Note: I was really hesitant to write this on Blogging Against Disablism Day, but it is a subject that has been on my mind a lot lately. It was after reading that writing on mental illness is very much welcome, that there is a language amnesty on this day, and specifically Amandaw’s comments encouraging people to hash out thoughts about what does and does not fit into disability that I decided to give this a go. I hope that it won’t end up being inappropriate.
I have depression, and have to varying degrees for most of my life. I guess that it was officially diagnosed only a few years back, though I’ve shown serious symptoms that there was something “wrong” with me since around age 10 and had my first major depressive episode when I was 13. Though not given a specific diagnosis, I also get acute anxiety over things that many people seem to not even think about, and will often spend a lot of time feeling horribly anxious for literally no reason or for a very minor one.
When not simply exceedingly depressed, especially when my condition isn’t being controlled with medication, I’ll often have really severe, usually angry mood swings (please note that these do not include manic episodes). And in addition to the emotional results of all of this, I can have extreme trouble with motivation, concentration and productivity. I also have a lot of difficulty dealing with conflict, and to put it rather mildly, do not react at all well to stress.
I’ve never mentioned this here before, though you may have seen me mentioning it in passing on other blogs or on Twitter, despite the fact that it would have been exceedingly relevant to do so on more than one occasion. The answer is simple: I’ve seen the reactions to it. I’ve seen that daring to confess any sort of mental illness and/or instability can be used against you, especially in the blogging world where credibility is regularly attacked, and where women are often called irrational just for having an opinion. And that people with anything short of “normal” mental health are often called irrational just by existing.
I know that many types of mental illness qualify under disability. And after doing a decent amount of reading, I know that depression can, as well. It is, however, not a term that I am comfortable using for myself, for numerous reasons (mainly a fear of appropriation). And it’s not what I want to explore here. I’m more interested in how bias has helped to shape my understanding of depression, a condition that is, after all, quite common, and yet still stigmatized.
When I first started displaying symptoms at about 10, I remember my mother threatening to take me to a doctor if my behavior didn’t get in line to determine whether or not I had a “chemical imbalance.” I don’t know whether she actually meant it as a threat to get me to behave, or whether I just interpreted it that way. But either way, it’s what happened. I started doing everything I could to hide any signs of depression that went beyond your normal teenage angst. As a teenager, my main fear was of my parents finding out how “crazy” I actually was and shipping me off to a mental institution. Because that’s what happens to crazy people.
And when my husband or close friends suggested numerous times that I try anti-depressants, I responded angrily and refused. Because I was better than that. Anti-depressants were for weak people who couldn’t handle it. I was tougher, and didn’t want to be a failure on top of everything else. Even once I did take the advice, I told only a total of the 6 people closest to me.
I thought depression equaled crazy, and of course that crazy was bad. Mental illness was bad. I didn’t want to be like that. I didn’t want people to know there was something wrong with me. I didn’t want them to look at me with disdain, or disgust, or pity. I didn’t want to be like “those people.”
In short, it seems, I didn’t want to be associated with disability.
Of course, I didn’t really see it that way. To me, disability meant wheelchair; “crazy” was just, well, crazy and meant there was something wrong with you instead of your body. It was a personal failing. But obviously, ableist is still what it was. I grew up in an ableist society, and I myself was supremely ableist. There was (and for most people still is) a line between “normal people” and everyone else. Of course, I didn’t want the stigma of being one of the everyone else.
That’s the thing. I’ve read before (and I wish I could remember where) that ableism is really a fear on the part of temporarily able-bodied (TAB) people that someday they too will have a disability, and therefore they need to create an “other” to erase the fear that it could happen to them. In my case, it was true. I had the idea mainly because I’d seen it all my life. And I bought into it, in large part I imagine, because I was afraid.
I wasn’t afraid of admitting there was something “wrong” with me because of the physical or emotional repercussions. I already had those. I was worried about the social repercussions. I was worried about how people would see me. I was worried about what they would do with me.
Though, yes, commitment to a psych ward or institutionalization isn’t even a particularly common response to people with depression, it does happen to a lot of people with other conditions. There are a lot of problems with how people are treated both within such care, and outside as a result of it. And at least as a teenager, I had no real frame of reference. Thanks in large part to ableist rhetoric, either I was “normal” or I was extremely mentally ill. And thanks also in large part to ableist rhetoric, I didn’t want to be on the mentally ill side.
That eventually changed, not because of any great social consciousness awakening, but because I hit a rock bottom in about 2006 when I just couldn’t handle it anymore and finally realized that I needed some help and medication was a good idea. Over the past 5 months, I’ve gotten a reminder of just how good of an idea it was when we lost our health insurance and I had to start going without it. (Note: Thanks a suggestion by the wonderful Donna, who I am extraordinarily grateful to, I have found an affordable way to go back on and started again last week.) It’s why the particularly observant among you may have noticed that in recent months, my blogging has been somewhat more sporadic.
The fear of the stigma was hardly unfounded. On many occasions when I have disclosed my depression/anxiety, I’ve faced it. I’ve been treated as though I have an attitude problem. I’ve been told that I should think more positively, or that I should just not worry so much, or that I should toughen up. I’ve been accused of making excuses and seeking sympathy for bad behavior. And I know that disclosing what I have now will likely, if not today then at some point, result in more.
Is the prejudice against mental illness as common as depression a form of ableism? I think so. But I’m not sure that I’m qualified to make that call. I do, however, think that at the very least, the two are incredibly related. We live in a world where there is a serious stigma against any form of mental illness whatsoever. And, of course, we live in a world where any kind of physical difference is heavily stigmatized as well.
Ableism is often talked about, and entirely appropriately, as something that results in direct discrimination. But it seems to me that it is also something that prevents people from being honest about and with themselves. And that it is a fear of and prejudice against disability and being seen as a person who has one, a fear of becoming a subject of that discrimination, that prevents people from getting the help and services that they need.
Special thanks to Renee, whose recent writing inspired me and gave me the strength to write this.