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Coming out as Disabled: Aisling Gallagher

Wednesday 03-12-2014 - 16:22

On the surface, things look pretty great. I have a well-paying job and a wonderful family who love and support me. I am also severely disabled.

This is a guest article by Aisling Gallagher – Open Place on Disabled Students’ Committee.

Trigger warning: this piece discusses mental health conditions (including personality disorders, depression, anxiety, eating disorders & associated behaviours), self-harm, suicide, rape and police.

My name is Aisling Gallagher. I have a well-paying job in a national mental health charity. I’m incredibly lucky to be studying for my dream master’s degree. I graduated from university with a first a few months ago and then moved to London a week later. I’m active in local campaigning groups. I have some wonderful friends – at home, in London, and across the UK. I have a wonderful family who love and support me, and have always been there when I need them. On the surface, things look pretty great.

I am also severely disabled.

I have long-term severe mental health conditions; clinical depression, general anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, bulimia, and borderline personality disorder. The effects of my medication are endless; chronic fatigue, lower energy levels, weight gain (which definitely isn’t ideal as someone who suffers from bulimia), decreased concentration levels, to name a few. The medications that keep me alive chip away at other parts of my life. I have to decide which of the two terrible options is the least terrible one to live with.

Despite being on long-term medication and having undergone long-term therapy, my disabilities still affect my life every single day. I have accepted that they aren’t going to go away – I’m probably stuck with these things for life. I have not had a stable year health-wise in a decade. I have been in hospital, in therapy, in bed for months. I don’t feel like I know what it is like to be ‘well’. I feel like I know what it is like to be coping, and sometimes only just. I am almost constantly teetering on the edge between coping, and having a breakdown.

This is my third year writing a ‘coming out as disabled’ blog for the NUS Disabled Students’ Campaign. And every year, I wonder if I really have anything to say. And then eventually I realise I have so much to say that I never know where to begin.

So this year, I’m going to write about mental health and activism.

The below piece is one that will probably come close to the heart of many disabled activists who read it – and perhaps also to those who don’t define as disabled. I didn’t start to identify as disabled until I was around 17, despite having been chronically unwell since the age of 11. Often the problem is that many don’t even realise they’re unwell, and so don’t seek help – not that the help is available anyway, but that’s an issue for another blog post.

The mental health of activists is something that isn’t taken seriously, neither within our own circles nor by society at large.

We're exhausted. We've either just finished a fifty-hour work week with a conference and a night of drinking at the weekend, or we're struggling to cope with the effect our clinical depression is having on our assignments and attendance at college, or we're trying to do all of these things at once. We are planning the next protest, the next demo, the next conference, but forget to plan in a meal. We try to take care of one another but never take care of ourselves. We haven't slept properly in months.

We're fed up. We're fed up of explaining to our family why you can't separate the politics from the person. Fed up of being told we should respect members of a party who are literally taking money from those who need it to survive and killing them, fed up of being told to shut up and listen to someone who thinks we should debate with a party of rape apologists, fed up of racist immigration controls and fascists given airtime and just about every decision made at the top, with no thought of those at the bottom. We are angry, so angry, that we don't know what to do with it. Sometimes we collapse, exhausted, in floods of tears, because we cannot for the life of us understand why anyone could do this to another human being. We cry on one another, we support one another, we give one another hope that tomorrow can be better. We miss the release of the razor. 

We've been arrested recently, we've been manhandled by the police, thrown mercilessly to the ground by several officers, and peers have the audacity to claim that this was somehow justifiable. We've been banned from protesting on our own campuses. We've been left in a cell mid-panic attack, and released 48 hours later. We're sick of people telling us that there's nothing wrong with the police, and we're sick of the state letting fascists march down our roads. We drag ourselves out of bed and stand as a blockade, trying to deal with the police and the fascists and the voice in our head telling us to kill ourselves. We have a panic attack in the kettle, and the police won't let us out. We go home and sleep for twenty hours.

We're counting the pennies to have enough to buy our medication in England, or we're sitting in Scotland and Northern Ireland feeling sorry for those who don't get them for free. We're hopelessly waiting for the next psychiatrist appointment, we're still at the bottom of the CBT waiting list, we don't know how to explain why we can't eat or sleep or why we keep having nightmares and we don't know what to say to our friends who are feeling like this too. We have enough scars between us to tell a hundred stories. We have to leave our medication on the kitchen table – otherwise we won't remember to take it, and the thoughts will come back again. Our interactions with people take place via the internet.

We spend weeks looking forward to seeing one another, to spend time with those we love, those who understand. But then we spend too much time awake wanting to die. Or rather, something triggers it, and then we realise we’re on our way to the train station or the pharmacy and we are hoping and praying that someone will see the look in our eyes and stop us from doing what our brains are telling us we should do. And we worry that writing about this will make people concerned. But we don't know what else to do.

We have dysfunctional relationships within our activist circles, mostly because they're our friendship circles too, and our room mates, and half the time we work with one another, too. We have issues with attachment, we have issues with self-worth, we have a f**ked up head and we don't know what to do with it, so we hurt one another. Our relationships are unstable, like our health. We can't be there for one another, because it's happening to everyone. We cry alone in our rooms because we don't want to be a burden. 

We can't reconcile our feminism with our own bodies. We can't stop ourselves developing eating disorders, but we curse ourselves for not being able to fight it. We restrict, we binge, we purge, but most importantly, we keep it a secret. We all have problems and we don't want to look like we're asking for sympathy, even when we're in tears each night because we had the audacity to allow our bodies to consume food. We can't look at ourselves in the mirror without our lip shaking. We preach body positivity, we deplore body shaming, and we berate ourselves for wishing we were thinner.

We can't escape. We can't escape because even when we have left the demo, even when we have stopped talking about welfare reforms, when we have stopped arguing with Tories, we are left in this world we live in. We are left in this place that condemns us for being ill, that hates us because we are women, that will leave us to die because we are disabled. To separate the politics from the person we recognise that one must be privileged enough to remain unaffected by the politics. We spend every single minute living in this hell of a patriarchal capitalist white supremacist s**t hole that has dragged each and every one of us to the bottom, and is determined to keep us there, no matter how much our arms flail and our hearts ache from the pain of it all. It wants to kill us and it will not stop until we are dead.

We try to keep telling ourselves that we need to be the living breathing reminder for others that there is good in the world, that there is hope, that there is pain but that there is also art, but eventually we break. Eventually, we stop telling ourselves that, and we stop being that person for other people. We want to cling to hope, to live by Andrea Gibson's words that all they knew of hate was that it couldn't beat the love out of me, but one day we stop. We can't do it anymore. We can't keep pretending that we're winning this fight, because we aren't. We're losing. We're broken. They've broken us.

I am not proud of my disabilities. I am not proud to be disabled. I am proud of the things that those who came before me managed to do despite their disabilities, but I also despair that we continue to judge the worth of disabled people based on what spectacular things we manage to do during our lifetimes despite being disabled. Our worth is not and should not be based on the things we spend our life trying to do – our worth is intrinsic because we are living breathing human beings, nothing less.

It would be a lie to not admit that I spend most of my time wishing that I was well – at this point I think I would give almost anything to not have to suffer with the conditions that I suffer with. Because I do, I suffer – my brain does not function as it should do, and I will have to try and manage this every day for the rest of my life. This year, for Disability History Month, I promised myself, again, that I would put myself and my health first. A seemingly small act, but revolutionary in terms of my own self-preservation and well-being. I hope that you will promise to try to do this for yourself, too. 

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