It never occurred to me to label myself “disabled.” If it did, it somehow diminished my worth and value to society. I wasn’t disabled enough to earn that title. The harmful assumptions of those around me colored my view of myself. Self-loathing and disgust spiraled together until I could no longer love myself for those little quirks. They made me less than others.
I held on to the belief that I had to do everything independently and do it well. That anything other than perfection was unacceptable. That all-or-nothing mentality diminishes any amount of progress made unless it is complete. I suffered in silence, hiding what was flawed about myself—putting on a perfect performance of “non-disabled.” I even fought getting medications for anything because they were a sign that something was wrong with me. Something as simple as a beta blocker was a crack in the perfect mask that I had created.
I balked when the doctors were concerned about depression. I refused medication because it was a “false sense of happiness.” When I eventually gave in and began taking antidepressants, I cried the entire way home. When I reacted to SSRIs, I thought it vindicated me in my belief that I didn’t have depression.
I didn’t know how right I was. Because I didn’t just have depression. Oh no, as my doctor said, I had debilitating ADHD. I was forty years old when I got that diagnosis, along with an alphabet soup of other diagnoses that make up my entire persona.
For the first time in my life, I felt seen. It wasn’t all in my head; my day-to-day struggles differed from others. For the longest time, I thought I was just unable to cope with the “normal under-the-weather” feelings we all get. I felt broken. I thought my day-to-day struggles were all in my head.
My self-inflicted ableism created a web of lies that turned into intrusive thoughts, which fueled my doubts. Like most of us who live with an invisible illness, I thought I had to make up for my shortcomings. If I asked for help, it proved that I was less than. I believed the rhetoric of non-disabled people, even though it was harmful to my well-being.
Add to that an invisible illness/disability that appears to leave you passing as functional; the pressure to perform as well as or above your peers is oppressive. When you feel you have to make up for your shortcomings by giving more than you have in you to give, it’s time to check that self-ableism at the door; it is not welcome here.
As I progress through my journey of self-discovery and healing, I find more and more that I continually apologize for the space I take up in this world, as though every breath I take is a burden to “normal” folks. I have seen this in many other disabled people as well. Apologizing for the space their wheelchair takes on an elevator or their white cane touching someone unintentionally, minimizing ourselves to take up less space to avoid inconveniencing the non-disabled population.
This is the ableist belief that we may not take up space, enjoy life, or live out loud and free. As if our differences diminish our rights. As if we cannot live a full life in a world that wasn’t created for us. We are adopting these societal views and applying them to ourselves in a perpetual loop.
How internalized ableism affects the writer.
It is nearly impossible to find a place for stories that feature disabled heroes and heroines in mainstream media. And if they are, those stories try to fix the disabled person. Novels, stories, and poems by disabled people are vastly underrepresented. We can see hints of ND, and disability in supporting characters in modern storytelling, usually used to show the magnanimity of the heroine/hero.
Often, the only way to get a story out into the world is to self-publishing or indie press. Not that these are not viable options for publishing your work; they very much are. It’s about representation. It’s about seeing a disabled heroine/hero on the cover of a novel in the bestseller display at Barnes and Noble. It’s about seeing yourself reflected in the media you consume.
Everyone deserves to see themselves represented in mainstream media. Every child, whether brown, white, black or beige, deserves representation and to see themselves and their lives reflected in what they read. We can say the same about ND/Disabled children and adults. We deserve to see our authentic experiences reflected in literature, not used as a plot device or character prop.
But, and this is HUGE, mainstream publishing would not publish specific themes. Because mainstream publishing is a massive marketing campaign, finding a market for many books by ND/Disabled folks would be difficult. We are too niche. They don’t know where we fit on a shelf. We are not marketable.
So, we internalize these ideas. We see ourselves reflected in the eyes of this “market.” This is where the ND/Disabled writer falls into the self-ableism trap. We believe we are not marketable; we are not sexy, and we will not sell.
But if we do not start telling our stories, others will. The cycle of ableism will continue, and we will not see ourselves reflected in literature. The only ones who can tell our stories are us. So, take up the space you need in the world. Tell your story and submit it everywhere. Or take control and learn how to self-publish to sell. Our voices, stories, and lives deserve to be out there and reach those like us.