“Coming out” as it is often used in the LGBTQ (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer) community and describes the situation when you tell your friends/family that you identify with one of the aforementioned labels (or something similar). This is almost always a situation in which the “closeted” individual harbors an overwhelming fear of rejection. For me personally, my coming out as bisexual was not traumatic. For whatever reason, despite growing up in a rural area in the South I did not fear telling people how I identified. (Though in retrospect I probably should not have been surprised by the public accosting I received once I was “out”)
My second coming out however, was an entirely different story.
I grew up working class though we sometimes lived closer to the edges of poverty. I went for years and years without basic healthcare as a child and by the time my father had passed when I was in 7th grade and I start experiencing a number of serious psychiatric issues, there was no systematic/institutional help available to me. While many people often recall their childhood and or their teenage years as the best of their life- years in which their worries were small in comparison to the responsibilities they bear now as adults my recollections are vastly different.
I have suffered (and I use this word deliberately) from chronic depression for as long as I can remember. My post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) manifested after the death of my father. I didn’t understand what was happening at the time but my “episodes” were responses to the incest and abuse I experienced as a young child at the hands of an alcoholic parent. My PTSD only worsened/intensified through my teenage years after being raped more than once.
Am I afraid of saying this aloud to the internet? Yes of course. But I cannot continue to hide behind a wall of fear, I cannot ethically allow the public to think that PTSD is something that only affects veterans, I cannot feel right with myself to know that there are others out there who are dealing with the same thing and feel like no one understands them.
“Okay fine, but why the backstory? I thought this was about coming out?”
Well it is about coming out- my coming out as someone who has a disabilities.
“Buuut, I thought you said you had chronic depression and PTSD, where does the disability factor in?”
Well folks, what I’m saying is that chronic depression and PTSD are disabilities. Before you throw your hands up in frustration/dismay please continue reading.
A disability can be defined in a number of ways; if you look it up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary the first definition you will see is “a condition (such as an illness or an injury) that damages or limits a person’s physical or mental abilities” and secondly, “the condition of being unable to do things in the normal way.” (Note 1)
While this is perhaps the most literal way to define disability there are also a number of other ways that academics or social scientists think of disability. Generally speaking there are four broad categories into which most theories of disability can be fit: 1) medical models, 2) social constructionist models, 3) the British model also referred to as the social model, and 4) postmodern critiques.
Medical models of disability focus on the impairments (physical condition) of individuals and are not concerned with producing a sense of group unity among diverse patient groups. For example, under the medical model wheelchair users will see no commonality with people who have chronic fatigue syndrome or deafness. Some authors have suggested that the medical model relies on an ethic of individualism and personal achievement to maintain its control.(Note 2) A key emphasis within the medical model of disability is “overcoming” the disability itself via normalization through cure which may include the use of prostheses or other medical interventions. A medical model approach to disability often leads parents to pressure and sometimes even force their children into walking despite discomfort, exhaustion, pain, and surgical intervention. Walking is viewed as desirable and “normal” whereas using a mobility device (some kind of assistive technology like a wheelchair) is viewed as abnormal, the signifier of disability. For this reason people with disabilities under the medical model are often see as “poor creatures” or “helpless victims” of a disease in need of the “corrections” provided by modern medicine.
Social constructionist models of disability can vary between weak accounts and strong accounts.(Note 3) Weak accounts posit that dominant ideas, attitudes, and customs of a society influence the perception of bodies. Social constructionism in the weak sense tries to advance a commonsense approach to thinking about how people victimize individuals unlike them. In contrast strong accounts of social constructionism rely more on a linguistic model to describe representation as an ideological force (for example, the representation of disability in culture and its relationship with creating negative ideologies). Strong constructionism posits that the body does not determine its own representation in any way because the sign precedes the body in the hierarchy of signification (for example, the very idea of disability itself conditions how we think of and understand bodies that come into the world). Many social constructionists therefore rely on the work of Derrida (sign/signification)(Note 4) and Foucault (biopower)(Note 5) to inform their arguments.
In close alliance to social constructionist accounts of disability is the British model which is also sometimes referred to as the social model. Unlike other models the British model does not view impairment and disability as synonymous terms. Rather, impairment refers to physical conditions such blindness or the absence of a leg whereas disability refers to the social process in which impairments are escalated to levels of disability due to a lack of accessibility. We can think of a number of situations which demonstrate the persuasiveness of this argument. For example, according to the social model wheelchair users have physical impairments but these impairments only become disabling when there are a lack of ramps, elevators, and automatic doors. Many of the legislative appeals and successes in the United States have based their approach off of this model.(Note 6) Many of the international appeals/legislative proposals of disability also rely on this distinction between impairment and disability.
The last approach to disability embodiment is the postmodern critique. The postmodern critique of disability seeks to eradicate notions of essentialism (the notion that certain groups/things have core attributes/conditions that are unchanging and true) and therefore often advocates principles of indeterminacy, heterogeneity, plasticity, and performativity.(Note 7) Postmodern theories of disability also tend to dispute universalism (the idea that certain groups/things are the same everywhere). This is particularly important for subaltern/non-global North critiques of disability which argue that Western notions of disability compete and are often at odds with more localized/socio-historically specific understandings of disability. Postmodern critiques of disability also take issues with the binarization of impairment/disability found in the British/social model.
