I Celebrate Disability Pride, But Am I Really Proud of My Mental Illness?

Sign with a handprint that reads "NOLA Disability Pride Festival" hanging on a wrought iron gate.

When advertising for this year’s New Orleans Disability Pride Festival I was blown away by the positive responses we received, but there was one outlier expressing their disapproval whose words I just cannot shake. Amid the cries of “This is so important!” and “I’m so happy that this exists” there was that one lone voice who yelled (well, tweeted) “Why should I be proud of something that is a determent to me?” Years of navigating the internet should have taught me to ignore that unhappy voice, to not explore the full thread popping up around that comment. Against my better judgement, I delved deeper.

I’ve organized different Pride events for almost all of my adult life, beginning with perhaps the most obvious: LGBTQIA+ Pride in my undergraduate years, moving on to Pagan Pride, and in most recent years being part of the core team founding the Disability Pride movement in New Orleans. Yet something about that one person expressing the deepest form of internalized ableism spoke to me. It forced me to ask myself, am I really proud of my mental illness?

The harsh truth is that I’m not proud… yet. It is terribly difficult to look at my mental illness as part of my identity and come away feeling positive. It’s too easy to see the negative impact depression and anxiety have had on my life. The struggle to maintain friendships when I often need to cancel plans last minute. The days I need to recover after a particularly social weekend. The number of sick days I’ve amassed when panic attacks strike. Then the extended recovery I need because I’m stuck in a cycle of being even more anxious about missing work and can’t focus on meeting my own needs. Heck, even as a child I missed more school then I care to count after being doubled over in anxious stomach pains- unable to set foot on that bus. And then, you guessed it, making myself feel worse because I forced my mother to stay home from her job, feeling like I jeopardized the precarious financial balance we often had when I was young.

How do I feel pride in all the things mental illness has taken from me? It’s not a rhetorical question; it’s a question that begs for an answer.

The answer, at least for me, is to be grateful for what mental illness has given me. Because of the experiences I have daily, I’ve grown in ways that I never would have if my brain was more neurotypical. My empathy and my creativity jump to the top of the list here. I’m working on being open and honest with the people in my lives about the things that I need. It’s not always perfect or easy, but it helps me separate out the people who have the capacity for compassion, or who can form non-typical relationships with me. And the deep relationships that I do have are full of love and honesty.

I’m grateful for the nights watching reality TV in my bed while friends do the same from their own beds. Or the milkshakes dropped off well into the evening with the understanding that I didn’t have to interact, just accept the shake and go back to my music video binge. I’m grateful for the intimate conversations and secrets shared in a dark, quiet corner of a party- the bonding I could never have on the crowded dance floor. Mental illness isn’t fun, but it has deepened the connections I have with those in my life. It gives me something to be vulnerable about, and it’s showed me how healing looks different for all of us.

Most importantly in all of this, I’m grateful for the community that I’ve found through Disability Pride. Without my own struggles I would never have found the people I call family. I think Nomi Marks said it best on Sense8 “Today I march to remember that I’m not just a me. I’m also a we and we march with pride.”

Through the strength of the community we build, I hope that anonymous naysayer in the Twitterverse will see that Disability Pride isn’t about the things you’ve lost, or the things you can’t do. Disability Pride is about the things we’ve been given and the community that supports us. Still, I admit that it’s hard. Hard to accept Disability as part of my identity, and even harder to celebrate it. But every day I’m learning more and more who I am and what I need. I’m celebrating the people I have and how they became part of my life. Every day, I’m learning to be proud.

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