Blogging Against Disablism Day: On Depression

by Cara on May 1, 2009

in blogswarm, disability, discrimination

badd02Note: 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.

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{ 27 comments }

1 Renee May 1, 2009 at 12:38 pm

That took great courage Cara. It takes a strong person do disclose an invisible disability. Whether it is mental or physical their is always a cost but it is my hope that the more people read about disability the more that they will be encouraged to get their 101 on. I think that if we it just a little bit easier for the person behind us then we have accomplished something. This was an awesome post and today you inspire me.

2 abby jean May 1, 2009 at 12:44 pm

thanks for posting this, cara. i definitely agree that it can feel very risky and unsafe to disclose this kind of information. i find that the credibility attacks based on mental health status fit very closely with the credibility attacks already aimed at women because of their gender — accusations of hysteria, oversensitivity, overemotionality — and that disclosing a mental health issue as a woman is therefore particularly vulnerable.

i think a lot of this reaction is based on the existing perceived split between mental and physical health issues. (i think such a split is meaningless — both are based in biological processes outside of volitional control, both can affect cognition as well as physical abilities, etc.) i think we’ve progressed to the point where if we (the general public) see a person using a wheelchair, or another assistive device, we understand that not 100% of the person’s body is affected, they still have physical functional abilities, and their cognition is not necessarily affected. on the other hand, if we know a person has a mental health issue, that makes their entire brain and everything that comes from it inherently suspect and potentially flawed. we don’t understand that not every emotion is influenced by the MH issue, not every thought and opinion was formed by disordered thought processes.

so i obviously think there’s a lot to be gained from better education about and understanding of mental health issues. and this post is an important part of that – thank you very much for sharing.

3 Emma May 1, 2009 at 2:33 pm

As someone who is a lifelong wheelchair user and has spent at least the last six years struggling with depression which can be severe at times (well, I was diagnosed six years ago but likely had it several years before that looking back) I was nodding my head and agreeing with a lot of what you wrote. Felt like something I could have written in places. Thank you for finding the courage and the honesty to post this. I’m here via BADD and hope to get a chance to read more soon. Best, Emma

4 Gary Miller May 1, 2009 at 4:00 pm

Cara, how refreshingly honest; I know from personal experience how difficult this must have been for you.

In the early 1970′s I was involved in some pretty horrific events. Did the usual thing: ‘Hey, real men don’t show their emotions and never cry.’

Years later the problems started: mood swinges, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, etc.

It was only several years ago that a very astute professional finally decided that I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. With the right treatment, and still on medication, I can now live a ‘normal’ life.

I still suffer from depression, anxiety problems and mood swings, but I’m now better equipped to deal with the issues.

I’ve also managed to turn my experiences to my advantage. I now lead an active life promoting and advising on the subject of accessibility on the web. It’s almost become a crusade.

Having an ‘invisible’ disability can frequently be seen by others as worse than having a ‘visible’ disablitiy; the stigma, the whispering, the misconceptions and so on.

I salute you for jumping the first and most difficult hurdle of all – pretty much as I once did – admitting the facts in public.

Good luck and I thank The Goldfish for enabling me to participate in my first BADD.

5 Jay May 1, 2009 at 4:31 pm

Cara, I am sitting here and shaking with recognition and respect – or awe. I thought about BADD but it never occurred to me to connect my own experiences with and reaction to depression, which were quite similar to yours, with ableism.

I spend much of my professional life supporting people as they navigate these waters, and honestly telling them I won’t judge them as weak or deficient for taking meds. But when it was me – oh, that was *different*. I think I will blog about that, so I’ll save you the long comment, and just say – you write magnificently, and I appreciate your journey and am honored that you shared this part of it with us.

6 Sara B. May 1, 2009 at 5:10 pm

I dropped the ball on BADD this year but I just wanted to add to Abby Jean’s comment about women and mental illness. In ’06 I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which is an overwhelmingly gender-biased diagnosis, (one in every 33 women, compared with one in every 100 men) as well as a label that is particularly difficult to live with, even by mental illness standards. I was in a meeting once for my local mental health advisory council and a couple of therapists were having a hearty laugh over the fact that, “If you want to punch your client you know they’re borderline!” and they weren’t all that deterred when I told them I… uh… WAS “borderline.” People have speculated, and I’m inclined to agree, that because the symptoms of BPD can include “promiscuity” and confrontational behavior, two things shamed in women but generally tolerated in men, this could account for why the diagnosis is so more often given to women than men. A friend of mine said in all the years he worked at the state hospital he never saw a man diagnosed with BPD, only the women who, quote, “stood up to the staff.” I know I really have this disorder but I also gave the hospital staff hell, and now every time I speak my mind about mental health or other issues I always have to wonder if people see my passionate activism as a symptom of my disease.

