The Invisible Disability of Mental Illness

In Blog, Diversity & Inclusion by flywheel

Diversity is not something I thought a lot about before starting this job. I knew the basics: that it’s important, that there’s not enough of it, and that talking about it might make people uncomfortable. What never crossed my mind was the idea that my perspective was unique or necessary. I’m a cisgender, straight, white, female. People who look like me are represented in most places. I have lived a very privileged life and I do my best to recognize that and how that colors my perspective. A while ago, I decided that there really wasn’t a need for another person like me talking, that I should use my privilege to make space for other people who are less represented to speak. I have come to realize that my identity is intersectional and that there are some things that I can and should talk about. As diversity moves more towards the forefront of our consciousness, we tend to focus on the ‘heavy-hitters”: race, gender, and sexuality. There are other types of diversity too that are less visible. One in four people in the world have some type of mental illness and I am one of them.


This is what mental illness is like for me

I have a hornet’s nest inside my chest. Most of the time, I don’t poke it. It quietly hums along while I live my life. It’s background noise until it isn’t. Then it’s all I can hear and it tries to run my life. I have to talk to myself and check if what I’m feeling is a normal reaction to what is happening or if it’s the anxiety. Most of the time, I can work through the feeling of angry hornets trying to sting their way out of me. Sometimes, I can’t. Sometimes, I poke it on purpose to see if it’s still there. Sometimes, it gets jostled by walking home alone or getting ready to leave my apartment. Sometimes, it just starts screaming for no reason.

I have a black hole inside my chest. It eats all light and sound. It leaves me empty and drained. I try to hold on to my feelings and passions to keep them from being swallowed. I fight and fight and take a nap because I need to not fight for a little while. When it grows, I am a numb shadow of who I am when I’m healthy. Depression comes and goes but the memory of the black hole is always there. I’m always ready to start fighting again if I have to. God, I wish I didn’t have to.


Mental illness is not pleasant. It’s not quirky. It’s not an excuse. It’s not ‘all in my head’. It’s an invisible disability. There are some days where I can’t make phone calls without having a panic attack. There are days where I can’t get out of bed no matter how hard I try. Medication can help my brain function normally and allow me to live a normal life. Sometimes, I feel so good that I’m able to forget that I’m mentally ill. This forgetting that my problem exists is a privilege that most people with visible disabilities don’t have. If I don’t want people to know about my depression and anxiety, I don’t have to tell them. People who are in a wheelchair or blind can’t hide like I can. That in part is why I’m writing this. I don’t want to hide this part of my identity. Yes, it sucks and can ruin my life but the experiences I have had because of my mental illness make me who I am.

I am not ashamed of my disability but I know that talking about mental illness in a workplace context can still be a taboo subject. Telling people at work can be difficult and is an individual choice that people have to make. While I would tell anyone who asked about my “broken brain”, I understand that this is a scary subject to bring up. It can make people question your ability to do your work and sometimes your sanity. But we need to talk about this if we are ever going to get others to understand. This is my way of making my invisible disability visible.

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Image credit: Hannah Hillam