I feel like I am not disabled enough.
Well, yeah, sometimes I can hardly move because my body feels too heavy from the depression.
Yeah, sometimes when I look at a screen for work I feel my brain click off, leaving me frustratingly frozen.
Yeah, sometimes a slight criticism from a coworker will leave me fuming and wanting to hurt myself.
But I can run and jump freely. I can usually express myself okay. I have all my limbs and all my senses. I have it better than most.
Steph, you’re doing the whole “at least you aren’t ____” thing. You hate it when people tell you that others have it worse, and you’re doing it to yourself.
Damn it, you’re right. Okay. Let’s try this again.
This fall, I worked an internship at CBC under their CAPE (CBC abiliCrew Placements for Excellence) program, designed for people with disabilities to gain meaningful work experience at Canada’s public broadcaster. I couldn’t help feeling like I didn’t belong, amongst a blind woman and an amputee.
This is common for people with severe mental illness, like me. I have borderline personality disorder and anxiety, along with symptoms of ADHD and bipolar disorder. How can people with mental illness move to accept the fact that although we may be different from people with physical disabilities, we are still disabled and face barriers in employment due to our mental illness?
During my tenure at CBC, I often felt like an undercover able-bodied person, and that if I said the wrong thing or acted too neurotypical I would be thrown from the station, shamed for taking a spot away from a real disabled person.
I felt ashamed, like I wasn’t disabled enough to be part of the program.
At the same time, this was my first full-time job out of college and I was a 22-year-old living alone for the first time in my life. I was just starting to see the debilitating effects that mental illness can really have on a person, and I began to understand that it should be considered a “real” disability.
There were days where I pushed filthy dishes and beer cans out of the background of my video calls. There were days I attended meetings with a smile but immediately crawled into bed once I signed off. I spent all night one Sunday on my local mental health crisis line, yet showed up to work bright and early Monday morning.
A cycle was created. The work itself wasn’t too challenging, but I knew if I took on more of a workload, I wouldn’t be able to sustain my habit of spending most of the day staring at the ceiling under my duvet. Hiding this fact, however, just made me double down on my feelings of worthlessness. And then, feeling this way made me need to spend even more time in bed.
My well-meaning coworkers told me that if I needed a break I could take one, and all of the other sentiments you hear when you are publicly mentally ill. Even though I was specifically working here because of my illness, I still felt as though I couldn’t be open about my struggles. After all, in an environment where you are being paid to be productive, how accepting can someone be if I need something to be repeated because I zoned out?
And with the introduction, especially since March, of numerous policies in place at the company aimed at bettering employees’ mental health, you’d think that this feeling wouldn’t be so strong. Well, I’m sorry, but a weekly yoga class over zoom isn’t going to cut it for my brain.
In one of my many breakdowns over the last few months, I was looking online for the CBC Employee Assistance hotline, but I found out that for some reason you were only able to access the hotline if you had been working at CBC for 13 or more weeks. Sorry, was my suicidal ideation supposed to wait until after my 12th week to show up?
All these experiences made me almost regret the fact that I was publicly mentally ill. Funny enough, sometimes I find it easier to struggle in silence than to be open about it.
And I’m definitely not trying to bash CBC, as there is only so much you can expect when we are just starting to even talk about complex mental health issues such as mine. These experiences are a result of a failure of society, not any one company.
However, I do see the benefits of being open about mental illness — it is about time we start tackling the stigma around it and recognizing it as a legitimate disability. I tried a couple strategies that put me on the path to embracing the label of “disabled”.
First, I tried to just speak in facts. I am disabled. The chemical imbalance in my brain results in difficulties. Sometimes I can’t work because of this chemical imbalance. My parasympathetic nervous system is dysregulated. Speaking in purely factual statements is helpful for me because they are indisputable facts. There isn’t room for judgement, emotion, or resistance.
I reminded myself that I could mourn if I needed to.
When you accept that you are disabled, you are accepting that your life is more difficult than someone who doesn’t suffer from mental illness. That sucks! You didn’t do anything to deserve your mental illness. So scream about it. Get pissed off. Cry and mourn and grieve the hand you were given.
Lastly, I realized my mental illness makes me unique; leverage that.
Even though there are a lot of cons that come with being mentally ill, I try to find my strengths. I can be extraordinarily empathetic and kind, because I know what it’s like to need someone to carry me. My ADHD symptoms make me a great worker because I think outside the box and bring brilliant energy to every room. By finding your unique strengths, you can start to see that although you are disabled, that doesn’t make you any less valuable and important to the world.
It’ll take time to accept that you are disabled. Remember that although it is mostly invisible, mental illness has very real effects on your life and it’s okay to label yourself as disabled. And realize that your mental illness brings something special and unique to your work as a writer.
Stephanie is an emerging journalist based out of Edmonton, Canada. When she isn’t writing passive-aggressive articles on the city’s transit system, she’s usually chilling with her cat Juno or playing video games. You can find her on Twitter @s_swensrude or at her website, stephanieswensrude.com.