Defining disability

8064_496679147024768_811360542_nSorting through a pile of old letters sitting in the dusty document holder on our bookshelf, I happened upon a slightly wrinkled letter from Harvard University dating back to 2003 and was really taken aback by my instant feelings of overwhelming sadness, grief and loss of identity.

This letter written in my 20’s seemed to accurately sum up who I was and I was so fiercely proud of my abilities and talents as a student and as an academic. It was a time when I felt academically invincible and I could do anything I set my mind to, and I did.

The final paragraph in the letter reads:

“….was selected as a delegate from a highly competitive pool of some of the world’s best university students…delegates typically represent over fifty countries and hundreds of universities.  We were extremely impressed with her accomplishments and believe that she will be a valuable contributor to the conference……”

Untold years of my mid teens up until my mid 20’s have been invested to be the best and my definition then was solely related to academia.  I was a one track record. As mentioned in an earlier post, back then, to me, the best meant winning scholarships, attending world renown universities and conferences and spending my time in the company of other highly achieving students.

I have always been a firm believer that everything in life happens for a reason, as reluctant as I am to use a cliché.  I know, I am not, nor will I ever be that high achieving academic who was so fiercely competitive.  Not only have I lost the ability to be so, but I have also lost the desire to compete.   Something I came to realise teaching senior school in my final academic years.

In actual fact, this year I have swallowed my pride and enlisted with the disability support services unit at  university to assist me in completing the degree. I will need assistance in deadline extensions to avoid the crippling anxiety towards submission.  I will need to chunk my large assignments into smaller, bite size pieces that will be easier to understand and comprehend. It is a complete and massive shift in my personal ideology and capabilities. My GP and I have a fantastically honest relationship and he recently questioned, “What happens if you cannot cope at university?  Where your anxiety becomes too overwhelming? Do we continue to throw pills down your throat in the hope that all will be okay?” The questions are raw and confronting and the simple answer to that is “I don’t know”.  I don’t know what I am now capable of doing and what is beyond my reach.  I liken it to being a stroke patient, sometimes you have to re-learn new ways of doing things that were once habit and try to take each day as it comes. It is equally exciting as it is almighty frightening.

As mentioned in an earlier entry, there are still those out there, in society who will constantly continue to besmirch and ridicule my journey and disability.  That’s ok, it doesn’t really affect me and as mentioned, it has everything to do with their perceptions and personal journey and where and when I am concerned, I forgive them because they are stuck and trapped.  It is a reminder that I do not subscribe to social stigma of mental illness and to uneducated or malicious opinions. Mind space = precious and jealously guarded and I do not rent it out to idiots.

I have never been in habit of hiding my authentic self or conforming to other’s expectations much to my own parent’s chagrin and discernment in my early days.  I have always, for better or worse, danced to my own independent tune. I am not interested in judging people, but rather understanding them and their individual journeys.

When I was quietly pouring over the letter sitting on the arm of the couch, reminiscing of times gone by, my little girl silently climbed over to stand beside me and gave me a ferocious hug.  In that, she reminded me that actually I have the best, right now this very minute.

In that moment I realised that it is important to acknowledge and to start making peace with the past, but I choose not to live there. Whilst I need to recognise who I was, I also need to spend more time on who I am now. I have been diagnosed with a mental disability and although it is only a part of who I am, it is a major part that influences my life choices.  It’s a steep learning curve where sometimes it is easier said than done and it is certainly a work in progress.  I acknowledge that there will be times when I will grieve for what was and what used to be before my chemical imbalance. It is frustrating and sometimes difficult to face. As my brilliant GP said.  “You can call it Bi Polar, you can call it Woolly Mammoth you can call it anything you like, the symptoms are still there and we need to work out what we are going to do with them.”

With a firm and positive outlook I will also acknowledge that it is not always smooth sailing.  Sometimes I am caught off guard, especially on the bad days as to how unremitting and disabling Bi Polar disorder can actually be.  I have lost a little of my independence in that my husband also advocates for me on legal matters when, at times, I find it difficult to string a sentence together owing to the powerful medication and the brain disorder itself.  Sometimes I catch myself in denial that in actual fact perhaps I don’t have this disorder and the doctors have made a big mistake.  That as I get older, the brain will become progressively worse to process and retain information and that what people take for granted, I have to fight hard to attain.  It is scary and it can be intimidating and at times has been romanticised. There is a loss of control and a loss of a sense of self and as a dear friend who also suffers with the disorder remarked, it’s now about finding a new identity in a new life. Whatever that new identity may be.

Thinking on it, there is an unrivalled excitement in starting all over again, a new voyage of discovery and who knows what I may find, it is also mixed with fear of the unknown.  I have returned the letter to the dusty document storage box and when I get the chance, I will buy another box to stand tall and equally next to the document holder, ready to add my new and different achievements. It’s one day and at times one hour at a time, but the sun is shining, the sky is blue and life is waiting for me to rejoin.

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4 thoughts on “Defining disability

  1. Beautiful. What a post. You are one strong fighter I tell you. You should be very proud of yourself.

    Sending you my best wishes.

  2. As someone whose ambitions were formerly purely academic, I can relate. Throughout school, I was always a high-achieving student. But when I got to graduate school, everything I’d been holding at bay came to a head, and I felt blocked. It’s hard to explain what I mean. I knew I was capable of doing the work, but I felt like there was some barrier between me and my capability. Somehow I held on to get my Master’s, but my only goal in life, to get a Ph.D and be a professor, had been disrupted. After two and a half years out of graduate school, I don’t think I can ever go back. But it’s hard for me to admit that. Anytime I encounter reminders of my graduate school life, I feel almost as if I’m going through my mental breakdown again. The breakdown was so slow and insidious that I wasn’t sure if it was real or not.

    As you said, I like to think that everything happens for a reason. Though I feel adrift now, I have more time for creative writing than I would’ve had if I’d continued the academic path. That was my first love, but I gave it up as impractical–plus, I thought I wasn’t good enough for that. But I wonder if all that happened was a sign that the former path was wrong, that I need to be on a new path where creative writing is included.

    I don’t know, but I’m going with the flow. It sounds like your journey is somewhat similar, and I wish you luck.

  3. I can really identify with so much of this. I finally made it all the way through the academic gauntlet, but faced with the need to go on the job market next year and the accommodations I’ve already had to make due to bipolar disorder, I am really unsure of my next moves. I’ve been talking about it a lot with my therapist lately.

    I just don’t think it’s a good idea to work 80-hour weeks, or even 60 hours, which is more or less the minimum in academia. I don’t think that’s good for anyone, and it’s asking for trouble if you’re bipolar. But if I stick to a more sane workload, I either shortchange my potential or am doomed to failure.

    The alternate path is to find a different option besides academia. I’m not sure what that would be. There are things I love about the academy, and many others that I despise. Any job is like that. The big question is whether I can find something else that will be slightly kinder and gentler but still satisfy my research ambitions. We’ll see…

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