7 sarady May 1, 2009 at 5:51 pm

Thank you for this post. I am a huge fan of your blog and many more that are written by strong women with an empowered voice. I have been dealing with depression in my own life for as long as I remember and its worsened in the last year to the point where I am paralyzed to make any changes. Every day I read these blogs and I wonder why can’t I do it? Why is everyone else able to cope. I wanted to read about other women’s experiences with depression and how they deal. I am glad you are making more people aware and I am in awe of your strength. Thank you for sharing and letting us know that we aren’t alone in what we are dealing with. I think in terms of ableism and depression, people would be more likely to seek help if it wasn’t just thinking that we are “crazy”. Sharing and talking about it is the only way to get rid of the stigma of depression, but talking about depression isn’t actually easy when you’re depressed. I am not just “making excuses”. I need to start believing that too before anyone else can.
Thank you.

8 SunlessNick May 1, 2009 at 7:03 pm

Thankyou for writing this Cara. My own experiences with depression are almost exactly what you wrote, and seeing what you wrote so well was heartening.

9 michelle May 1, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Excellent post Cara.

I’m actually very open about my depression – I do feel the stigma sometimes but I try to not let this bother me. Having said that I completely understand why many people choose to not disclose their illness and the difficulty they have in even revealing it to a few close friends.

I’ve also been blogging about the illness for a number of years now (I’ve been having major episodes for the past 15 years). Just under a year ago I was tentatively diagnosed as Bipolar II (the less severe form of Bipolar). It took me a while to “come out” on my blog, mostly because of concerns that the diagnosis may be false, but I always planned on talking about it. And I have.

I forgot to do my BADD post this year. I may do a belated one.

Anyway again, an excellent post. It took courage to talk about it and you should be proud of yourself.

10 Lisa A. May 1, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Thanks, Cara, for writing about this. I usually lurk, but this post hit a nerve for me since I’ve been living with severe social anxiety and less severe depression since I was between 3 and 4 years old. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 28, though, so it had a lot of time to set in. Since I can’t take anti-depressants, and treatment hasn’t done much for the anxiety, I’m not really “functional”.

Claiming the title “disabled” has been “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma for me. On one hand I feel like I’ve *had* to fight for that label because without it, people with zero psych training take it upon themselves to either diagnose me and prescribe treatment or decide I’m not “trying hard enough”. I have to convince them that mental illness is a “real” as bodily illness, and yes, it is disabling, because if I don’t, then I don’t have a Good Excuse for my problems.

On the other hand, by claiming the label of disabled by mental illness, it like you said: my thought and feelings are easily dismissed because I’m “crazy”. It’s frustrating as hell, because if I disagree with someone, it’s because of my anxiety, not because I have an actual legitimate reason.

I’m not even sure what my point here is, except to say that you’re not alone in your experiences, and agree that, yeah, ableism is pretty damaging. Better education is definitely needed. Oh, and best of luck with the meds. :)

11 Cara May 1, 2009 at 8:16 pm

Hey Everyone . . .

I’m sorry I’ve been silent on this thread thus far; I guess I just don’t really have much to add. But I did just want to say thanks to everyone for commenting, sharing stories and offering their support. I really do appreciate it.

12 Therese May 1, 2009 at 8:40 pm

I completely understand… some of your tweets sound like so many of my thoughts… *offers creepy huggles from another commenter you don’t know*

13 Kali May 1, 2009 at 9:15 pm

As someone with both physical and emotional disabilities, I absolutely think you were spot-on calling this ableism.

Ableism is definitely not limited to the physical side, and I think that emotional disorders do definitely have a special stigma…as you said, that idea of being ‘crazy’ as opposed to having a disability, which is somewhat more ‘respectable’.

BTW, depressive anger isn’t all that common. My uncle suffered from it very, very badly, and he became a much more pleasant person when he started taking prozac just because the rage didn’t run through him the way it had. My understanding is that when you’re dealing with depression, the depressive anger can be the hardest part to get managed. If yours is still going, you might want to talk to your psychiatrist about trying a different med.

