I was on the bus, heading to my psychiatrist’s office for my monthly visit. On board were a driver’s trainer and a new driver working together. The first row of seats on the bus run parallel to its body and are reserved for senior citizens and disabled riders. Five of the six seats in that section were taken, so there was no room for an additional wheelchair at the next stop. The trainer got off and explained this to the prospective passenger, offering that, in the bus directly behind ours, she could see that the seating area was empty. When she got back inside, one of the passengers in that section asked about the bus company’s policy regarding disabled riders. The trainer informed her that they acknowledged people with various types of disabilities, ranging from those in wheelchairs or on crutches, to those with what the company termed “invisible disabilities.” The passenger asked what she meant by invisible. The trainer explained that sometimes the seats are reserved for people with medical conditions which aren’t readily apparent, including mental illness.
I live with schizophrenia. I thought back to when I was first diagnosed, and how I had worked with a case manager to acquire my SSDI income, my medical benefits, and enrollment in some of the common assistance programs that make life easier to manage, which included my reduced fare bus pass. The transit company offers this pass to seniors and disabled individuals. According to their requirements, my having a mental illness qualified me for the pass.
When I was first working with her to meet the prerequisites for my financial award, I was surprised to find out that my mental illness was regarded as a disability. After asking a few questions, I learned that our state considers schizophrenia to be a disability because of the chronic and debilitating nature of the disorder. Back then, my work record showed that I could no longer hold down a job, and hadn’t been able to for some time. I was taking sick leave and using vacation benefits to stay home when I was too depressed to leave the house, let alone get out of bed, or when a disturbing night of hallucinations made for an equally distressing morning.
I reached out to two of my friends in the mental health community, one with a diagnosis of schizo-affective disorder, the other a former military officer who suffers from PTSD and depression. Both of them are recipients of social and health service benefits because they, too, are considered disabled due to their diagnoses. Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, I found myself feeling unnecessarily ashamed that I receive help from our state. Even though I have friends in the same boat, even though these programs are in place to help individuals like us, I still hang on to the self-stigma that shames me, or more succinctly put, I shame myself for.
There are times like last autumn when my symptoms are so pronounced, when I’m subject to psychosis, that I need to be hospitalized. This might happen once or twice a year. Symptoms can include short term memory loss, dissociation, and bouts of depersonalization or derealization (or both). These symptoms might last for a day, a week, or longer. There’s also depression and suicidal thoughts. There’s a lot of confusion and little relief.
Sometimes I’m a haunted man. Sometimes I am unstable. These are qualities about myself which I need to be mindful of. My medications help me mitigate circumstances, help keep me less anxious and afraid. As much as I feel stronger the more I become stabilized after a hospital stay, I still don’t want to be considered disabled. Society’s view that disabled people are exclusively those with walkers, canes, and wheelchairs feeds the stigma. When a person is hearing voices or seeing monsters, they might need the security of knowing that there’s a special seat on the bus for them, too.
Stigma tends to fuel the mockery of people suffering from their illnesses. Some commuters avoid taking the bus, citing that it’s populated with “crazy people.” On those days when I’m struggling, having heard this lie my whole life, I find myself wanting to avoid myself because of it. I find a single seat or I stand so that I can be alone with my symptoms, working hard to keep my mind inside, like asking a child to use their “indoor voice.” Although the transit company designates a section for people with particular considerations, I don’t want to sit there because I don’t want to be considered disabled.
I know that I should be proud of who I am and how hard I work to be a member of society, but I am not always that kind to myself. When my symptoms control my state of mind and being, it’s enough of a struggle just to board the bus, let alone find a seat. I’m gaining more confidence, but I have a long way to go. I applaud the transit company and their proactive stance. That’s change brought to bear.
This is such a brave and inspirational story. The stigma that surrounds mental health is still very clearly defined and that needs to change. Thanks for sharing.