What your death taught me about disability, mental health and striving for perfection in an imperfect world.
Content warning: This piece explores issues around mental health, depression and suicide, which some readers might find upsetting.
The day you ended your life I remember you telling mom all you wanted was to get better. Years of therapy, rehab, increasing dosages of various medications, and you still felt like a lost cause, like there was absolutely no way you could ever get better for us. I remember overhearing this conversation on the phone, and, honestly, I wished you would get better too. I was tired of the fights, having to call the cops when you got too mad, wondering if I’d ever see you again when you stormed out of the house. But I think I was most tired of seeing how tired you were. I didn’t want you to feel hopeless anymore; I just wanted you to be normal.
Normal. What I used to intensely desire for you to be, now aggressively repulses me. I’ve learned to appreciate the parts of ourselves that deviate from normal. Normal is the enemy of happiness and the destroyer of contentment. To strive for normalcy is to strive for a subjective, arbitrary societal standard that is simply impossible to attain. However, I wished for you to obtain this, and for that I am sorry.
However, I am not sorry about wishing you got better– although I think my idea of what constitutes better is different now. I hate everyone that fed into the idea that your mental illnesses were burdensome, scary, and unmanageable. Sh*t, I hate myself for doing that. I think my old idea of “better” closely parallels society’s idea of perfection, this idea that we need to be motivated, accomplished and contagiously happy 99% of the time. But f*ck perfect. If I knew what I know now, I would tell you how beautifully imperfect you were. The most imperfect people do the most brilliant things, have the most unique perspectives, and undoubtedly are the strongest fighters. Striving for this unachievable perfection is what kills people. It killed you, and I hate that it took me 20 years and one disability course to figure that out.
Do you remember my obsession with shooting stars? You and mom told me you had wished upon a shooting star for a baby girl and then you had me. After that, I think I tricked myself into believing every plane flying through the night sky was one of these magical stars, because I so desperately wanted to make a wish. I remember carefully contemplating what I would wish for. It had to be something magnificent, because I only got one chance to wish for something that could completely alter my life. (So, of course, I wished to be best friends with Taylor Swift).
I see shooting stars less often now, possibly because I am now able to differentiate between a falling meteor and a flashing plane light. But when I do see them, I still wish. Except now, all I wish for is you: Not a “healthy” or “normal” you, just you and everything that made you, you. Because you were magnificent.
One of the things I know you did love about this world was learning- I assume that’s why you stayed in school for 12 years and became a doctor. And Dad, I’ve learned a hell of a lot. Specifically, I’ve learned a lot about disability injustice, and through this I think I’ve learned a lot more about you. No one ever told you that your illnesses were a piece of yourself meant to be appreciated. Yes, sometimes life can feel unmanageable because of your disabilities, but that doesn’t require you to remove yourself from the world, that requires the world to remove those things that are making life feel unmanageable.
I realise now, the world might be a relatively ok place for the few people it was created for: the nondisabled- the people that are physically and mentally capable of doing everything with ease and without any accommodations; as well as those whose identities escape bias and oppression. I don’t think anyone ever told you that these people are few and far between, but that society assumes they are everywhere.
In reality, so many more people deviate from this norm. Society has forced us to think we should hide the parts of ourselves that are messy, when the truth is, everybody and everything is messy. Author Kai Cheng Thom once wrote that, “beneath all health lies sickness”, and I think that’s beautiful. I think this truth is the foundation of our communities. Our differences, our battles, our messy deviations from “normalcy” are what make us the same.
Dad, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being angry at you for leaving me. I’m sorry for lying to my friends about how you passed. I’m sorry for not understanding. But mostly I’m sorry that you felt you had to be sorry for your disabilities. You so deeply wanted to prove that you were more than your bipolar disorder and depression, rather than being unapologetically yourself: A person disabled by society and all the challenges the world gave him.
The day you ended your life I remember you telling mom all you wanted was to get better. Dad, I wish I told you that you were already the best. You were my best everything- my best friend, best dance and singing partner, best fishing buddy, best supporter, and best dad.
You used to always call me your little angel, but now you’re my little angel. And I know you’ll be watching over me for the rest of my years on this earth. And throughout those years, I hope I can prove to you and the rest of the world that disabilities are not burdens, that “different” is not bad, and that life is worth living. I love you to the moon and back.
With love forever and always,
When I remember my dad, I like to remember the good. I like to remember him taking me to get a milkshake when I experienced my first heartbreak. I like to remember belting out “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift outside our favourite restaurant. I like to remember every time he made heavy things feel a bit lighter by telling a remarkably cheesy joke.
It’s human nature to illuminate the good, the happy, the “normal” in our lives, but if this letter teaches you anything, I hope it teaches you that everything that doesn’t fit into those categories is equally as important. I hope it teaches you that you and everything about you is worth loving, worth caring for, worth living for.
For further readings on dismantling this idea of normal, as well as promoting disability justice in general, I recommend Mimi Khúc’s Open in Emergency, a compilation of relevant mental health pieces, as well as Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection.
If you have been affected by any of the issues this letter touches on, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (US) or the following UK-based organisations:
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM): 0800 58 58 58
Samaritans: 116 123
Mind UK: 0300 123 3393
Photo Credit: Alex Ivashenko on Unsplash