Becoming Disabled

Unfortunately, becoming disabled is not as easy as someone coming along, handing you an accessible parking pass, and sending you on your way – becoming disabled is a complex, deeply personal journey that rarely has one tipping point.

For chronic, complex, and mental illnesses, even with diagnoses – for those of us privileged enough to have access – you’re never told you’re disabled. You’re told you have ADHD, PTSD, fibromyalgia, JIA – but no doctor comes along and says you are disabled. (Take that medical model.) 

I hadn’t really considered how I became disabled until now. I assumed I began identifying as disabled when I was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis at 16 – but that’s not true, I only starting considering myself diagnosed a year and a bit later.

And as I thought about it, my whole disability experience unravelled to show me that I was disabled long before that JIA diagnosis, or any diagnosis for that matter. I just never knew enough about disability to consider myself disabled, and I held a lot (a lot!) of internalized ableism [insert another remind me to write about this later remark here]

So, let’s unravel my disability experience together.

I was a deeply anxious kid – while I still did well in school and with others, I was always feeling sick and wanting to stay home. Then, I was a deeply in pain kid – and my above average height at the time made “growing pains” an easy excuse for doctors to dismiss me (shout out to the arthritis pals, who all went through the exact same thing.) I was always coming down with something, and never felt as good as my peers seemed to be.

At age 11, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and depression. Looking back, it seems strange I knew how to ask for help so young. I deleted the part where I wrote that I didn’t feel shame – I absolutely did, and hid my diagnoses and medication from my family save my mom for years. (Shout out Mother Fox!) At 11, my anxiety and depression kept me in bed and riddled my attendance – but I didn’t consider myself disabled. At that time, I don’t believe I had any real understanding of what disability meant, besides wheelchairs and the “special ed” kids we would volunteer with. 

At age 13, my anxiety and depression were joined by disordered eating. Besties, I know. It was rough. And it was hard to beat. And it came back a few times. And I won’t rule out another relapse. And at age 13, with anxiety and depression and disordered eating that made it hard to go to school at all – I still didn’t consider myself disabled. In fact, I probably considered myself cool for it – consider this your daily reminder to condemn 2014 Tumblr and its current instagram-fast fashion renaissance from hell.

At age 14, chronic pain and constant illnesses began to accelerate, and teachers began to hate me for my poor attendance. My peers would make fun of me when I returned after multiple days off, and someone gifted me a copy of Ferris Bueller. Maybe I played it off like I was ditching – but I was in pain, sick, and confused. But I still didn’t consider myself as disabled.

At age 15, after becoming exceptionally bad at math (a new development), I went to my guidance counsellor and told her I was going to drop out – a cry for help if I’ve ever heard one. She said “numerically, your grades are too high to fail this semester.” I swear, guidance counsellors have to make commission every time they get a kid to drop out. Fortunately, I went back to the doctor who had diagnosed my anxiety disorder and depression, and I was then diagnosed with ADHD.

ADHD was never really explained to me (is anything ever in our overwhelmed healthcare system?), but a medication finally helping me cope with an illness was a significant tipping point in my disability journey. I was able to get my mind back on track, and slowly build up coping skills to function in a way that suited my life again.

At age 15, my PTSD began. This is the one thing I still struggle discussing, and the one disability whose full history I’m going to mostly keep to myself for now. While I wouldn’t be properly diagnosed until age 17, I had never been more disabled in my life – and yet, I still did not consider myself disabled. (One day we’ll talk about it folks, one day.)

At age 16, I was diagnosed with Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis. You’re probably now thinking “this is it, she’s disabled now, we’ve done it!” If this is you, thank you for the emotional involvement in this retelling – but we aren’t quite there yet. While something deeply transformative happened in that doctor’s office when the rheumatologist poked at all my joints and I knew my life was about to be significantly altered – I still didn’t consider myself disabled. Instead, I considered myself chronically ill – which is a differentiation I still have to explore and learn more about.

[Disclaimer: you are valid if you identify as chronically ill. You are valid if you identify as disabled. You are valid if you identify as both. There is no finite amount of validation here – it’s not pie.]

At age 17, I nearly dropped out of school (again.) My body was practically falling apart, and I just couldn’t keep living my life how I was – I couldn’t keep up. I was on near-bedrest for weeks. After that, I couldn’t return to school. Instead, I ended up meeting an itinerant teacher once a week and teaching myself a few courses (and, petting a lot of therapy dogs at the public library I knowingly arranged to meet my teacher at – disability excellence, folks.)

I was also so lucky to have understanding, albeit pretty confused and concerned, teachers who went out of their way to accommodate me – my band teacher let me show up once a week in the mornings, and I went to a literature studies course right after those band practices.

And as I was negotiating all of these accommodations and explaining my situation to those involved, I began to start using disability in my vocabulary. Soon enough, I was calling myself disabled. Disabled, disabled, disabled.

And for good measure, at age 18, I transferred into adult care and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I did not have the heart to leave fibro out of here, narrative flow be damned. 

So, there you have it. 6 years after the first diagnosis, I finally identified as disabled.

Some people will have their personal preferences to not identity this way – which is totally cool – but for me, it opened doors. Most people understand that they don’t understand disability – they will (sometimes) listen to your experiences and what you need. (Or maybe they’re just nosy. Whatever works.)

