Learning to Love My Disabled Identity

For so many years, I thought that the key to survival was to run away from my disability, even if only emotionally. I thought that being known as the disabled girl would define my whole sense of self, ensuring that nobody cared about anything else. However, actively pretending that it doesn’t exist only served to send me into a spiral of self-hatred. Once this had begun, it was impossible to escape from and has constantly haunted the edges of my brain for almost a decade, if not longer. However, things have finally started to change over the past couple of days. It is like a dark fog has been lifted, simply from refusing to hide anymore and believing that I am capable of better.

Firstly, I learned that this blog has been viewed over one thousand times already. My weird little blog. If we know each other well enough to be connected on social media, then you probably already know that part. Truthfully, my head is still spinning. It is so difficult to comprehend how so many people care about reading my story, however briefly. My voice has always just felt pretty invisible, you know? It has often been like screaming into the void with nobody to hear. I can’t remember a time where I didn’t feel like a disappointing disabled person because I had nothing especially remarkable to offer the world. However, hitting this milestone proves my stupid brain wrong. It makes me feel like the possibilities are endless, although that probably won’t last long. Still, maybe my existence doesn’t have to be entirely mundane after all. For example: generally, I hate talking about my career prospects because writing has always felt like home for me, but I have always worried that I’m not good enough for it to be achievable. Now, for the first time, there is a glimmer of hope. For the first time ever, I am actually proud of myself. Can you believe it?! If you are reading this, you have collectively changed my life and I’m never going to be able to repay you.

Then, I posted on a disability support group and requested friends in a similar situation. I have never done anything like that before because the idea of being so vulnerable makes me feel physically sick, but I was so horribly alone and sad. Being young and disabled can be horribly lonely and sad — that’s the unfortunate reality. Frankly, I had expected to be completely ignored. At this point in time, it really didn’t feel like I mattered very much at all. Instead, over two-hundred people responded. Over two-hundred wonderful and warm human beings from around the world shared their stories with me, opening their hearts up to a friendship. I still haven’t been able to message all of them properly in the way that I would like, simply because there are not enough hours in the day. Even so, it has felt like I have been floating on a happy little cloud ever since. Until this moment, I had never before been embraced so tightly for my differences. Collectively, these people have saved me in ways that I’ll never fully be able to articulate. I’m still not completely convinced that I deserve each and every one of their beautifully kind gestures, but I’m determined to earn them. Their unconditional acceptance has allowed me to begin extending myself the same courtesy and it so deeply liberating. Being disabled can be a beautiful thing, too.

Also today, I received my first vaccine against COVID-19. I haven’t left the house much at all in the past year, so I was really very anxious about this whole process, but it all went smoothly. Since the pandemic first began, I have wanted to crawl outside of my own skin and be someone else. Anyone else. I deeply resented having to take so many extra steps in order to simply stay alive, so this feels like the beginning of brighter days. As a side note: my favourite mental health YouTuber has now acknowledged my existence on Twitter twice, so it feels like I have made it. Kidding, but still.

A woman (Danielle, the author of this blog) is smiling in the car and wearing a seatbelt. She is wearing glasses, a red jacket and black vest. She has messy hair but she doesn’t care.
This bitch got vaccinated: a picture taken after my appointment.

In short, I am not completely comfortable as a disabled young woman yet. I want to feel attractive and confident, so there is more work to be done. But representation is important to that process, so I’m going to continue to write until the world has changed for the better. I might even start a YouTube channel. Maybe. If I can get over my fear of the camera. But probably not. If you want to help me on this journey, please sign my gorgeous friend’s petition for a film with a disabled Disney princess here and don’t watch Sia’s new film ever. Give disabled actors the roles of disabled characters and don’t be a dick xoxo

PS: an extra special shout-out to my pals Imogen, Sophie, Céline and Jasmine. You will have a piece of my heart forever.

The Trauma of Being Disabled

Unfortunately, being disabled is often associated with some level of trauma, even if only through the way that it has been perceived by society. On a personal level, research has shown that adults with Cerebral Palsy are statistically more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety than those without.

When I was fourteen, one of my doctors randomly asked about my social life. I had been getting ready to leave the appointment and the question caught me completely off-guard. I couldn’t understand why that was relevant in any way, so tried to lie and tell her that I was generally pretty popular. In reality, I was decidedly unpopular and very depressed about my whole situation, though I didn’t have the language to express that back then. Just a few weeks before, I had started seeing the school counsellor, but left after the first session and never went back. Still today, I remember her looking at me enter the room and saying: “well, I can already tell why you’re here”. The whole interaction was fairly damaging — it felt like the only thing that anyone ever saw when looking at me, you know? So, when this doctor asked about my social life, my mum wasted no time in exposing the lie and asking for help. They promised to refer me to a therapist that specialised in working with disabled young people, but I never heard anything. It has been almost nine years and there was never any follow-up.

When I was about twenty, I cried in front of my GP about how bad my body image was (I had been there for an entirely different reason). Afterwards, we both just pretended that it had never happened. In that moment, the only advice that she could give me was to “focus on self-care and personal grooming”.

As I reflect upon these two examples of pivotal moments in my life, it’s difficult for me to even place responsibility or blame onto these professionals in any way. See, the key problem is that nobody truly knows how to help or understand. They can’t really be expected to, since the circumstances are complex beyond anybody’s imagination, so it’s probably not something that they are faced with on a regular basis. However, what it also means is that I’m left unable to truly understand myself, either.

Last night, I had a lengthy conversation with my good friend, Sonia. She is very wise and brilliant. She reminded me of how illness and being constantly surrounded by ignorance (however unintentional) causes your brain to be shaped differently to everyone else around you. You know, studying in a mainstream school when there are so many voices insisting that you don’t belong in that space kind of forces you to become mature very quickly, for example. It is almost like a protective barrier, which only creates a lifetime of difference, since it’s impossible for anyone else to be on exactly the same wavelength without experiencing those things. This is day one of my journey towards accepting and acknowledging that I have been through some heavy stuff, but that things do have the capacity to be better. To anyone reading this, even if we are not in touch, I want to thank you for coming along on the ride with me.

Reminder to self: I do not have to be defined by other people’s shitty treatment of me. It is possible to grow past that and move forward. I am determined to make sure that these experiences mean something.

My next post is going to be about disability and identity. I have some feelings about that myself, but it’d be cool to get some other perspectives, too! If you are disabled or chronically ill and want to have a conversation about it, send me a message. Let’s change the world. xxx

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