I’m bipolar, and I agree 100% about the stigma of mental health. When I fill out forms for medical offices, some part of me inwardly cringes at 2 things – the fact that either my medication or my honest answers will point out the mood disorder, and the fact that everyone seems to want to talk about the fact that I was in an abusive relationship a long time ago, because the stupid forms ask and…well…I was always taught that you HAVE to be honest with your doctor. (On the flip side, it does mean that I get a moment to warn them that if I’m not ‘with it’ they can’t touch me without making sure I know they’re there unless they want to risk sending me into a panic or having me start swinging. PTSD can be managed, sure, but I think we all keep some little vestige of our triggers, and that one is mine)

~Kali

14 Kali May 1, 2009 at 9:15 pm

Er, sorry, major typo there! Depressive anger isn’t all that UNcommon!

15 thedrymock May 1, 2009 at 9:34 pm

I’ve been a lurker here for a long time, and just had to come out from hiding to add to the chorus of thank-you-for-posting-thises. Your symptoms sound a lot like mine, and it’s a comfort to hear someone whose insight (and writing) I really respect speaking openly about how difficult depression can be to deal with. I try to remind myself how lucky I am that things aren’t worse for me (because I am functioning decently in most areas without medication), but things are still really tough. My depression significantly impacts my work at school and at my job, but I don’t feel that it’s something I can explain to people as a mitigating factor, since in my experience anyone who has never been depressed is unlikely to be able to understand that it’s not something you can just shake off in order to get a paper written or a project done. I don’t know whether to call it ableism either, but stigma, for sure.

Anyway, thank you for posting this. It’s a relief sometimes just to hear that I’m not alone. I hope you feel some relief from talking about it, too.

16 Ravenna May 1, 2009 at 9:51 pm

My father is a psychiatrist; and my mentor killed himself because of untreated depression. He, too, thought medicine was for weak people who couldn’t treat themselves. He shot himself. A year ago.
It could’ve been avoided. My dad I argue sometimes about medication — I’m against its overuse; but I’m also for its use when it is needed.
Mental illnesses are very real and sadly misunderstood.

17 Cara May 1, 2009 at 9:51 pm

If yours is still going, you might want to talk to your psychiatrist about trying a different med.

Well, I honestly think that my personality is kind of angry to begin with. Which I like. I enjoy my righteous outrage — when I’m not depressed, it is what motivates me. But with regards to mood swing anger, anti-depressants totally did help before. Again, I’ve been off them for five months and just started again, so it will be some time before I can tell. I’m really just hoping they work again (I’ve heard that sometimes, upon going back on, they don’t), since the Wellbutrin previously worked really, really well. (And since I don’t have insurance so going back to the doctor to try yet another drug that may or may not work would be rather difficult.) But we’ll see.

I hope you feel some relief from talking about it, too.

I honestly wasn’t really expecting it. But I do, a bit.

18 EKSwitaj May 2, 2009 at 2:28 am

Hi Cara,

This story is similar in many ways to mine: I too was threatened with being taken to the doctor to be checked for an imbalance as a teenager, and I reacted in a very similar way. Thank you for sharing this.

19 Helen May 2, 2009 at 2:51 am

Thankyou for writing this. I argue with myself about my depression, whether it counts if I was a teen, if I was on hormones, if I was still functioning. Then I read posts like this and so much of it is familiar, it helps me remember to take care of myself (that is, do all the small things that tend to keep mine at bay, like eating enough, exercising and so on). See, the minute I say that I feel like I’m a big fraud because hey, I can make it go away, it can’t be that bad. Gahh. And of course, I can only talk or write about it whe I’m not in the throes, so it seems less real. Not just me, right?
x

20 amandaw May 2, 2009 at 5:14 am

I think what I love most about this post is it’s a lot of what I’ve been thinking about for the past several days, but wasn’t able to write.

Whether or not any specific person IDs as having a disability (and again, not everyone does, for totally legit reasons), the prejudice and stigma against mental illness is unquestionably ableism at work. And it’s bullshit.

It’s way too early in the morning to offer anything deeper than that, but I wanted to extend my thanks again. Keep on fightin’. :)

21 Becky May 2, 2009 at 4:40 pm

I’ve always been pretty open about my depression, but it’s only recently that I’ve started referring to it (even to myself) as a mental illness. Which is definitely because of the stigma.

My uncle suffered from it very, very badly, and he became a much more pleasant person when he started taking prozac just because the rage didn’t run through him the way it had.

Yeah, my mom too. Me too, to a lesser extent. My sister could probably benefit from medication too, but because unlike my mom and me she only has the rage and no other symptoms of depression, she doesn’t consider herself depressed and isn’t motivated to seek treatment.

22 JaneB May 2, 2009 at 6:37 pm

Hi,

Thanks for this post. It resonates with my own post for BADD, and it’s always helpful to read such an articulate description of feelings and experiences like my own.

