Disabled Living: Show ’Em What You Got Inside

Show society what you can do with a disability instead of what you don’t have because of your disability.

“Staring into the Abyss” by Jarett Burke

I’m 33 years old. For 17 years I battled an unknown prescription drug dependence in benzodiazepines — the cessation of which left me with a damaged brain and central nervous system — and for 10 of those 17 years I fought post-traumatic stress disorder, eventually putting it into remission through incredibly hard work.

I have nothing, having lost my career to illness long before it even began. I advanced from grad school into a life of poverty — financially, physically and mentally. It’s been well over a decade of hardship that’s left me wondering where I’ll live each month and if I’ll have enough food to survive.

My mother died last year after losing her battle with addiction that began 40-years prior, becoming dependent on benzodiazepines when trauma stuck. Her last memories of me are as an incredibly sick man, freshly free from the death-grip of benzodiazepines, but barely able to stand from the crippling withdrawal. She’ll never see me well. She’ll never see me use my education or know that I learned to play guitar; and I’ll just plain old never see her again.

But, all that is in the past. Today is a new day. I’m still here. I’m still standing. I’m not giving up on life, nor am I giving up on people.

I wouldn’t be alive right now if I had kept living for just myself; it wasn’t worth it — the pain, the sickness, the loss, the everyday struggle. During my darkest days, I told friends and family that I’d live for them; I’d trust in their love and support, while essentially disregarding all the poisonous thoughts my mind was feeding me. It’s what I needed to do to survive.

Now, as I am in the early stages of recovery, I want to expand my vow of living for friends and family to those suffering all over the world. I survived more than most, and it’s time to give back the only way I know how: by sharing my story. I don’t have much, but I do have one hell of a story. If that’s my worth to society at this time, than so be it. I’ll give it my heart and soul.

These past few paragraphs are a short introduction to my life. It’s certainly not the life I envisioned so many years ago, but I’ll not shy away from it either. Instead of letting my past beat me or dictate what I can do in the here and now, I’ll use it to make my future, starting right now. Again, this is not the life I pursued over a decade ago, but it can still be everything I envisioned and more.

Last week, I lay in bed sick to my soul from the chronic pain stemming from my brain injury. I received an uplifting email from a friend, and it immediately boosted my mood, desire and fight to make it through the day. I also realized just how far a few kind words could go in affecting positive change in someone who’s truly struggling with illness.

Responding to this email, I wrote, “I want to show them [society] what I can do with a disability instead of what I don’t have because of my disability.” This line cut right to my core, bringing me face-to-face with myself: my fears, doubts and hang-ups. I realized that I was not doing everything I could to show others what is possible from a person with a disability. Instead, I had lost my way, falling into self-pity.

Struggling to figure out where I fit into society at the moment, I tend to take out that frustration on myself through self-criticism and self-degradation. What I failed to see over the past few months is that my illness is exactly how I will fit into society once more: by telling my story through words, images and music while bringing hope to those suffering.

I’ve used art to give meaning to my days when no such meaning existed or could be found. I picked up a guitar not long ago and decided I’d create music so that I’d have an outlet for all the negativity bottled up inside me; and I rededicated myself to writing — left abandoned at grad school a decade before — in the hopes of reaching others who are struggling to find their way through illness and disability.

At the end of the day, all we have in life is each other. Thus, each and every one of us matters to someone. So we start there, with this simple understanding, and build outward. Despite the divisiveness of politics, the failure of institutions to protect the vulnerable, and the “business-ization” of daily life, our worth remains unaffected as human beings. We may have never made a “Top 30 Under 30 List” or even began a career at all, but we’re capable of so much more than we’re given credit for and infinitely more than we give ourselves credit for.

There’s great strength to be found in illness, along with much wisdom and creativity; and it just so happens that these three characteristics are desperately lacking in modern society. Therefore, it’s up to us, the sick, to help shine a light on these dark, confusing times by way of our humanity — our weaknesses, failures and struggles — repackaged in the form of optimism and hope.

At the end of the day, who better to help empower the masses than those who’ve faced adversity? Start where you are right now and affect change on a personal level. Find your niche. Believe in yourself. Share with an open heart. Don’t be afraid to fail (repeatedly). Bring about positive change in yourself and others.

Struggling is a part of life, but for those with physical and mental limitations it can feel as if it is life. If I can reach just a few people who trust me when I tell them, “you are so much more than your limitations” than all my struggles for the past 33 years have been worth it.

All too often society equates illness with death. I want to buck that trend and show just how much life there is to be found when illness strikes. Thus, it’s with this statement that I vow to continue living for others, gathering experience daily by simply existing, so that I can use it to guide people through pain and suffering in the future.

Remember, simply living with illness and disability is a great sign of strength. Weak? No, we’re the warriors — day in and day out. Let’s inspire each other toward great things.

Much love.