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.
Platform Series: Ferdia MacAonghusa
1) How'd you like to be pushed around?
2) These are not my best days
3) Do something positive for the disabled
4) Our disabled bodies are different
5) Heard about the fella in a wheelchair?
6) I'm not bad for experiencing depression
7) I've finally found a way to be free
8) How about a job?
9) A defence of identity politics
10) Becoming disabled radicalised me