instead of focusing on what’s hurting, look for one thing that went well.” It needn’t be anything phenomenal. Reminding yourself that you put all the laundry away is fine.
Don’t forget the effect your environment can have on you. It’s very easy to use pain as an excuse not to pick things up or to clean. “If you live in a messy house, it will slop over into the way you feel,” says Cushing. “Start small. Don’t try to clean the whole bedroom. Take out one drawer and reorganize it while you’re watching your favorite TV show,” she says. Who knows? You might find once you get started, you can’t wait to proceed! And the sense of accomplishment can only help lighten your mood.
Can’t regain your spirit alone? Find help. It doesn’t have to come from a mental health professional (although it can). Talk to friends, your doctor, or your pastor. Perhaps your local Agency on Aging can steer you to a service. (The national Web site is at www.n4a.org.) See if your doctor or an organization can steer you to people who they know have done well with neuropathy and might be willing to offer you support.
If you seek out a support group, however, remember that there’s a difference between telling others about your feelings and problems and complaining about them. Ouellette notes, “It shouldn’t just be people you can feel miserable with. The last thing you need is people to bring you down even further.”
Some support groups are run by trained professionals who can step in and redirect the discussion if a meeting is becoming a complaint session. But many others do not have a trained facilitator and rely on their members to respect the group’s ground rules and use their time together constructively.