Disability is not a bad word

(Song Dedication: Once in a While [smile] by Skott)

I have recently come to realize the empowerment that accompanies my embracing of being a person who lives with disabilities. This happens to coincide serendipitously with the beginning of my Masters in Counselling Psychology (MACP) program and the initial ten week study of the Biopsychosocial Framework. Today I am on day 4 of week 3 asynchronous study (as in, you are on your own kid, self-taught counselling competencies from the comfort and isolation of your home but with virtual assignments that require online – mostly text based – interactions with profs and classmates).

My NS is primed for this shit tho. Hypervigilance gets me organized with a giant desk calendar to map out my weeks by units and days and tasks. My perfectionism makes me read and reread assigned content, my written responses to discussion questions and acute hunting skills to find that just right peer-reviewed journal article to help support my thinking. My people pleasing has me jumping in first, initiating friendly interactions with the 20 something other peers in my section and taking the communication lead on a group project not due for another 4 weeks. 

My body and mind operating at full tilt…or are they?

At the beginning of week 2 I stop to ask myself, (in a very high pitch, leading type voice) are we excited or is this anxiety masquerading herself for more airtime on stage? Hmmmm…well, in a contemplative pause I consider the sticky notes plastered to my handwritten notes that are supposed to compose some semblance of learning new ideas, to consider how my current process may not only be sustainable but also may be incredibly inefficient.

It is in this moment I recognize the familiar anxiety pattern and appreciate the output vs. input dichotomy I am facing. You see, spending 3-4 hours on a task that could potentially take 1, like everyday, multiplied by two of those tasks… I’m no mathologist but a 75% effort for a  25% knowledge gain might not be the way to go here?

I was operating from the belief that you will get from this program based on what you give however, forgot about taking in quality over quantity as a variable to this equation of professional growth.

This mathing along with a frank yet compassionate conversation with a friend who shares many commonalities with me just happened to ask about how I identify with my anxiety and chronic pain. This question made me more than hesitate as I examined my identification on the spot but had also been reading course content about diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) in the context of culture as well as referring to the APA manual section on non-biased language about 40 times over the past few weeks. My fear of being wrong or appearing insensitive to people who differ from myself, makes me falsely think I must preemptively remove all implicit and explicit biases in order to help others. I am working to use Adam Grant’s Think Again (2021) philosophy, that being wrong isn’t bad, it is an opportunity to learn (down anxiety, down girl, there there).

When this friend went on to offer feedback about my hesitation to identify as a person with disability, my brain opened to the heavens and that angelic shaft of light illuminated a patch of self-determination I wasn’t yet aware of. How could my embracing of this identity help me access and support my own unmet needs based on my diagnoses? How might this adaptation transform maladaptations in my biopsychosocial functioning? How would seeing myself through this compassionate lens help create allyship with others who live with disability? 

Whoa…did you hear that too? That was my old brain shell cracking open to reveal a different supple brain matter below, the kind of brain matter that is super absorbent (not like a tampon, but like if a there were a tampon for knowledge then yes like an academic tampon, sorry that got away from me) and conductive. Like, my brain suddenly had more room to flex and with that space, synapses were firing more quickly…wait I think that was my anxiety’s grip receding from my constant denial that she was something to overcome, get rid of.

What if I embraced anxiety? What if I embraced my chronic pain? What if I acknowledged they were there to teach me and help me and not actually harm me, what if I could learn to work with them better than ever before? Like a team, but I am the captain.

Shifting to this new paradigm, I already happened to have a doctor appointment booked for the next day, and it there for the first time I talked about what these “disabilities” were doing to make my life extra challenging. In her empathy I was able to say that although I have worked so hard to manage everything naturally and on my own, it was time to confront my bias toward medication. Did she think that I had an actual anxiety disorder or was it just garden variety? She smiled gently, looking me in the eyes and said “Yes, Sarah, you have a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). And you have done so much to work with this and have done incredibly well. But you may also do even better with the help of some medication.”

I cried. Not because of sadness. I was so relieved to hear I wasn’t failing and also because I have miserable PMS (which is for another blog another day, that will be a fun one ya?!). Relieved that maybe I wasn’t going to have to be like this forever, run amok by anxiety and spending the next 2.5 years of my Masters scraping and clawing through unmanageable hours of academia in order to become a counsellor. Let alone the next 20 year career of therapy that I hope to build!

It’s been 8 days since that appointment and the same time that I’ve been taking a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI). The first few days were odd (to be expected as my brain was like what the?). But already I am feeling the benefits of this addition to my health management. Better sleep (yet less sleep – which I learned in my textbook – is okay and 8 hours is not the gold standard for everyone) again quality over quantity applies here too. My energy throughout the day is stable. My anxiety has reduced to an intermittent pleasant hum, which sounds weird but I like her and she serves a purpose and I didn’t want her gone, I just wanted her a little smaller and quieter…sometimes silent, but when I need her she is welcome to my party or problem-solving or paper writing to make sure I follow through. 

But the best part is the combination of everything I just shared, everything. I now wake between 5 and 5:30. I turn on my light therapy light along with my computer and am ready to rock and roll. My first assignment is now complete, sometimes by 6:45 am, like in the freakin’ morning! And I have the resources to better process, synthesize and integrate my new learning concisely (not here concisely tho, I don’t have to write that way here because this is just for me…and for you if you are reading along and felt compelled to lean in for some reason that is your own).

I feel freer. I feel stronger. I feel the power of what living with my disabilities has given me and I am so grateful for them and the community that supports me and others like me. Because this week alone, I have been made aware of resources to help people like me and wouldn’t you know, they have actually decreased my anxiety which has a direct correlation to my chronic pain activation…or better yet deactivation. My great hard-working team mates, but some games they just don’t need to play for me to win.

(For reference, I wrote this in 40 minutes which I am certain is a personal record, hello flow…I am so glad you are still with me as I feared the medication might dampen you).

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