23 helena May 3, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Thanks for posting this. I recognise many things you write about, I have been living with depression for years and been discriminated too.

I’m also glad to see that there are so many bloggers with mental illness contributing to BADD this year.

24 NTE May 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Is the prejudice against mental illness as common as depression a form of ableism?

Absolutely.

And good for you for recognizing it, and its role in your life.

And for having the courage to post this, knowing what you know about that prejudice.

25 Andrea S. May 9, 2009 at 10:06 am

Thank you for sharing this. As someone with attention deficit disorder, I see certain parallels in how other people respond. Sometimes even people who *know* about my diagnosis label choose to interpret my difficulties in doing certain things as “laziness” that I should be able to overcome just by exerting my will (similar to the idea of “snap out of it”). They don’t seem to grasp that if it was as easy as exerting a little will, or even a lot of it, then I would have done it as a little girl, I would have done it as a teen, I would have done it in my 20s and 30s and now. And then I wouldn’t have ended up with the diagnosis of ADHD (age 26) because there would have been no symptoms to diagnose.

In addition to having ADHD, I’m also deaf and have a mild foot problem that means I cannot run or jump and need to be careful how much weight I carry at one time and how far (or else the foot will be re-injured). Is depression a disability? I think by at least some definitions it could be. Certainly there is a community of people with various mental health labels who choose to refer to themselves as people with psycho-social disabilities. (eg, World Network of Users and Survivors of Psychiatry). But however one defines “disability,” much of the stigmatization and misunderstanding is the same. (And any definition of “disability” that only emphasizes physical aspects or that assumes a person has to be totally helpless and dependent in every sphere of existence before they “deserve” the label “disabled” is in my mind far too narrow and may actually be itself a reaction to disablist assumptions.)

26 AStevens May 16, 2009 at 5:50 am

Thank you for this blog post. I understand where you are coming from and am interested in changing the way depression, as well as other mental illnesses, are perceived.
Thank you for your courage.

27 Dolorosa May 27, 2009 at 10:08 am

I searched all morning for a blog that related to how I’m feeling today and yours was the only one that came close. I lashed out at a coworker last Saturday after so many frustrating meetings with him and my managers in trying to get equal breaks and fair treatment at work.
Even though we have the same job title and get the same pay, I am pretty much tied to a desk while he goes off on his own, without accountability to anyone. Today, after my two days off, my boss chewed us both out, telling us that it can’t happen again, we will be written up and possibly be looking for new jobs if we put our managers through such trouble. I told my boss, privately, that I was seeking help for my anger issues and he said he knew…I had mentioned it to my managers, to let them know that it was a challenge for me to express myself and that is why I sometimes waited too long and then exploded. He told me my managers tried to get me equal breaks and variety on my job and I told him that this was not true, or at least not communicated to ME. He told me that was “garbage” like what I was saying was completely invalidated. I feel like shit, I feel ashamed, I feel sorry for yelling at a coworker, yet I also feel a victory, for an email was sent to supervisors about how dispatchers (my position) will now be accountable to supervisors and will report whereabouts and commit to time frames. This will help me get my equal breaks and make my coworker accountable, which was my goal. For a while I could not even ask him to help me or break me without him putting up a fight. The effort involved in getting equality was so frustrating that I could not help but explode. I tried strategies suggested by my boss but it was too late for me…by the time I could get my coworker in an office to speak with him I had gone from zero to sixty and ended up yelling louder than I had realized.
I do suffer from depression, anxiety and I have anger management issues.
I take my medication regularly, I go to a LCSW at least twice a month now, through my Employee Assistance Program. I try to walk and get outside at home and work. I don’t drink alcohol. I have degrees in Fine Art, Theater Arts, and certificates in Computer Applications and a preliminary teaching certificate, but all of this education is always trumped by the difficulty I have with my emotions, and I either quit or am asked to leave once things get difficult at work. I attempted to apply for SSI after so many failures, thinking it would be better to give up, but I was hired for a teaching job before my application process was complete, so I figured I’ll keep working since someone thinks I can.
My mother and brother are bipolar. Both have had sketchy work histories and my brother just can’t work at all anymore. My mother always warned me about telling others about mental illness, as it was something that others would use to cheat and exploit you with, so I kept it quiet, regarding my family and myself, once I was diagnosed (in my 30′s).

This is getting long and off the point, so I want to say I have mixed feelings about disclosing my emotional issues and diagnosis but I feel I have to reveal myself in order to begin standing up for myself and that it is a process I will get better at. I’ve failed so many times, I’m not scared about doing it again, since I know I will survive.

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