I sometimes find it difficult to navigate the intersection between disability, mental health struggles, suicidality, and quite where the hell I fit in between all of them. They’re all such influential factors in my life, but until recently I hadn’t thought of them all as interconnected. As you may see in this blog, that has started to change. That said, there is one aspect of this where the overlap is about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
I get called ‘brave’ a lot. And I get called brave for a number of reasons. I’m brave for being disabled and continuing to exist and lead a normal life. I’m brave for being active in the face of disability. I’m brave for living with depression. I’m brave for talking about my own mental health struggles. I’m brave for talking about being suicidal. I should point out that these are paraphrasings of the things said to me – it is not necessarily the language I would choose to use, but I hear these things often enough that I know all the words to the song by now! I’ve heard them said about myself and others enough, that they have become tropes, in fact the stereotype image of the visibly disabled person being classed as brave is a trope in it’s own right. Most disabled people I know, view the word ‘brave’ with varying degrees of suspicion and sometimes outright hostility.
There are a few things to consider here. Firstly, I think that one of the reasons that I and many other people (particularly those of us with disabilities who’ve heard the ‘B’ word plenty), have a negative response when accused of bravery, is that it so often comes from a place of pity. I understand that this isn’t necessarily meant in a negative way, but pity very often comes from a place of assumption and ignorance. People assign bravery to us when they have no idea of the actual hardships that we encounter – like for example inbuilt assumptions and prejudices! – but think they can understand how difficult things are for us, because they simply cannot imagine having to live like that! It oozes condescension and ableism from every pore and often reduces people to being put into abled norms which they often have no chance of meeting. Side-effects for the subject of the pity party may include: internalised ableism, inferiority complexes, identity crisis, heightened blood pressure due to anger, anger, mood swings and nausea – if these continue, consult actual friends. Designating someone as brave because you feel pity is not the way to go here. Pity is like sympathy, it says all the ‘right’ things without actually interacting with the issue at hand. Empathy is a medically approved alternative in this matter!
My experience of bravery accusations in a mental health/suicide-survivor context are a little different. For one thing, there is not only a stigma around mental health and suicide in our society, but there’s also a public consciousness of that stigma – to the point where useful and worthwhile conversations on these topics are shut down before they’ve begun, because people are aware they may break one of society’s unspoken rules. Sometimes this is true, but I feel increasingly that the way the word stigma is used, often by activists, perpetuates the stigma to a point where it has become largely self-fulfilling. So while this state of affairs in the world of mental health continues, there is a certain amount of bravery I can identify with in sharing one’s story on this subject. Just not in the way people imagine. I’ll put it this way, there is a bravery in going against what people want to hear. Now, I’m not saying that we should merely be contrarian to gain brownie points here. What I’m saying, is that if we choose to share (and it should always be a choice), we should share our truth. I’ve often (if not always) been asked in interviews relating to my suicide attempt, a question akin to “What made you better?” as if mental wellness was a direct linear line from a period of despair to a state of enlightened contentment. It isn’t. So there is a certain amount of bravery for me, in pointing this out and going against the script when it does not fit.
I think what both elements of my ‘bravery experience’ have, is the sense of being put on a pedestal by people without much understanding of what those experiences are. It is rare that a fellow disabled person, or a fellow mental health survivor calls me brave, and if they do, I tend to give their statements much more pause. Not simply because they get an automatic pass, but because they are much likely to say such things without many of the misconceptions that people not in those groups have. I also think that too many people jump to the more comforting notion of bravely overcoming things, because it means they don’t have to engage with wider problems and trends that make things difficult in people’s lives. Bravery can truly be a sticking plaster solution by pointing out that some people came through.
I do not feel brave for being disabled and living my life. I’m doing the only thing I know how to do. Sometimes well and sometimes not so well, but I’m doing it. I do not feel brave for being a depression and suicide attempt survivor. It is an innate part of my history and personality. I do not often identify as brave when talking about these things, to paraphrase a friend of mine, my need to communicate myself and my story outweighs the fear that would necessitate bravery. Some things are just too important to me.
But I haven’t removed bravery from the equation completely. There are deeply personal elements to all of these things that have bravery in them, though with characteristic British self-deprecation I’ll keep which bits those are to myself. The problem is not just that people see bravery through a lens of pity too often, but that we continue to put our designated brave people on pedestals. And by designated, I mean media-friendly, socially acceptable, visible and able to talk about it people. Those are the brave people.
I want to put forth a different suggestion. The beauty and strength of bravery is not that it is the brave few, but that bravery is ordinary. Everyone has bravery in them, whatever it is they have to carry. We have an awful habit of competitive suffering in our culture. We hold people up as brave because we know that their suffering, or overcoming of adversity is of more weight and import than our own. But ask someone who you see as brave, if they feel brave? Chances are they’ll deny all bravery. And what does that tell us? Everyone in a sense has bravery in them for the things they carry. I am no more brave for talking about my suicide attempt, than the person who has attempted many times and never told another soul. But such a person may think themselves a coward, or be told they were, simply because they didn’t open up sooner.
If you’re reading this and carrying your own terrible things, there is bravery in the simple act of carrying them with you. Publicly or privately. We talk down our own bravery because we’re simply doing what we know how to do, but that shouldn’t detract from it if it matters to you. Bravery is ordinary, but ordinary is not the same as meaningless. Bravery shouldn’t be used as some kind of measuring stick for overcoming trauma. Bravery should be seen for the indomitable part of the human spirit that it is. Ordinary is not the same as unimportant.