A number of times in my life I have been privy to conversations among other white people where folk attempt to determine another person's ethnicity. It is a source of frustration and confusion when a person cannot be neatly categorised, as if, should it be impossible to generalise whereabouts a person's ancestors came from (let alone if someone has ancestors from more than one place!), it would be impossible to know how to treat them.
Marginalised people are at the mercy of privileged people in this way. People are allowed not to be straight, white, cis, non-disabled etc. but nobody is going to tolerate you unless they know which sort of substandard person they are so generously tolerating.
As disabled people, we are constantly expected to account for our status, by discussing our diagnosis, describing our medical histories and so on, even with strangers. Then we are compared to other people with the same diagnosis to make sure we fit into the popular perception of what a person with X condition is supposed to be like.
And thus one of the fundamental rules of the disability hierarchy is have a diagnosis. A few years ago, Wheelchair Dancer mentioned her diagnostic limbo – she has no overarching medical label which describes her impairments – and was responded to by rejection from other disabled people, who accused her of being a fraud (you know, that common scam of becoming a wheelchair-user just so you can dance as one). There are no medical mysteries! Either a doctor can tell you exactly what is wrong and why or else you're simply making it up.
But of course, there are plenty of medical mysteries, there is plenty of variation in the way conditions manifest and as such, lots of disabled people have long periods without a diagnosis. Other people have multiple diagnoses. Others have diagnoses which change over time. Others simply have rubbish diagnoses. For example, people who have agonising back pain which permanently impairs walking, sitting, standing etc. often lack diagnostic labels which differentiate between them and people who have temporary back problems that can be got over with rest and pacing. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is an enormous umbrella under which which you have everything from persistent but manageable tiredness through to total paralysis and death. Mental illness criteria tend to be more specific but then our culture takes them and folk call themselves OCD for being overly tidy, or Bipolar when their mood changes suddenly.
In ten years time, there will be new labels for things people have now, and other labels will go away. Perhaps more than any other science, the terms used in medicine are constantly in flux as our bodies and pathologies are understood differently. Medical labels are utterly irrelevant to functional impairment. But they are even less relevant to who we are.
The second rule about diagnosis in the disability hierarchy is don't get a mental health diagnosis. It's a very common experience among people with chronic physical illness – especially but not exclusively women – to have our problems initially dismissed as “all in the mind” or dismissed with an actual mental health label. The problem here is the word dismissed. Because it doesn't matter how dramatic an illness is manifesting itself, the mere suggestion that it could be psychological means that it doesn't count. It is of your own making. It might as well be something that you chose to experience.
Misdiagnosis needn't be a massively traumatic experience. Let's take an imaginary person called Bonny who has Lupus. If she was misdiagnosed with MS for a while, then as long as they figured out the mistake before it became dangerous, then that really wouldn't be a problem. Conditions manifest themselves atypically. Details are missed. Accidents happen. Once I was told I had an inflamed hernia and it turned out to be constipation. I was relieved (eventually - ha ha ha! Sorry). If it had been the other way round I would have been anxious but not offended.
But say Bonny is misdiagnosed with depression. This ought not to be any kind of problem. A doctor taking all the information into account and proposing depression as a diagnosis ought not to be insulting. But the way Bonny is treated will be. This treatment may sometimes start with the doctors themselves, but if not family, friends, colleagues and employers will certainly oblige...
- If she raises the matter of symptoms that don't fit, then she is either imagining or lying about those symptoms.
- If she raises the fact she doesn't think she is depressed, then she is in denial or lying. She has no self-awareness.
- If her health doesn't improve, then she is resisting treatment, she is misbehaving and failing to pull herself together.
- If her health deteriorates dramatically, then she is seeking attention, or letting self-pity overcome her, or maybe it's because the weather is so bad this week.
- If she has a good day or a remission, then it will be believed to be because she is working out her problems, coming out of herself, or maybe it's because the sun is shining, etc..
So, if that's what it is like for someone with a physical illness, how is it going to be for someone who does have chronic mental ill health? Their character is defamed all the same. Mental illness sometimes involves lapses in self-awareness and judgement, but it doesn't make a person chronically clueless as to how they are or what is happening to them. It doesn't render relapse and remission a matter of behaviour, willpower or the weather. And it doesn't change the nature of impairment dramatically. If depression or anxiety causes physical pain, that pain isn't going to be less dramatic than pain with a physical origin. On the contrary - it's likely to be harder to relax and play tricks on your mind to cope with it. If depression makes it impossible to motivate yourself to get out of bed, then you can no more get out of bed than if your limbs didn't work. Yes, the medical treatments for physical and mental conditions are very different, but our functional impairments are exactly the same.
This is the case even with hypochondria. A [cis male] friend of mine has hypochondria to such a degree that he once had to ask his GP for reassurance that he couldn't have cervical cancer, (to which the GP replied, “If you do, we're both going to be famous!”). But I have seen him when his mind has given him physical symptoms and it is a great cause of suffering and genuine impairment - even when he knows it's psychosomatic, he can't will the problem away. Instead he takes the necessary steps to recover in the same way that I respond to a crisis in my physical health. Some people don't know they have hypochondria, but convincing them that they do will not magic away the problem (and attempting to will probably increase their distress and with it their discomfort, and of course you could be wrong anyway).
One great irony is that the degree of doubt and mistrust towards people with mental health labels is exactly why some people do go into denial or lie about the nature of their illness.
Which brings me onto faking and attention-seeking. It seems to be received wisdom that some people will fake impairments for social gain - that some people will do it for financial gain seems obvious, because if there is a scam to be had, someone will have a go. Being disabled is a social disadvantage, but many non-disabled people seem to think that the special treatment we receive is some kind of privilege and as such cast doubt on people whose impairments they don't understand. Much like my cousin and her friend's sexuality.
Ironically, it is people with lower status diagnoses, including mental health diagnoses who seem most vulnerable to the accusation. And yet, quite obviously, those people who are so desperate for attention and sympathy to feign impairment will invariably pipe for very high status diagnoses. I've known of more than one person who falsely claimed to have cancer in order to intensify a new relationship. The faux-paraplegic is not such an unrealistic staple of fiction, from Little Dorrit onwards, because paraplegics have a very high status, miminising the negative social consequences of disability (please don't think I mean it doesn't suck).
Although people with Body Identity Integrity Disorder may not be motivated by attention and sympathy (and they are disabled), they also desire much higher status impairments than the ones they have - usually amputation or paraplegia.
And yet, the lower you get down the disability hierarchy, the more doubt is cast over you being disabled at all. This applies to non-paralytic back injury, many chronic illnesses, especially mental illness, but also dyslexia, ADHD and other "learning impairments". This all comes back round to the Charity Model of Disability. There is no consideration about the logic of faking impairment in these ways. Instead, like some great stingy societal insurance firm, non-disabled people don't want to award the magnanimity of their tolerance to anyone if they can afford not to.