‘I know that I’m not bad or bro­ken for ex­pe­ri­enc­ing de­pres­sion’

Cul­tural nar­ra­tive of us­ing a wheel­chair mak­ing your en­tire life sad needs to end

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health Lifestyle - Fer­dia MacAonghusa

As I was get­ting off a bus yes­ter­day (“Warn­ing, wheel­chair ramp open­ing”), I felt a tap on my shoul­der. A woman with close-cropped hair and a slightly old-fash­ioned Dublin ac­cent – the kind that’s posh but nei­ther West-Brit RP nor nasally New South Dublin – asked me how I man­age to stay so cheer­ful.

I’m sure this sounds quite strange to the able-bod­ied read­ers out there, but to my dis­abled broth­ers, sis­ters and non-bi­nary sib­lings . . . well I feel rel­a­tively con­fi­dent that you’ve had an in­ter­ac­tion with a stranger that was at least vaguely sim­i­lar to this. It cer­tainly wasn’t my first.

The woman turned out to be very kind – she told me about dis­abled peo­ple in her life and she lis­tened em­pa­thet­i­cally to what I had to say. I don’t re­ally know why she thought I was par­tic­u­larly cheer­ful. Maybe I was just ex­cited to go to the library (I know, if you need to beat me up and take my lunch money I un­der­stand) and it was show­ing on my face.


I guess there’s never any harm in bust­ing a stereo­type or two. It’s my very strong be­lief that a dis­abled life is not nec­es­sar­ily a sad or a bad one. The cul­tural nar­ra­tive of us­ing a wheel­chair mak­ing your en­tire life sad or tragic needs to be got­ten rid of yes­ter­day.

So I tried my best not to feel too un­com­fort­able while I was be­ing praised for the mag­nif­i­cent feat of . . . smil­ing, I guess?

I told my­self that this per­son was be­ing kind and be­ing gen­uine, that any in­sen­si­tiv­i­ties were ac­ci­den­tal and there­fore no big deal. I also told my­self that this could serve a pur­pose, maybe this one stranger could walk away with a dif­fer­ent view on the value of dis­abled lives.

But at the same time, I was feel­ing a lit­tle bit like I was ly­ing. Be­cause, although I take great joy in peo­ple and ex­pe­ri­ences, although I do smile and laugh too loudly, it still feels strange for any­one to de­scribe me as a cheer­ful per­son. Mostly be­cause I’ve had clin­i­cal de­pres­sion for the last six years.

I was di­ag­nosed with de­pres­sion a cou­ple of months af­ter I first came home from hospi­tal. I was hav­ing panic at­tacks and I was awake for days at a time. I wasn’t re­ally eat­ing and I wasn’t re­ally smil­ing. It felt like I had been be­trayed twice; that my body had let me down and now my brain was fol­low­ing suit. With a lot of work, it got bet­ter. And then it got worse and then it got bet­ter.

Un­for­tu­nately, get­ting worse takes a lot less work than get­ting bet­ter.

So how do I square this with my be­lief that be­ing dis­abled doesn’t make you sad for­ever? I’m not sad for­ever, but I have been on anti-de­pres­sants more or less the whole time I’ve been dis­abled. (We def­i­nitely need to have a cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion about anti-de­pres­sants – they’re com­monly used, have few side ef­fects and are very ef­fec­tive. But that’s a con­ver­sa­tion for a dif­fer­ent col­umn.) I don’t think it’s as sim­ple as “I’m de­pressed be­cause I’m dis­abled”, but it would be ob­tuse to say that there’s no con­nec­tion.

De­pres­sion is of­ten talked about in purely neu­ro­log­i­cal terms. The sug­ges­tion be­ing there’s no fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence be­tween the fact that my spinal cord doesn’t prop­erly com­mu­ni­cate with my legs and the fact that my brain doesn’t pro­duce enough sero­tonin. This may be the case for some peo­ple, but I’ve al­ways felt that my de­pres­sion was a re­sponse to my cir­cum­stance, not just a chem­i­cal im­bal­ance.

When I’m at my low­est, I feel a des­per­ate, suf­fo­cat­ing sense of be­ing trapped in a “bad” life. Most of my brain, the part that thinks ra­tio­nally and de­cides my world view, knows that my life isn’t bad at all. I have close, amaz­ing re­la­tion­ships with some of the best peo­ple in the world. I get to write all the time and some­times I’m even paid for it (thanks, Ir­ish Times!). But you can’t de­bate de­pres­sion. You can’t per­suade your own brain to not be de­pressed any more with well-rea­soned ar­gu­ments.

The only thing you can do with de­pres­sion is to treat it. I used to spend time and en­ergy wor­ry­ing about whether I would have de­vel­oped de­pres­sion any­way at some point if my life didn’t change the way that it did. But as I get older, I’ve come to re­alise that it’s not ac­tu­ally that im­por­tant a ques­tion. And come to think of it, whether or not I truly “stay cheer­ful” or not isn’t that im­por­tant ei­ther. I know that my life is valu­able, that it can still be as good a life as any, re­gard­less of what other peo­ple think.

And I also know that I’m not bad or bro­ken for ex­pe­ri­enc­ing de­pres­sion.

And as far as this con­ver­sa­tion is con­cerned, I think that’s enough.

Fer­dia MacAonghusa: “It’s my very strong be­lief that a dis­abled life is not nec­es­sar­ily a sad or a bad one.” Wor­ry­ing

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