When you identify as disabled, an even wider community with shared experiences opens up. More resources are available. More accommodations are considered. More things become possible.

A lot of people ask me if I think they’re disabled. And while it is kinda weird for me (I don’t believe myself to be some kind of disability fairy godmother), I understand where they’re coming from.

Disability is confusing. And overwhelming. And personal. So, sometimes it’s easier to seek external validation of your disability identity than to find that validation in yourself.

For anyone out there wondering if they’re disabled, or if they’re disabled enough – that’s your call. Sorry. Only you know how your disability, or illness, or disorder, impacts your life. No one else out there can make that call for you – and no one else out there gets to judge who is and who is not disabled (in the social sense, please don’t go commit tax fraud or something.) 

The takeaway here is that there is no one way to become disabled. There is no set timeline, or requirements you have to meet. If you’re wondering if you’re disabled, I would tell you that you probably are but that would reinforce my alleged disability fairy godmother status.

Instead, I’ll ask you this: do you feel disabled? Do you feel as though your ability to function is negatively impacted with accommodation and support? And how would you feel if you did identify as disabled?

If you felt relief, closure, or peace – it might be time to look at your own disability journey yourself. Depending on how that goes, either try again later, or welcome to the club. I’ll see you around. 

Arthritic Carly 2.0

Summary: Arthritic Carly is back folks! After nearly 6 months in remission, my joint inflammation is back and my immune system is ready to attack. My main challenge now is figuring out how to tell everyone the news without being subjected to pity. (If someone throws me an ironic celebratory party, I will probably attend.)

It’s hard enough to come to terms with my nearly half a year of joint inflammation remission coming to an end, but it’s even harder to share this news with others. After almost six months, it feels as though I’ve forgotten how to be arthritic, and those around me have forgotten I’m disabled. 

Like all things surrounding complex and chronic illnesses, I’m facing uncertainty. I’m uncertain if I’ll be able to get a hold of my old rheumatologist, I’m uncertain if I’ll be able to maintain my pace at school and work, I’m uncertain if I can keep doing all the things I love. Above all, I’m uncertain how to act. How to act, how to tell others, and above all – how to deal with others’ disappointment that my remission is over. Those closest to me do not feel pity. Their empathy echoes my uncertainty, as we both are uncertain of what is to come but know we must brace for the worst. For those not-so-close and not so arthritis-aware, they might be a little more unsure about what this means (literally – like what remission means.) While many of my peers and acquaintances have been fantastic listeners and do their best to understand my disabilities, most people don’t know arthritis can go into remission, let alone that remission is not forever. 

I won’t fault them for that – I also forgot remission doesn’t last forever.

There’s this strangest phenomenon that’s been happening to me ever since I became disabled at 16: gratitude where gratitude should not conventionally be. As I get overwhelmed by planning for my once again arthritic future, I’m grounded in gratitude that I entered remission in the first place. When I was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis at 16, my paediatric rheumatologist found inflammation in nearly every joint in my body. As she poked and prodded me, and as my twin and mother watched on, I began to recognize the extent and severity of my arthritis, and began to feel angry that I and others allowed it to get that far. At 16, I never believed I would enter remission. 

Before we go further, please know that remission is not earned. You can change your diet, your habits, your lifestyle, and still not enter remission. Remission is not a value judgement of your worth as a patient, as a disabled person, or as a human – it just happens and no one knows why. What I can say about getting to remission is that when I was on steroids and biologics, the far-flung hope of remission kept me going through some very rough times. I lost my weight, my hair, my appetite, my personality – but I never lost that hope that things had to get better. And three and a half years later, things did.

Remission was fantastic. There is no shame in wanting to be in remission, and mourning when you lose it. There is also no shame in being disabled, receiving treatment, and asking for help. I don’t believe these things have to be mutually exclusive. In remission, I started my second year of university, aced my classes, rocked my extracurriculars, and fell in love. I had energy and optimism in ways I never had before – knowing that I was temporarily off treatment and that treatment worked was enough to sustain me in doing things I used to think impossible. I became a star student and never missed a class, I was a stand-out employee and never missed a deadline. And now, I’m still doing all of these things – just with active arthritis. 

Losing remission can make you feel like your world has stopped spinning. Like everything comes crashing to a halt. But it doesn’t – life has (a sometimes very inconvenient) way of carrying on no matter what you’re going through. Losing remission won’t change who I am, in the same way having arthritis doesn’t change who I am. I’ll still give loud, energetic takes in class – I just might be sleeping on my desk in between them. I’ll still deliver at work and love my job – I just might take a break during meetings. I’ll still be me, the same way I was me at 16 with active arthritis, at 20 in remission, and still at 20 with active arthritis. 

Science Breakdown

Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is an autoimmune condition primarily causing inflammation in the joints in patients age 0-16. As JIA is a childhood disease, as patients age they either “grow out” of JIA and the disease goes away on its own, or they receive an “adult” diagnosis – which can include rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and psoriatic arthritis. All autoimmune disorders can enter phases of remission, where a patient’s disease activity is paused. Remission can last weeks, months, years, and even for the rest of someone’s life. It is not uncommon for JIA patients to experience a few periods of remission within their lifetimes. The cause of remission, much like the cause of JIA, remains unknown.