As someone with a physical disability, I have always struggled with my mental health. I’m not certain whether my anxiety and depression are only manifested as a reaction to my experiences as a disabled woman, but I am confident they are, at the very least, exacerbated by it. Even if I tend to forget, I’m fortunate that my disability (Charcot-Marie-Tooth) is fairly easy to hide. My disability is a neurological disorder that causes the muscles in my lower extremities to be weaker than normal. I wear leg braces to help me walk, but other than that, I live a fairly normal life. My mental health is severely impacted by my disability, however, because my anxieties are constantly on edge as I worry about people staring, or about climbing stairs, or about standing for too long without a chance to sit. Ever since I was a child, I’ve lived with severe anxieties that caused stomachaches and nightmares. I feared everything from going over bridges to being sucked down the drain (this fear inspired by a Rugrats episode). It was so bad that if my family went out on a school night, I would nearly be in tears if I hadn’t been able to finish my homework beforehand, for fear of not having enough time to complete it when we finally returned home.
It wasn’t until a few months ago, when my anxiety transformed into depression and I struggled to keep up appearances of being just fine, that I finally got help. I am unable to pinpoint the exact moment my depression became a thing. It’s possible that I was rejected from one too many jobs, or I could feel some of my college friends and I growing apart as our early 20s began to slip away. Either way, I knew I was in trouble when I struggled with my writing; my creative juices simply were not flowing. I am writing about living with a disability for an MFA program and constantly focusing on the struggles I have faced with my disability became too much for me to work on. At the same time, I knew I needed to complete my memoir not just for my degree, but because I felt by getting my truth down on paper it would begin to help me understand and reconcile my negative feelings towards my disability.
I am unable to pinpoint the exact moment my depression became a thing. It’s possible that I was rejected from one too many jobs, or I could feel some of my college friends and I growing apart as our early 20s began to slip away.
I had wanted to work with a therapist for several years, as more of my friends began seeing one and shared their positive experiences. But, like many Americans, mental health costs were not covered under my insurance. I contacted therapist after therapist, hoping I would find one who would take pity on me and offer a discount. Finally, I found one and have been working with her for several months.
We were able to meet in person once before we were forced into quarantine. I was worried that I would no longer be able to see my therapist, but was glad when she offered telehealth sessions. Our first session was a struggle, the video continuously froze, the audio was too low, and I ended the session fearing the next virtual appointment. After that first session though, we decided to forgo the video and just do a phone call.
While I was happy that I was still able to speak with my therapist on a weekly basis, I feared that by not being able to see me, she would miss out on certain physical cues that were instrumental to understanding my anxiety. I have found that the only way to combat this is by vocalizing the reason behind the fidgeting, or if I don’t know the reason, simply vocalizing the fact that I am feeling anxious at that moment. This is challenging me to be more honest about my thoughts and feelings. On the flip side, not seeing my therapist face-to-face has given me a certain level of confidence I would not exude in person. In-person, I would be more focused on what I was doing with my hands or fidgeting with my hair than the conversation at hand. Like many aspects of our lives at this time, I need to be OK taking the good with the bad.
While I was happy that I was still able to speak with my therapist on a weekly basis, I feared that by not being able to see me, she would miss out on certain physical cues that were instrumental to understanding my anxiety.
I told my therapist how, in a weird way, I felt fortunate that I have struggled with anxiety for most of my life and that I had sought help before the pandemic began. Nearly everyone is now living in a state of constant fear and anxiety, and many people have not had to deal with these feelings before. As someone who has lived with anxiety all my life, I am slightly better equipped to recognize irrational fears versus rational ones, which I think makes a huge difference in this pandemic. I read a lot—whether books, magazines, newspapers, etc., I am almost always reading—and I have found this breadth of information and various perspectives have made it easier for me to identify those rational versus irrational thoughts.
Books allow me to see that I am not alone in my way of thinking. For example, I am currently reading Sally Rooney’s Normal People (which is also a limited series) which tackles numerous mental health issues. I see myself in those characters, and it is helping me understand why I think the way I do. With the pandemic, I read verified sources that reference experts to determine what level of worry is rational. I admit the beginning of the pandemic made my anxieties even worse (for a time I had a panic attack anytime I listened to White House press briefings), but as the weeks stretched into months, the shock has worn off and I have educated myself enough to feel I have the tools necessary to be as safe as I can be, without closing myself off from the rest of the world.
Whenever I go out I wear a mask, I wash my hands, and I keep my distance. I have not seen my family and friends in person because many of them are essential workers, but I video chat with at least one or two people every week and plan on having safe, socially-distanced dates with a friend. I feel as time has passed, I have begun to settle into my “normal” levels of anxieties, which I have been learning to deal with for months now. I work to challenge my suffocating mindsets, but more importantly, I am working to trust myself.
Like many aspects of our lives at this time, I need to be OK taking the good with the bad.
I have decided to treat myself throughout this pandemic by ordering an abundance of goodies from face masks to bath bombs, salon-quality hair products to new clothes. When I put on new clothes and my hair is done, my face is clear and my makeup looks good, I feel rejuvenated.
Doing these things, like buying fashion and beauty products, helps me feel good about myself and my body, something that I have always struggled with. With the pandemic, I went several weeks where I didn’t do my hair at all, I wore sweats or pajama pants every day, and it negatively impacted my mental health. I was hesitant to order things at first because I felt guilty for the delivery drivers and warehouse workers, but after a few weeks of realizing that things were not going to change anytime soon and I was not going to be able to go shopping in person for the foreseeable future, I finally broke down and made my first purchase: prescription glasses and sunglasses.
I felt this was a necessary purchase, as I did need new glasses, and when I got them in the mail and tried them on I felt better than I had in weeks. They helped me feel cute and confident. After this, it was as though the floodgates opened and I felt free to order more: I bought a new CC cream from Ulta, as well as bath bombs, face masks, and lotion, I bought salon-quality hair care products from R+Co and, my most exciting purchase, I signed up for a clothing subscription service.
Doing these things, buying fashion and beauty products, helps me feel good about myself and my body, something that I have always struggled with.
Before the pandemic, it was my goal to become more comfortable with my body and less afraid of showing my leg braces. I planned to promote body positivity on social media by sharing photos of myself in dresses or shorts with my leg braces on full display. I have yet to get the courage to do this, but with my beauty purchases and focusing on my mental health with my therapist, I believe my confidence level is growing daily, and before long, I will be ready for the world to see me as I am—disability and all. More