By Bianca Palmisano, as told to Hope Cristol
I talk a lot about what it means for me to be disabled, both with my friends and in the workplace. So talking about depression is quite common.
I do have a physical disability: a hypermobility spectrum disorder. It means some of my joints bend way past a normal range of motion, and I live with chronic pain. But I also consider my mental illness -- major depressive disorder (MDD) -- a disability, and I talk about it as a disability.
I think solidarity with this community is important. We support each other and advocate better for disability rights when we stand together.
Depression at Work
I don’t think depression is something you should have to hide on the job. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and it’s protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which gives you the right to ask for certain accommodations. But I understand why some people aren’t as open as I am. There was only one time when, unfortunately, being open about my depression didn’t go well.
I had a job that was really exhausting, and some tense work relationships started giving me panic attacks. When I asked to work from home 2 days a week, just to give myself space to get things done away from those stressors, I found there was a high bar to prove my need.
My therapist wrote a letter, but that wasn’t enough. I had to provide proof from a medical doctor, and I had nowhere to turn; at the time, I wasn’t on medication for my depression.
My request was denied and a few weeks later, I was let go for different reasons.
Having a job that’s a good fit with a supportive team makes all the difference. I recently became a forensic nurse, and the other day my boss asked me about taking some night shifts.
Sleep is a big need for me to function well. I can’t work overnight shifts. I also struggle with waking up early. These are physical issues, not lifestyle preferences. Fatigue and difficulty with early wake-up times are typical symptoms of major depressive disorder.
I said, “I'm happy to do that, but then I can’t work the very next day because of my depression and chronic fatigue.” That was just fine by my boss.
Trashing the Idea of “Taboo”
Talking about depression socially has never felt much like a disclosure. It's always just been part of the conversation. My friends and I talk about how we feel, about our good days and bad days, and my depression informs all of that. I think it helps that many of my friends also have mental illness or are disabled in some way. There's already an understanding in place.
But I also talk about my depression a lot on social media. One of the main reasons is to help normalize it, especially for people whose lives otherwise fit into a straightforward, standard-issue mold.
Mine doesn’t. I identify as nonbinary and queer, so I’m not expected to fit into that specific mold. For those who are, I want them to know that if they're struggling with feelings of depression, I'm a safe person to talk to. I want them to know depression is not a bad thing.
It’s also my job to talk about a lot of “taboo” topics -- and to help other people talk about them comfortably. [In addition to being a registered nurse,] I’m a health educator and owner of Intimate Health Consulting. We train health care professionals and organizations to understand and navigate issues around sexual health that require special care, like LGBT issues, sexual function problems, and sexual assault survivorship. A lot of times I’m talking about things that are uncomfortable for some people, but we need to talk about them.
I Have Privilege, so I Pay It Forward
I'm so grateful to live where I live and to have the community I have. I think that's a big part of what gives me my own strength and my resilience.
I do sometimes get nervous sharing my diagnosis with new people or reaching out when I need help. It can feel scary to be vulnerable. But I remind myself that I deserve the same tenderness and care that I give to others. And I can't receive that unless I'm open and I ask for help.
How I look is another big factor in being able to talk about these topics. I’m white, 5-foot-3, I have a babyface and thin privilege. My body is not seen as intimidating, so my difference isn’t as dangerous. The stakes for me coming out are different than if I were a person of color, overweight, or marginalized in a different way. For example, the stakes are higher for some people of color to identify with mental illness and be open about it. I can put many labels on myself that they can’t.
It’s not the label that matters anyway. As a friend and a nurse, I believe you can call yourself anything you want. I just want to make sure that you get the care that you need. I want to make sure that you're OK, that you're safe and that you're living with the best life that you can. And I think people identify with that, label or no.
Those might be the words a person needs to hear to get professional support, or go on medications, or seek out better, less toxic support structures -- maybe sports, religion, friends. People get mental health care in lots of different ways besides our traditional medical system. I hope that approach, that view of mental health and depression, resonates with the people I talk to.