The first thing you notice when you work with people with special needs is the reactions of able bodied people. If I’m working with someone in a wheelchair, a stranger’s eyes will immediately be drawn to the chair. If my client moves awkwardly due to low functioning physical abilities, that’s what the stranger will notice first. It’s natural, our gaze is always drawn to difference, but it also creates tension, because most people don’t know how to act in the presence of a disability. They’ll stare, then realize what they’re doing and look away. Or they’ll smile and watch their feet or perform a hundred other nervous tics. Every movement screams discomfort.
Whenever these situations arise, I always attempt to smooth things over, act graciously. But there are times I just want to scream. “It’s just a wheelchair! Stop treating my client like they’re a freak!” I never do, of course, but it is often tempting. And when you see that reaction happen consistently, it can affect you. Especially if you’re dealing with your own noticeable disability.
In my case, it’s depression. Some days my mental limp is hardly noticeable, even to me. Other days it’s more obvious, so much so that I’ll avoid public places. Last year, things became so bad that I could no longer move.
I felt trapped. Like I’d fallen out of my wheelchair and everyone was staring at me. I’d always been fairly honest about my struggles with depression, but it had never been this bad. This debilitating.
It was a strange and entirely terrifying place to be, as if I’d fallen in a crowded shopping mall and people were glaring at me as they passed by. I heard the accusations in their expressions. I was a loser. I was impotent. I was weak. I felt and heard those things, and my response was to cower into a corner. My disability was no longer a limp. It had produced a live corpse.
Months passed, and slowly, ever so slowly, I was able to sit up again. I was able to stand. I was able to walk, though only with crutches. Every step was painful. I did my best to ignore the stares and pretend I didn’t see them. That was how I’d dealt with my depression for most of my life, but this time it wasn’t enough. There had to be more. I was tired of “surviving.” I wanted to live again.
But how did I do that? Was it even possible? The answer was, and is, yes. Here is what I started doing, just a few things that have helped re-shape my life.
1. Ignore The Lies
Like most mental health sicknesses, depression tells you a lot of lies. In fact, I’m certain that depression has a Ph. D in Bullshit. These lies are highly destructive. In my case, they separated me from my family and friends. My depression told me that if I was honest with people around me, I would only bring them down. That if I relied on my friends and was honest with my wife, it would drive them away. In fact, the reverse was true. No one understood what I was going through because I lacked the courage and understanding how important it was to tell them. I ended up secluding myself. Self-medicating with alcohol because I just wanted the pain to stop. What I didn’t realize was that seclusion is about the worst thing for mental health sufferers. When we are alone, the voices that tell us those powerful lies become louder, and we hear them more clearly.
I am learning to reject those lies. I rely on my friends now, more than ever. I am either on the phone or texting them every day. I need them, and I know I need them. What’s truly amazing is learning how much I have to offer. When I was trying to “spare them” with my self-imposed banishment, I was actually missing a chance to help them. I was missing the chance to hear what was going on in their lives and be there to console and counsel them, just as they were doing with me. (Depression can manifest itself in narcissistic behaviour, even when that isn’t the intention of those who suffer from it.) I’ve also found a community at SickNotWeak, and I can go there every day to interact with fellow sufferers for encouragement and comfort.
2. Seek Professional Help
This one hurts. I’ve battled depression for nearly two decades and am only now getting professional help. There are numerous reasons for this, including a lack of income or insurance, but basically it comes down to fear and ignorance. I’m finally be addressing this issue. It’s fine to read blogs like this one and talk to your friends, but NOTHING matters more than getting professional help.
3. Don’t Be Ashamed
Over the years, I’ve mostly been honest about my mental health issues, but more like an old high school football injury than a sickness that is potentially fatal. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t do anything to deserve it. Neither did you. Embrace it as much as you can and do NOT be ashamed by it. The special needs children I work with at school didn’t ask to be born with disabilities, and no one blames them for it. The same is true for mental health sufferers. Yes, some people are going to be Climate Change deniers. They’re going to accuse you of being lazy. Or weak. Or tell you that “it’s all in your head.”
Ignore them. You can accomplish your dreams regardless of your mental health issues, but never be ashamed of them. That will push you into hiding, and that’s the worst place you can be. I had to learn that the hard way.
Look, dealing with this kind of struggle is never easy. Mental health problems are nuanced and difficult. Not only for the one who suffers from it, but for the people around them as well. It’s easy to fall into the trap of simplifying something that is actually quite complicated, and listening to the voices in your head that tell you awful things about yourself.
No one moves without some pain in their life. Whether they acknowledge it or not doesn’t matter, it is part of being human. The key is understanding that no matter how bad it gets, you aren’t alone. You may feel like you can’t do anything but crawl. Maybe it feels like everyone is staring at your wheelchair. Those are lies. There are plenty of people willing to help you up, people who suffer the way you suffer, people who understand that only a life lived in community is a life worthy of living. We all walk with a limp, whether someone can see it or not, and by reaching out and ignoring the lies, you’ll find that you can do more than just survive.
You can live.