This purpose of outlining these common approaches to disability is to stress to the reader that disability itself is highly contentious category and that any evaluations or statements of “Truth” (Note 8) that are made about disability are inherently conditioned by the methodology which allowed the individual to arrive at such a conclusion in the first place.
For me personally, I tend towards post modern critiques of disability. However, I believe that all of the approaches outline do have relevance to a conception of disability as a whole. I will at some point, devote a full blog post to this topic and explain in more detail how I view/understand disability. For the time being though let me return to my discussion.
So here it is; I have psychiatric disabilities. My disabilities are non-visible for the most part (barring when I’m having an episode or rocking because of nervousness/anxiety etc.) Add into the fold the medicalized notion of disability as well as the longstanding tradition within psychiatry to label individuals with certain psychiatric conditions as deviant, I have never been open about my disabilities- even with my intimate partners. It often takes me years to talk with partners about my experiences- if I do/can at all. Though they might surmise no one in my family knows about my disabilities either.
The thing is because I have had such shame around my psychiatric disabilities and couldn’t even talk about them to the people I loved most I certainly could never have identified them as disabilities or being disabled.
“I mean I might be a little crazy right- but I’m not disabled! I mean being disabled is like the worst thing in the world right?! Besides isn’t that only for people who use wheelchairs or something?”
Well that’s what society had me thinking for a long time.
This kind of logic seems so absurd to me now has become very clear the ways in which I was subjectivated/subjectified (assujettissement) (Note 9) by the discourse of psychiatry, disciplined into specific models of behavior, and as a result became a producer of ableism.
Ableism is a term that is often used within the disability community to describe the process or practice(s) of discrimination and oppression of disabled people. Lying at the foundation of ableism is the idea that the “able” body is the standard against which all other bodies should be judged. According to the judgement made, bodies that are deemed as “other” or “disabled” should strive as much as possible to replicate or approximate the able norm.
It wasn’t until I embarked upon my graduate studies and became interested in the idea of disability that my prior misconceptions began to unfold in front of me. My journey of re-identification came to a culmination just a few weeks ago, when I had what scholar/colleague/friend Devva Kasnitz calls the “aha” moment. I was attending the Society for Disability Studies (SDS) Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, experiencing for the first time a condensed community of disability.
Although I have identified with a number of other communities in my life (gay, queer, left, feminist, etc.) I have always felt a certain uneasiness or sense of not belonging. However, at SDS no one cared that I’m ambulatory, or bisexual, or that I identified as a women. Even though my psychiatric conditions are largely invisible the binary between able and disabled was not felt as heavily as it is in society at large. (More on this at a later time) As I wove comfortable space for myself and engaged with more and more people it happened as if out of nowhere when someone asked me about my disabilities and I identified for the first time in my life and without hesitation that “I have a number of psychiatric disabilities.”
It was a strange and almost startling statement for me to utter with such clarity and assertion- particularly so if you consider that just a few months prior when asked this very same question I answered that I didn’t identify as a person with disabilities. In that moment it was if I had I confronted myself; I let go of all the fear, denial, embarrassment, and shame that had been holding me back from disclosing something that I kept even more secret than my sexual preferences- my disabilities. So there I was- coming out for the second time…only this time it was from the closet of ableism and not heteronormativity.
While I know that some people might argue that depression and PTSD are not disabilities and that some people even within the disability community might critique this position. Consider the American with Disabilities Act, “ADA” (considered the ovular (Note 10) legislation for disability rights advocacy). The ADA defines psychiatric disability as a “mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of [an] individual; a record of impairment; or being regarded as having such an impairment.”(Note 11)
In my experience, chronic depression and PTSD have prevented me from interacting and communicating with people in ways that are recognized as socially intelligible. Outside of the perception and gaze of others my own body often feels at odds with what “nature” argues it should. Chronic depression and PTSD are not merely a symptoms or effects of the mind but are part of an embodied disability. My depression manifests physically- I am often tired and achy, get frequent headaches/migraines, I have extreme difficulty sleeping and resting my mind, and often experience extreme vacillations in appetite. My PTSD is more than just “bad memories” and “nightmares” it also causes me to feel jittery (I am startled easily), have disassociation (from people, places, things, and scenarios), engage in rocking (stereotypy), and during particularly bad episodes I “black out” (losing conscious perception of what is happening).
So here is the part where I try to end on a better note.
Don’t stay in the closet- any of them! Life is so much more than our past. Identity is complex, ever-changing, costly, dangerous, politically necessary, useful, and promising. Fight the good fight, seek to create notions of interdependence, and take care of one another.
We are all in this together.
1) Merriam Webster
2) Leonard Davis, “The End of Identity Politics: On Disability as An Unstable Category,” in The Disability Reader, 4th ed., ed. Lennard Davis (New York: Routledge, 2013), 264. 3) Tobin Seibers, Disability Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 54-59.
4) See, Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (1974).
5) See, Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume I (1978).
See, The Americans With Disabilities Act (1990).
7) See political theorist Judith Butler known for her notion of performativity.
8) In this instance, I take a post-modern approach and differentiate between capital “T, Truth” and lower case “t, truth(s)”. Wherein “Truth” is understood to be an objective (almost a priori) and “truth(s)” are understood to be subjective, contingent, and a posteriori.
9) See political philosopher Michel Foucault
10) This is the feminist-queer in me engaging in praxis. I despise the tendency within academia of using the word “seminal” so I have decided that “ovular” should become “a thing.”
11) 42 U.S.C. § 12102(2) (1994).