For a long time, I’ve struggled with whether or not to identify as ‘disabled’ (or as a ‘person with a disability.’) It’s only very recently that I’ve identified myself that way in my own thoughts, and even more recently that I’ve begun identifying that way publicly. (As in, my name listed as a contributor to this blog was pretty much my first public identification as a person with a disability.) Because I know a lot of other people who are unsure if they qualify as a person with a disability or are reluctant to identify as such, I thought it might be relevant to talk about some of my hesitations to identify this way and what finally convinced me that I do identify that way and why it was important to me to do so publicly.
My first reluctance came from what seems to be a very common concern – I did not think I was disabled ‘enough’ to identify as a person with a disability. At this point in my life, my disability is fairly well managed by medication and the approximately 900 million hours of therapy I’ve been through. My psychiatrist sees me once every 12 months to check on my blood levels and spend 10 minutes with me checking in, and other than that, I’m totally disengaged from the mental health care system. (Except for the pharmacy.) To everyone except those who know me extremely well, I pass as neurotypical. I work full time at a professional job. I live independently and manage my own household and finances. I often have days where the only thing relevant to my disability is the 30 seconds at night when I take my pills. Surely I cannot be disabled!
But I realized that view erases the very real aspects of my disability that I continue to experience. The periods in my past when I was more severely impaired by my disability (including my hospitalization) still exist and are still a part of me, no matter how well managed my disability is now. And the cyclical nature of many mental health disabilities means that while I’m at a relative peak now, I could find myself in a deep trough at any time. And there are limitations involved even with the minimal treatment I’m receiving – I have to make sure I have a dose of meds with me in case I sleep at a friends’ one night, I have to deal with the punishing withdrawal symptoms when I forget to take a dose on evening, I have the dry mouth and the flaky skin and the lump of belly fat that are side effects of one of my meds. (And there’s my monthly tangle with the pharmacy refill system.)
More importantly, I know that if I tell anyone my diagnosis, if they find out about the hospitalization or the 900 million hours of therapy or the meds I’m taking now, I change in their eyes. It’s easier for them to dismiss my emotions as an artifact of my disorder and thus irrelevant. It’s easier for them to patronize me because they assume I’m not capable of taking care of myself. However I think of myself, I know they will think of me as a person with a disability. (Actually, I suspect many of them would think of me as a “crazy bitch.”)
I’ve also struggled with identifying as a person with a disability because of the split between mental and physical disabilities. Even when I began identifying as a person with a mental health disorder, I still didn’t think of that as being a person with a disability. I thought people with physical disabilities focused mainly on physical access issues, which weren’t at all relevant to me. I don’t need reserved parking spaces, I can walk up stairs, I don’t need a special restroom.
Then I realized how artificial the distinction is between mental and physical disabilities. When I have a panic attack, it affects me physically. When I am depressed, I have no energy and I can’t walk up stairs. I also realized the enormous overlap – lots of people have both mental and physical disabilities, and it’s common for the treatments for physical disabilities (like narcotic painkillers) to have cognitive effects. I also started talking to people with physical disabilities and heard them concerned with much more than physical access which, while very important, is not the sole focus.
All of that is not why I began identifying as a person with a disability, though. I thought of myself as an individual struggling with a very specific and individualized problem. I know other people with the same diagnosis as me, and all of us have had very different experiences and very different approaches to treatment. So I thought of myself as an exceptionally special snowflake that had some exceptionally special difficulties for me to go through, difficulties that nobody else had or would experience. So I thought about my mental health issues as they affected me personally, how they had changed my life, how they had made me the person I am today. But because they were so inherently unique, because nobody had gone through exactly what I’d gone through, I tended to think of my disorder not even in terms of my diagnosis, but in terms of “the very special snowflake disorder that only applies to me.”
Thinking of it that way meant that all the negative reactions I got, all the judgments I got, all the dismissals and marginalizations and refusals to take me seriously, all the hoops I had to jump through to get what other people had – they were just about me. Personally. They were not about how people responded to mental health problems, they were not about how people respond to and discriminate against people with disabilities as a group, they were about ME. I had brought them upon myself because of my disordered behavior, because my special snowflake-ness was so annoying or intolerable that people had no choice but to write me off.
Amandaw recently told me that she thought of disability as a political identity and I strongly agree. Thinking of myself as part of a group of people who routinely encountered oppression on the basis of their disabilities meant that the reactions I got, the disregard, the disgust thinly veiled as pity, the refusal to deal with my emotions and ideas – that wasn’t because of me. That was because I was part of a group subjected to systemic and institutionalized discrimination and oppression. And it was wrong. But it wasn’t until I started thinking of myself as part of that group and thinking about how these systems affected all of us that I needed a term for “people who are discriminated against or oppressed by our culture and institutions in the same way I am.” It wasn’t until I started thinking of it as a group issue, rather than an individual issue, that I needed a word for that group.
These systems that oppress us don’t care one whit about my special snowflake-ness. They don’t care about how well I’m doing now. These systems exclude and marginalize and dismiss and mock me based on my disability status without taking into account any of the individual variations in my life and my disability. And when I hear a caseworker explain that “you can always tell who is crazy because they live in cardboard boxes and tell people it’s a palace and they’re the king,” it feels like a slap in the face whether or not she knows I’m disabled. It’s about the systems, the institutionalized attitudes. It’s not about me.
Even after realizing all of this, I was still reluctant to identify publicly as a person with a disability. I would share details of my mental health history and the effects of my mental health conditions, but I still wouldn’t come out and identify myself as a person with a disability. At least, until I began talking and working with the amazing women who are my co-contributors on this blog. Because that’s when I realized that identifying publicly gave me power. Gave us power. Allowed us to come together as women who experience oppression and discrimination on the basis of our disabilities. Allowed us to work together to identify and address these problems, to find others affected in the same way, and to come together to try to change things. Thinking of myself as a super special snowflake made that kind of collaboration and support impossible, because nobody could be in my special snowflake group with me.
So while I’ll always think of myself as a pretty damn special snowflake, I also now think of myself as a woman with a disability. And identifying that way has allowed me access to power and support that I don’t think I could have found otherwise.
Note: I’m going to moderate this comment thread with a heavy hand to ensure that there is absolutely no policing of disability. If I self-identify as a person with a disability, I do not owe you the information of my diagnosis, my health history, or my therapy records to ‘prove’ that I am disabled. Similarly, I will respect how others self-identify if they are doing so in good faith and expect other commenters to do the same.