For as long as I can remember, I've felt isolated. As a child, I got along better with adults than I ever did with my peers. Before I could name what I was feeling as anxiety, I knew only that I felt uncomfortable and out of step with what was happening around me. I saw and felt things that other children didn’t, and I didn’t understand how to be more like them.
I was convinced that I must be from another world, because it didn’t seem possible that I was meant to live among people who navigated the smallest of social interactions with the utmost dishonesty – their words told one story, but their guarded eyes, forced smiles, and awkward body language told another.
I was labelled shy, introverted, and sensitive. My mother delivered these words with kindness, turning them into precious gifts that made me special, but the rest of the world seemed to deride them as excuses, even weaknesses. It was beyond my understanding why everyone couldn’t see what I saw.
What value could there possibly be in maintaining, and indeed, contributing, to a culture that was indifferent at best, and hostile at worst?
As a teenager, I continued to struggle to understand the behaviour of those around me, and my own inability to fit in. I was lonely and withdrawn. I struggled with an eating disorder, insomnia, and a mounting sense of resentment towards my own existence.
My anxiety was at times so profound I was unable to cross the street or stand on a crowded sidewalk without having a panic attack. My depression drowned out all colour and music in my life; all I wanted to do was sleep, to wake up and look forward to anything.
Days and weeks of my life disappeared into a dingy grey haze because I was so paralyzed by my own mind that I couldn’t get out of bed.
I still remember my twentieth birthday with clarity. It was midday, and I was still in bed. The room was dark, the curtains drawn. A friend phoned me. I checked the caller ID, but I didn’t pick up. Her voicemail wished me a cheerful happy birthday, and asked if she could bring me a cupcake. I closed my eyes and never responded.
It all felt so far away, like a movie playing in another room.
I spent years seeing various mental health professionals. I experienced moderate success managing my symptoms on medication, but felt a fundamental loss of self. I grew cautious and guarded, and taught myself to turn every day into a command performance, hiding my fears and insecurities under a veneer of cheerful, carefully constructed confidence.
I watched my more vivacious, extroverted friends; I learned what made them witty and charming, and armed myself in kind. Each day, I rehearsed all possible conversations, mapped out every encounter like a good general.
For most of my life, there was no community of like-minded people; it felt like my parents and I against the world. As I got older, I began to meet people – teachers, mentors, and friends who I trusted enough to reveal my secret struggle to. Something in their kind, knowing smiles told me I feel it too, and I knew that they were fighting the same war I was.
My community was one of silent understanding and compassion.
I don’t share these details to make myself seem sympathetic. I share them because in this regard, I'm unremarkable.
I didn’t know anyone during university who wasn’t struggling, who didn’t feel lost, frightened, and overwhelmed. They were all starving for compassion, comfort, approval, or support from their teachers, friends, parents, or partners.
Some of them self-identified as having a disability, but most didn’t. For some, it was simply a part of themselves that they presented as fact without further embellishment or commentary. Others made jokes about how disastrous their lives were, as if saying it first would prevent anyone else from making the same observation.
One of my dearest friends showed me that it is possible to be sensitive, to struggle, and to still be respected, successful, and loved. I will forever be grateful for every time I tried to hide my fear and self-doubt, and for every time they gently reassured me that they understood, that I was good enough, without ever saying the words.
I can't, and won't, speak on behalf of “people with disabilities” because I don’t know what it’s like to live with other mental illnesses, or to face physical challenges, or any of the countless other ways in which people identify their experience. I can only speak to my own experience, and how having an invisible disability has shaped my worldview and sense of self.
However, regardless of how an individual characterizes their experience or whether they consider themselves disabled or not, no one should have to feel like they are fighting alone.
Needing, and indeed demanding, self-awareness, respect, and compassion do not make you sensitive, strange, or broken; it makes you a human being.
It's tough, but you're tougher, and know that you are good enough, you are brave enough, and you are not alone.