TW: Suicide, self-harm, abuse
Navigating my mental health concerns and finding ways to recover and rehabilitate has been an especially arduous journey for me, a physically disabled woman, to say the least. It does not help that mostly, disability-affirmative therapy is a rarity. Most disabled people go through something called disability grief which ultimately leads to suicidal ideation. As a disabled child, I remember praying I die somewhere, somehow. I would think about ways to end my life with objects at home.
As a result, I would often isolate myself, and I grew up as a lonely child. I felt unattractive and unwelcome in my own body, and kept blaming myself for my disability and not making enough friends. That was 2008. Disabled children would grow up with non-disabled ideals, structures and systems of friendships, relationships, companionships, solidarity, sexuality and community. As a result, such ideas would exclude queer and disabled folk (considering how the ideal is that of a non-disable, cis-het relationship between a man and a woman, Adam and Eve). In addition, it also excludes disabled folk from lower castes and other marginalised identities.
I started therapy when I was 18 years of age, fresh out of school. My main obstacle at that time as a young disabled woman was attaining “independence”. To start with, I had an able-bodied, skewed sense of independence. Independence to me, meant doing all the things I couldn’t do when I was say, 14. This meant calling for an Uber, going to a movie alone (without telling mom, ofcourse), booking a therapist appointment on my own, crossing small streets on my own, going to my tuitions on my own and basically taking up space in the small city of Calcutta on my own.
A major part of my able-bodied ideal of independence was to be free to date whoever I wanted: to me, that was then the epitome of my independence – to begin dating and lose my socially constructed concept of virginity. Womxn are raised with a very heteronormative ideal of adding value to the world, a sense of self worth that is only arrived at when they start dating men and are considered “relevant”, “desired” and “independent”, as a result.
It does not help that movies and TV shows show a very uni-dimensional, warped take on attractiveness, love, virginity and ability. I grew up listening to stories of able-bodied men and womxn and formed my ideas around them. I allowed misogynistic and ableist men in my life because I always had this never ending feeling of “missing out’’. “Missing out’’ on love, missing out on having fun, missing out on growing up. The first time I engaged sexually with a man who was abusive, I thought to myself, “Why am I not enjoying this? Isn’t this what I wanted?’’
I took time to realise that I did not have to necessarily meet what were ableist milestones of fun and adulting in life and moreover, that I was allowed to say, “no!’’.
It is 2020 now and over the years, mental health professionals have diagnosed me with a plethora of mental illnesses ranging from major depressive disorder, mood disorder to generalised anxiety disorder. Due to the general lack of awareness around disability-affirmative therapy, I have had therapists who do not even take my disability into account, when they’re talking to me and asking me about my life. They have inaccessible clinics which have steep stairs and heavy doors. This only further entrenches my alienation in a place that is supposed to be a safe space. The reason for this could be that the disabled community and the non-disabled (or able-bodied) community are two separate communities with two separate worldviews, even in a seemingly judgment-free and non-ableist space such as the therapist’s office.
I never realised this throughout my years of living with a disability because all the therapists that I went to, tried to fit me into an able-bodied world of therapy, of healing, of recovery. It was only recently that I found out that trauma therapy is a career. In general itself, there is little to no awareness about a trauma affirmative therapist who focuses on and is mindful of the distinct identities of a person while talking to them. Most people find it difficult to hear, but my trauma is a part of me. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. I cannot deny myself my trauma, nor can I just “get over it’’ or “look at the bright side”.
As a disabled woman, the years and years of medical trauma, sexual trauma, bullying and exclusion that I have faced need to be accounted for, to be seen and acknowledged for it to be therapised and honestly, when you think about it, “getting over it” our trauma is not as easy as saying it is.
The therapist that I have at present taught me a vulnerability exercise to calm my anxiety. It was to repeat the words, “I add value to this world’’ to myself every time my hand sweats before I speak to an audience. Last week, I had my first panel discussion where I spoke about disability at its intersections. This was a very proud moment for me as a woman with a speech difficulty and as someone who would be afraid to take up pace. I realised that it was I, myself, who added value to my life than the man I’m dating.
Multicultural counselling is a branch of counselling and therapy that takes into account the unique and vivid experiences of folks at the intersections of gender, caste, sexuality, race, ability. For me, my identities are very important. They make me who I am. I never knew the importance of multicultural counseling before because, as a psychology student, I have studied psychology from an able-bodied lens: a version of psychology that doesn’t take into account my unique experiences of disability. At college, there was no teacher to teach us the psychology of the disability. In fact, it was scrapped from our curriculum. Imagine being a disabled college student confused about their identity and trying to fit their worldviews and find meaning in the non-disabled structures of the discipline.
My therapist and I are slowly and gradually addressing the core issues to my trauma. Such therapy sessions tend to be very intense and overwhelming at times because they have been buried deep down for years. Therapists often do not come to address the sexual trauma of disabled womxn because there is a general notion that disabled womxn are asexual and do not engage in sexual acivities. It was for the first time ever that a therapist addressed and spoke to me about my sexual trauma as a disabled woman and understandably, my heart now feels lighter as a result.
We certainly require more disability-affirmative therapy practitioners who take into account lived subjective experiences of disabled folks. The biggest factor for me accepting my disability was finding a sense of community and feeling like I belonged somewhere. Finding a therapist who acknowledges my disability-specific trauma has really helped me love myself. My therapist has helped me find an inclusive, accessible space for my mental well-being, something that my past therapists lacked.
As a budding psychologist, I aim to practice disability-affirmative therapy myself. Dear students of psychology (with disabilities), I hope you’re listening! We need to do and can do so much better. We need to make mental health services more accessible, more affordable and more community-specific. We need to talk to all students of all abilities about disability – reduce the gap between the two communities: the disabled and non-disabled community.
‘Taking Up Space’ is a column where the author writes about her experiences of navigating so-called mainstream spaces as a disabled womxn. Not an attempt to preach or inspire, she attempts to have conversations on taking up space within her own reality, in conversations and physical spaces such as classrooms, seminars, grocery stores and by extension, in an ableist society rendering disabled individuals as persons with no agency of their own.
Featured Image Source: Upasana Agarwal for Point Of View/Medium