Everybody is different

I’m like you, but then again, I’m not. We are all different but also alike. We are different in many ways, but we’re at least similar in wanting to be seen for who we are—not based on what we do, how we look, or what medical conditions we have.

Physical health and sickness may be a difficult topic to discuss, and in my experience, mental disorders are even harder to talk about. That may be because the latter aren’t necessarily visible on the outside, and “if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist”. Talking about mental distress has been a taboo for a long time, even though many are affected by it. I’m grateful that our society has become more open as time has passed, but we’ve still got a long way to go.

I suffer from diminished physical function. It mainly affects my lower limbs and balance. My diminished function is apparent from the way I walk and from my use of a wheelchair when I go out. However, I am so much more than that.

Healthcare workers often only see me as my body, a body that is unlike other people’s. They focus on how they should treat, strengthen, and maintain it. But how about my psyche?

I’m more than just my poorly functioning body—there are times when my psyche isn’t functioning well, either. But over everything else, I’m me. I wish that we would better see the person beyond everything else.

While I’m writing this, I am a first-year student wrapping up my freshman year at Åbo Akademi in Vaasa, Finland. Here, I’ve felt like I’m in my own element, and usually I’m as comfortable as a fish in water. Mainly right here, in the academic surroundings, I feel like I’m reaching my full potential and that I’m being seen for who I am. People don’t focus on my disabilities.

I remember how afraid and nervous I was on the day before my admission interview. Due to my disability, I had a preconceived notion of how people would see me. I thought that no one would have faith in me, or that people wouldn’t see me as capable of handling the responsibilities of being a full-time student and then transitioning into the workforce. I was sorely mistaken. To paraphrase the interviewers’ thoughts, my situation and experiences were seen as valuable, as a strength. The more completely I’m able to accept myself, the more I see that I have a lot to offer thanks to all that I’ve experienced. The two interviewers saw exactly that.

The feeling of someone believing in you is a truly meaningful experience. For the first time, I got to experience my disability not only as a heavy burden but also as something valuable that has made me stronger.

Even after the interviews, I’ve only been met with understanding and respect in my daily life as a student. My diminished ability to function has at times meant frequent hospital visits, and those have required a lot of absence from my studies as well as certain special arrangements. Teachers have always shown patience in those situations, wished for my speedy recovery, and ensured me that everything will work out when I’m once again able to attend classes.

That knowledge has been worth more than its weight in gold, and I’ve been able to solely focus on my physical health in those moments. The fact that I can put my studies aside in an otherwise challenging situation is a great mental relief.

With age, I’ve felt less difficulty in discussing all aspects of my disability. It’s a great relief that I can talk more or less openly to my friends and the people I know, as well as to strangers on the internet. For years, I’ve felt like I’ve kept a part of me hidden because I couldn’t talk about my in-many-ways-inconvenient situation. The people I’ve come across have seen what’s visible: the way I walk and my wheelchair. Many other things, meaning everything that’s not visible on the outside, I’ve carried by myself.

I don’t want to do that anymore, because there’s more to me than what’s on the outside. Inside, I’m so much more than my disabilities. I’m Julia.

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