Mental Health

How An Internship Forced Me To Accept That Mental Illness Is a ‘Real’ Disability

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.

During my tenure at CBC, I often felt like an undercover able-bodied person.

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?

Well, I’m sorry, but a weekly yoga class over zoom isn’t going to cut it for my brain.

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,

Freelancing Mental Health

How I Balance My Career With My Mental Health

When I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a writer. There were always other careers sprinkled in there — surgeon, anthropologist, teacher — but I knew that whatever I did, I wanted writing to be part of my life forever.

But after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder during my freshman year of college, my relationship with writing started to shift. Writing became something I did poorly and prolifically during periods of mania and something I didn’t do at all during depressive episodes, which left a very small window of stability for actually creating things I was proud of.

When I started writing for a living as a freelancer, my relationship with writing changed even more dramatically. Now, writing wasn’t something I did to fulfill myself. It was something I did to feed myself, and that made a huge difference. Much of my time now had to be spent writing pieces that I honestly didn’t care much about. There are so many boring parts of freelance writing — listicles, shopping guides, quick news stories — that don’t make me feel creatively stimulated. There are also important pieces that I would love to spend more time on, but financial needs and the needs of my editors mean that I have to submit quickly, which can feel demoralizing for a creative who wants to spend more time with their work.

But as a bipolar writer, this path has served me well. For the most part. Sometimes, I feel I’ve found the career best suited to my perilous mental health. Other times, I’m aware that I’ve found a career with an entirely different set of stressors and triggers that have and could still send me spiraling into distress or crisis.

This lifestyle has the potential to offer people like me multiple avenues for autonomy and flexibility, two things that are necessary for severely mentally ill people.

Writers and journalists often talk about the toll that this job takes on mental health. And it’s true. Being immersed in horrific new stories, receiving endless rejections, and often working alone from home are almost guaranteed to exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. But for those who experience severe mental illness — including the oft-excluded obsessive-compulsive disorder, major unipolar depression, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder — the ups and downs of freelance life can be more extreme, perhaps even life-threatening. At the same time, this lifestyle has the potential to offer people like me multiple avenues for autonomy and flexibility, two things that are necessary for severely mentally ill people.

For me, freelancing gives me the ability to honor my depressive and manic episodes when they come. I can acknowledge when I can’t “fight” off what my brain chemistry is determined to do, leaving more room for me to actually get better. I don’t have to come and sit at a desk every day. I can take off as much time as I need, and I can even cancel in-progress articles with little to no consequences. But this flexibility requires money, something which is hard for many freelancers to come by in an industry known for paying abysmally low rates, often extremely late.

After a suicide attempt in November of last year, I was fortunate enough — due to years of splitting rent with a partner or then not paying rent at all— to have enough money to take three months off work. I don’t know how I would have survived those months had I needed to work.

However, I also worked intensely in the months leading up to the suicide attempt, which brought in a great deal of money (sometimes $10,000 a month) which made me feel burnt out and depressed, especially when I’d write about heartbreaking stories or the anxiety-inducing fascism enveloping the country. I need the freedom to be able to take off work when I need to, but that freedom doesn’t come without its own sacrifices. This is why I firmly believe that all freelancers — but especially severely mentally ill writers — should work as hard as they can to get as much money for their work as possible. Always ask editors for more money, and set firm rates if you can. That extra $100 here and there can be critical for your mental health in times of crisis, especially if you’re able to have an emergency fund.

For a lot of us, freelancing is not so much a choice as it is a requirement in a deeply ableist, classist, and racist society.

Even though freelance writing may suit severely mentally ill people much better than staff writing jobs or other traditional careers, I often resent it, because I feel a bit forced into it. Staff writing jobs often don’t pay as well as I could make freelancing — especially having gotten two book deals during my three-year long career — and they’re often inaccessible to disabled people. For a lot of us, freelancing is not so much a choice as it is a requirement in a deeply ableist, classist, and racist society.

 Freelancing also doesn’t provide you with healthcare, something that every human needs, but especially those with mental health conditions. I dread turning 26 next year, because the expense of healthcare will be astronomical, I expect. I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do. All I know is I can’t survive without the anti-epileptics and anti-anxiety medications that help me manage the worst of my symptoms.

And then there is also the discrimination that comes along with being an openly severely mentally ill person in media. Mental health de-stigmatization has done wonders for mild to moderate depression and anxiety, but disorders like schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and bipolar disorder are still on the margins — or completely outside — of what society finds acceptable. For example, a writer with antisocial disorder recently penned a Modern Love column for the New York Times, about how her condition impacted her marriage. She was widely and thoroughly mocked by so many people on social media, quite a few of them people who have been open about their own mental health struggles.

As for me, bipolar disorder is less stigmatized than antisocial personality disorder  or schizophrenia, but I still get taunting messages from strangers in my DMs, trying to pour salt in the wounds I carry from a lifetime of dealing with mental health issues, and seven years of dealing with bipolar disorder.

Overall, I think this is the right career for me. I feel a degree of freedom that I didn’t have when I worked at a non-profit or when I worked as a waitress. I get to explore my creative passions and make money. I have the opportunity to write books about mental health. But I also deal with intense periods of loneliness because I don’t have traditional co-workers. I get anxiety sometimes because I don’t have a stable income; invoices come in scattered and sometimes extremely late. I feel an immense amount of pressure when I write about my mental health issues, and expose my vulnerabilities for the public eye.

Nylah Burton is a writer with bylines in New York Magazine, British Vogue, and ESSENCE. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter