How AS Saved My Mental Health

I was in a pretty dark place mentally just prior to my AS diagnosis. I was living in China and between jobs while I was dealing with some visa issues. This meant I had a couple of weeks in limbo with not a lot to do. I was experiencing back pain which I assumed was related to my rheumatoid arthritis. As I didn't have a reason to wake up early it led to a lot of late nights alone with my thoughts.

How it started

One sleepless night I found a documentary called Rocky & Wrighty: From Brockley To The Big Time about footballers Ian Wright and David Rocastle making out of the "ends" to become superstars which I thought would inspire me as a South Londoner. I had completely forgotten that David Rocastle tragically died at a very young age. A close friend had also recently passed away. I became very aware of my own mortality and started to feel down about my future living with an autoimmune disease.

I was very anxious and depressed for a few weeks. In typical male fashion, I was able to hide it pretty well from the people around me, but it would catch up with me when I found myself alone.

Going to the gym was something I used to really enjoy but I found myself asking, "what is the point?" I began to think that any exercise I did was in vain as my arthritic body would no doubt fail me at some point.

Finding out I had AS

Then one day I woke up unable to move with excruciating pain down my spine. Following a few days in the hospital, I was told I had ankylosing spondylitis (I'll share the full story of my diagnosis another time). Hearing ankylosing spondylitis was a massive shock as I had no idea what it was. I assumed such a scary-sounding medical term with so many syllables was probably a death sentence. I was of course very wrong - although this realization was delayed as the doctor left without explaining the condition in any detail. Google is blocked in China so that line of inquiry wasn’t available to me either.

Surprisingly, instead of this situation sending me into a deeper mental breakdown, it turned out to be my escape route. For the first few days, my response was to mope around and occasionally punch a wall like a typical toxic male. Then one day I had a realization: all of the energy I was putting into being frustrated at everything was never going to get me better. I decided to channel all of my energy into making a recovery by any means necessary. Having the goal of making my body better and being able to walk again gave me back my fighting spirit.

How I refocused my energy

When my joints were hurting, I would look up what kind of stretches or exercises could be beneficial and try them out. At first, due to the state I was in, a lot of these were near impossible, but I would hobble to the gym on my crutches and do whatever my body felt able to do until I could perform them better.

Instead of getting angry at my inflamed joints, I looked up natural anti-inflammatory recipes and put that energy into preparing healthy meals and adjusting my diet to aid my recovery.

Doing this has helped me through my 11 months shielding during the pandemic too. I have been channeling my frustrations about being alone and inside for so long into doing productive things that keep me positive and make me feel like I’m spending my time wisely.

In summary

I'm not saying by any means that this is the solution to all mental distress caused by AS or any chronic issue. But without sounding like too much of a hippy, I think that channeling your energy into something positive is crucial for having a positive mindset and fighting the battles that AS gives us.

Ankylosing spondylitis affects our minds as much as it affects our spines, so it is crucial we do things that help us with both the mental and physical aspects of having the condition. To anyone out there struggling with their situation, I strongly recommend giving this a try.

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