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When You Don't Feel 'Disabled Enough' as Someone With Mental Illness

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I often feel that I straddle the line between “truly” disabled and not. Living with mental illness inherently means I live with invisible illnesses. And unlike others, my illnesses are not severe, and they continue to get milder the longer I’m in treatment. I can easily mask my illnesses and pretend like they don’t impact my life on a day-to-day basis. I can pretend that I don’t have problems with anxiety and depression on the good days; even on the bad days, I can pretend that everything is fine. Saying “I’m fine” has practically been a part of my vocabulary since high school, a way of not confronting or dealing with my issues or making them known to others.

Getting help for your diagnoses is important. Getting the proper treatment is important. Being in recovery, whatever that may look like for you, is important. While many of us with mental illnesses struggle, we also triumph, and we can find ways to triumph. We deserve it, deserve to feel good, deserve to have more good days than bad ones, and we deserve to be in a place in life where we’re generally enjoying it and living our best lives.

But there’s a “curse” or unintended downside of doing well. Comparison is said to be the thief of joy, but it also causes unnecessary guilt. When I look at my life and the lives of others, people who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts or having panic attacks so bad that they can’t leave the house, the people who struggle with insomnia on a nightly basis, when I look at them and what they go through, my brain automatically makes comparisons. It makes me think that others have it worse, so by default I am not in a base state. It makes me think that I’m not struggling, not really, because there are so many problems out there that I don’t have or have never experienced. It’s always a matter of wondering what could be “worse” and seeing that I’m not in that state, so I feel like I have no right to feel the way I do.

I often feel like I don’t have the right to call myself disabled.

Terms like high functioning are damaging for just this reason. I would be considered “high functioning” with my depression and anxiety diagnoses because they haven’t severely impacted my life. I can still work and I can take on day-to-day chores and I can do things that abled people can do. I’m functioning well enough that really, what right do I have to call myself disabled?

I often struggle with this. I still do, even as I type this. I feel like there’s a barometer I have to meet to officially be considered disabled. I feel like I haven’t met that barometer. I can’t think of instances where medical ableism has greatly impacted me, or ableism in my everyday life. I haven’t lost friends over my diagnoses. I haven’t become distanced from my family because of my illnesses. All these barometers I mark as being “disabled enough” and I don’t meet them.

But this is a self-critical form of thinking more than anything. If I were anyone else, if I met someone else with my exact experience — if that person said they were disabled, or identified with the disability community, I would validate that. I would never tell someone that that isn’t the case. I would never tell someone that others “have it worse.” I would never tell someone, in so many words, that they’re not “disabled enough.”

So why do I do this to myself? It’s the same question I have when I sharply critique any aspect of my life, my feelings. My experiences with racism, misogyny, biphobia, and mental illness are real, but I often disregard how those experiences affect me, discarding them as “not that bad” and not something that should bother me. Many of us are harder on ourselves than we are on others, but knowing that doesn’t automatically make my brain ease up on itself. It’s still as critical as ever, pointing out every little way my life could be “worse” or how “good” I have it compared to others.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in therapy — in life in general — it’s that feelings are always valid. Everything that happens affects us differently. Two people can go through similar experiences and have vastly different emotional reactions to them. People have been victims of ableism and other forms of discrimination and prejudice, yet their feelings toward that experience will never be exactly the same, even if the type of discrimination they experience is the “same.” We are all unique people, with unique personalities and life experiences. We will never react the same way to the same situation — if being in the same situation as someone else is even possible — and we should therefore not expect others to act the same way when dealing with similar issues.

So no, I often don’t feel “disabled enough,” but that doesn’t mean I’m not disabled. That doesn’t mean my struggles aren’t real. That doesn’t mean what I’ve been through isn’t “as bad” as what others have gone through. It simply means that this has been my experience, and how I reacted emotionally is just my experience as well. There’s no value judgment on whether what I went through “justifies” my feelings or identification as disabled.

I don’t often feel “disabled enough,” but I am cognizant enough to realize that there is no measure of what is “disabled enough,” and there never will be.

Getty image by Lumezia.

Originally published: September 6, 2022
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