Content Warning: Mention of suicide, ableism, mental health conditions
September is Suicide Prevention Month. Mental health is of particular concern for disabled people, who face additional obstacles like systemic ableism, increased risk of poverty and isolation, and higher rates of chronic pain. Because of these factors, people with disabilities also struggle to access mental health services as easily as their peers without disabilities. Even with a bright, vibrant disabled community, even on the days I feel proudest to live in my disabled body, navigating the world with a disability is hard. I’ve learned over many years of advocacy that disability pride is not a perfect science. You can sincerely find joy in this life, you can refuse to have your disabled being marked inferior by the world, and still, some days will feel impossible.
In 2018, as part of a project inspired by the LiveOn Movement, I wrote a letter to my fellow disabled folks struggling with their mental health. Today, in 2021, I’m sitting down to write to them again because I have learned so much in the three years that have passed. I hope you will read along and remember how much the world needs you, exactly as you are.
Dear Disabled Friend Who Feels Depressed, Anxious, and Hopeless:
I have been in the place where you are. It’s a scary feeling to be there and you probably feel so alone. It’s not easy to be disabled, especially in a world that constantly tells us we don’t fit anywhere. Non-disabled people easily underestimate the toll of discrimination, of fighting for basic needs, of searching for a competent personal care worker so you can do something as simple as change your clothes.
Some days, it all feels like it will crush you. Disability pride, on those days, feels like a faraway concept. Like maybe it can only belong to the lucky ones. When I developed a new spinal condition in the fall of 2018 that left me with debilitating nerve pain, it was a major gut check: could I be proud in this body, the one I thought I knew, that now felt like it was burning me from the inside out? How many more gloved hands and clinical gazes could I bear on my skin, especially when most of those doctors implied that the chronic pain ruling my life wasn’t real?
Sure, I’d spent my whole adult life rallying for pride and acceptance, but on those mornings that I welled up with tears from nerve pain caused by my once innocuous pajama pants, I felt like a fraud.
It grew harder and harder not to compare my life to what I saw on Instagram, where former classmates posted photos of marriages and babies, while I tested the fabric on washcloths to see which kind wouldn’t feel like I’d poured acid on my skin.
Amid all this, when it felt like the whole world should be frozen and weeping with me, the pull of regular life still yanked at me. Phone calls, training home care aides about how to shower me, paperwork, paperwork, what to eat for breakfast. One of the hardest parts of being disabled, chronically ill, or some combination thereof is the loneliness.
Oh, the loneliness.
The feeling that you are a pit stop that other people will make only when they have some time out from their real social lives.
Several surgeries and many months of reflection later, I know that anxiety and depression are liars and thieves. I still struggle with loneliness from time to time and I know the stress of ableism will never fully dissipate. But I am here. That in itself is an accomplishment, although a society obsessed with productivity will try to tell you otherwise.
If you are reading this, you are still here too, and my god, I feel honored to be with you. I don’t care if all of your quarantine plants died, if you didn’t learn a new language this year, or if your sourdough bread attempt was a dumpster fire. The grades you earned in school, the job you have or don’t have… all of those things are so small. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in the time since my last letter is this: if we stopped celebrating people for what they do, and instead celebrated who they are, the whole world would feel so much healing.
My dear disabled friend, I’ve loved you from the beginning. Even if we never meet, my love for you remains.
Because despite our varied lives, you share with me a sense of knowing. Knowing what it feels like to be the one who stands out in every room. Knowing the stares. The questions. The bureaucratic chokehold of systems that are supposed to help us but hold us back instead.
With that shared knowing is a sacred kinship between you and me.
If you don’t feel proud in every moment, you are not a fraud. You are a human being who understands that joy and grief live together.
You are a person who matters… and I’m proud of you…even in the moments you don’t feel proud of yourself.