Warning: this post is about to get REALLY personal. But it needed to be written, so here it is.
A few days ago, my friend Alyssa (who has previously written in this blog) posted in her own blog about her fear that publicly revealing her struggle with Rheumatoid Arthritis would invite future employers’ (and any number of people’s) discrimination against her. “I’m tired of hiding who I am,” she wrote. “I’ve accepted who I am, and I just hope that there are enough good people in this world who can accept me too.” I must say, I’ve always admired Alyssa’s honesty and openness when it comes to her writing. Telling the world about her arthritis is certainly brave, but I can’t imagine it would be easy. And while I don’t believe that there should be a hierarchy of disabilities, I do think that invisible disabilities sit at a higher tier in terms of how hard it is to deal with them both physically and emotionally.
If you look at Alyssa and me side by side, you’d be quick to notice my limb difference before you detect the slightest limp in her gait during the worst of flare-ups. Because it’s so visible, I’d been forced to come to terms with my disability long before I was even thinking about pursuing my dream career (or any job, really). To me, my arm proved to be more of a self esteem issue than a functionality one; I never had any real limitations (Granted, I’ve never been able to master the monkey bars. But that’s not exactly a skill I would list in my resume anyway). With my perceived handicap in the spotlight, though, I’ve managed to show that I am capable and that my arm is really no big deal. But when someone has a problem or challenge that’s not readily apparent, said issue becomes a whole lot bigger.
While I stand in pretty good physical shape, I know what it’s like to try to hide something too scary and shameful for other people to know. A couple years ago, I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I suffer from occasional panic attacks, and I worry constantly and excessively over things that A) are almost always irrational and B) I can’t control anyway. This anxiety, in addition to bouts of depression and an eating disorder that has followed me around for the past 8 years, reached its worst during my junior year of college. I was taking honors classes, working a part-time job as a writing tutor, and interning at the Oxygen Network when it felt like my world was falling apart. I was so afraid that someone would consider me less than capable because of the panic attacks, which only motivated me to work harder. I finished that year off with straight-A’s and I now work at Oxygen, so I guess you can see how I wouldn’t necessarily consider my anxiety a “disability” (though I take issue with the vague term “disability” for a variety of reasons, but let’s save that for another time). In any case, I’ve never been one to let obstacles become a deterrent to my dreams. And I’m not the only one who has felt this way, being that several celebrities have revealed their own struggles with mental illness in recent months.
Disney star Demi Lovato bravely opened up a while back about her battle with an eating disorder, a cutting problem, and bipolar disorder. In a recent magazine interview, actress Emma Stone admitted to having frequent panic attacks. And Amanda Seyfried has even taken medication for her anxiety during an interview. What these three young women have in common is success. They have each turned their trials into triumphs, and they continue to land great jobs in television and film. Of course, success is not exclusive to those who have overcome mental health issues. Rheumatoid arthritis didn’t stop Lucille Ball from becoming a beloved actress and comedienne, nor did it deter Pierre-Auguste Renoir from painting masterpieces even when he could barely hold his paintbrush.
My point is this: disability, whether obvious or invisible, should not be a source of shame and fear. Rather, your success and accomplishments should be a testament to your strength and adaptability. And those two qualities are pretty impressive in anyone, regardless of specific ability or lack thereof.