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What I Realized After I Received Accommodations for My Mental Illnesses

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“So are you documenting a physical illness or a learning disability?” Maternal eyes and a soft, Southern alto accompanied the question. Suddenly anxious and ashamed, I froze. Then, surprised by my own reaction, I had to balance.

It’d been a long seven weeks trying to get into my campus disability office. Unreturned phone calls, closed offices and my own feelings of fear and shame had prevented me from registering until midterm. This had hurt my grades, but with the aid of my new medication, I was finally able to ask for the accommodations I deserved.

But I have a mental illness.

“I have bipolar disorder. I also have severe anxiety, and lately I’ve been treated for OCD. There’s an eating disorder diagnosis in there somewhere and ADHD but …” Blushing, I stammered on about the chronic pain and fatigue, arthritis and how I understood that endometriosis probably isn’t covered under disability law. “My doctors think I have whatever that gluten thing is — why can’t remember what it’s called — my brother has it, but I have a couple more tests before I get a formal diagnosis so that doesn’t count.”

Finally, I concluded my awkward rambling by squaring my shoulders, taking a breath and clearly saying that my mental illnesses were the real reason I was there.

That poor administrative assistant! She softened her voice a tad and told me that as soon as I brought in clinical documentation of my mental diagnoses and list of medications, my accommodations would begin immediately.

Relief washed over me, as did a solid realization. There was absolutely no reason why my mental illnesses should have been treated any differently than someone else’s physical illnesses. My idea that perhaps they should have been or would have been was just plain wrong, which was an injustice not only to myself but to others who were also sick. Somewhere, deep down, there was an ableist voice that certainly wasn’t my own, but I had been catering to it for too long.

I don’t intend to hurt feelings or ruffle feathers. I’m not the sickest woman in the world. Even my chronic pain is nothing compared to the pain of some of those I love. I don’t mean to say that the severity of my illnesses match the severity of all others’ illnesses. Frankly, I’m a lucky lady.

Rather, my point is that not only can mental illness be as debilitating as certain physical illnesses, the differentiation between the two is 100 percent fictional. This differentiation is an ableist idea that hurts the chronically ill and creates a negative divide, generating shame and discord.

For example, my uterus and ovaries are horrible at being a uterus and ovaries. No joke — I’m not sure there’s one thing they do right. They have very short job descriptions, and if I were truly the boss of them, they’d have been fired years ago.

My brain is just as sick as they are. These illnesses show up on MRIs. While my physical symptoms to bipolar disorder or OCD are secondary (whereas the physical symptoms of endo and arthritis are clearly primary), all of these illnesses stem from a malfunctioning body part. 

I am no more in control of bipolar disorder than I am of endometriosis or ovarian cysts. I can treat them, manage them and accept them, but I cannot control their existence. These are silly organs who hate their jobs. Plain and simple.

I’m grateful to my school’s disability office. They treated me with equality. Her initial question no longer shames me; physical illness encompasses every condition I’m registering.

It’s time to silence ableist ideas and rid ourselves of this fictional divide.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

Originally published: October 10, 2016
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