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The Girl With the Invisible Disability

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If you’ve ever met me before, you probably see me as a well-rounded, independent, capable woman. You may even think I have my shit together. But if I were to show you the full picture, that beautiful image you have created of me in your head would be shattered. It would be shattered by stigma, assumptions and judgments. I’ve spent many years honing this image — shoving things under the rug and pretending to be perfect. Could you truly love and accept the flawed human being that I am?

I think everyone can relate to this struggle on some level. We all strive for this unattainable level of perfection and are often our own worst critics. But what happens when the rug gets pulled and all your open wounds are exposed? What happens when you just can’t fight it anymore? I’ll tell you what happens — you get labeled as “disabled.”

When you hear the word disabled, you probably immediately think of someone who cannot see or is missing a limb. There are many forms of impairment that can result in disability, but most people never consider those invisible forces. In fact, they are often laughed at and not taken seriously. What many people don’t know is that those forces are very real and they have an undeniable effect on our lives.

I have suffered all my life with post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, anxiety/panic disorder, anorexia nervosa and depression. I have never known any other way of being except to hide my struggles and keep chugging along. It wasn’t until meeting the love of my life (Matt is his name) that I finally found the courage and the strength to tackle these demons head-on. I decided that I didn’t want to run anymore — I wanted to be the best partner I could be and I wanted to, as Matt would say, “organize the bones in my closet.”

So how does this make me disabled, you ask? I can walk, run, read, drive, feed myself and do all those things that an able-bodied person can do. But what makes life almost impossible to face is the intense anxiety and panic that permeate my mind 24/7. This makes seemingly easy tasks feel insurmountable. I can’t just run to the grocery store for eggs and milk. I can’t work outside the home for more than a few hours every week. Every time my phone rings my heart drops and I go into panic. I can’t do anything without obsessing over every detail so that I can prepare myself for what I might face — always anticipating the worst.

But I wasn’t always willing to accept myself and my limits. I made it my mission in life to be perfect for so many years. I would see a therapist for a few sessions and think I had everything figured out. I thought that I could “heal” myself and be like everyone else. Perfection was my goal: I skipped two years of high school so I could start college early and move out at age 16; I went to an Ivy League university while working full-time and being completely self-sufficient; I managed several medical clinics and had a thriving career. I even moved to Hawaii because I thought that if I lived somewhere perfect, maybe I could be perfect. But at the end of the day, everywhere you go — there you are. My demons just followed me. When I couldn’t take the pressure anymore, I’d drop everything, burn all my bridges and move to a different city. This cycle would repeat over and over again.

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In just the last couple of years, I have found an amazing team of doctors and therapists who have given me some unique tools to help me manage my anxiety and panic. They have given me a safe place to explore and examine my mind and my emotions, but also to truly accept myself — flaws and all. (Well, that’s an ongoing process, but it’s working!) It’s incredible what progress you can make when you have a loving and understanding support system!

However, it’s not easy to abandon your old ways of coping. It’s still a struggle for me to be honest with people about what I deal with every day. I want to be understood, but I don’t want to be labeled and judged. Mental illness has such a stigma in this country! If you saw me in the grocery store with my service dog, would you assume I was faking? If I told you that I couldn’t work anymore, would you think I’m a spoiled and pampered woman? Would you for one moment give me the benefit of the doubt or try to walk in my shoes?

This is a universal lesson in acceptance. Every single person that we interact with has demons and flaws. Why do we strive for perfection when no one could ever be perfect? If we could all just be honest with ourselves and each other, we would realize that it’s OK to not have your shit together. It’s OK to struggle — we all do! What’s important is to look at each other with compassion and make an effort to squash those assumptions and judgments. I am disabled, but I’m also a human being. I want to truly be seen — not just labeled. We all do.

So next time you think you’ve got someone all figured out, take a moment to remember that everyone has a story.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

Lead image via Render Photography

Originally published: February 9, 2019
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