Anxiety, disability, and labels

If you google ‘is anxiety a disability’, you get an awful lot of ‘maybe’ here in the UK. The majority of is-this-a-disability gating is handled by the Department of Work and Pensions, who caretake our disability benefit. It is, many websites mention, quite tricky to get disability benefit for mental illness (or Personal Independence Payment as it is now known).

In my experience, this is 100% true. I am one of the people fortunate enough (?) to have severe enough anxiety and depression that I am considered disabled. I say fortunate because my government benefits genuinely help me live with those conditions. Obviously it’s an unpleasant way to live, so not wholly fortunate.

Without my benefits I wouldn’t have been able to buy my expensive headphones which are the only reason I can go outside. Without them I would be less comfortable ordering the food shopping online because of the delivery cost or minimum payment. Or buying more expensive, easier to make meals for the days I can’t handle cooking.

This didn’t come easily.

It took a lot of fighting, two appeals, one tribunal and several years of horrible assessments to get here. I know how to work with the system now. My partner comes with me to assessments and we are honest about how debilitating things are for me. With him there I don’t have to try and hide how uncomfortable I am.

I spent a long time being proud to be considered disabled. I think it’s because I spent so long fighting for it; because it had such a huge impact on my early 20s. During that time I lived ‘in the system’ for several years, as someone who was DSS (dependant upon social services). It meant I went through a lot of struggles because of it. Being proud of the label I got as a result seemed…logical?

I’m more comfortable with it now. It is part of who I am, and I am disabled by my mental health. I have more complicated feelings about whether I’m going to be disabled forever though – and not just because it would lose me the vast majority of my personal income. I’m in a privileged position now, as my partner and I would not struggle financially with the loss of it.

The complexity is more around how I feel about and interact with disability. If I want to get better, am I a traitor to the label? Or not really disabled at all? Should the term exist only for people who are permanently disabled?

As you can tell, I have very complicated feelings about labels.

Sometimes when referring to myself as disabled, or calling anxiety my disability, I feel like I’m making a comment on other people. I have a lot of friends with anxiety, whose anxiety is in many cases just as debilitating as mine – or worse. And very few of them consider themselves disabled by it.

So if we’re talking about anxiety and I refer to mine as a disability, am I commenting on their condition? Minimising it, or comparing?

It’s obviously very circumstantial, and I’m not really seeking to get an answer here. I’m just thinking aloud. Labels are difficult things. There was a time where I was so, so proud of my diagnoses; where they formed a fundamental part of who I am. I’ve talked before about how hard it made recovery.

That isn’t the case for me anymore, and I understand that everyone’s situation is different – but it is the nature of my anxiety to make me worry that a single misstep will make the people I love leave me.

Labels also mean different things to different people.

Some people actively dislike them and don’t want to be ‘the anxious person’. Or you fall into the thorny pit of whether someone has been formally diagnosed or not, and if they need that to know they have the illness (this is probably a post of its own, so I won’t go into it more).

Others are struggling to understand themselves in relation to the illness, and the label is tied up in that. When I came through the other side of holding it like a badge of pride, my label became like this for me. Again, much with being disabled, I’m more comfortable with it now.

It’s important to me. It acknowledges my difficulties and the nature of my disability. Yes, it is a large part of my existence, and one that shapes it. It is also an illness that is not a true part of who I am, even though it has shaped me.

Is the label of a diagnosis different to the label of disability?

What an excellent question.

Yes, and no. They share a lot of those things I’ve just talked about – complicated feelings, a dichotomy between clinging to and wishing to discard. I think about both as comments on my experience rather than comments on me personally.

What disability as a label does do is place you alongside other disabilities. This, in our society, invites some comparison. It shouldn’t. But it does. Some people are more disabled than others, and all people are differently disabled, but it’s still so easy to look at someone and ask ‘are you disabled enough’. We should be really, really careful in doing that. As a society here in the UK, we’re not.

Oh look, almost into that benefits system rant. It’ll come out of me one day, I promise.

Let’s for now just say that the government decided for me that I wasn’t disabled enough. I fought to prove I was. They decided at points that my capacity to fight proved I wasn’t sick.

But there’s one thing they didn’t understand about people with disabilities, or people with mental illness. Something that’s common to both of them, and the one thing I’m sure of in this sea of questions.

We’re really damned good at fighting. We do it every second of every day.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one, especially from people who have other disabilities. How do you feel about labels? About mental illness as a disability? Hit me up via my contact page.