It Could Happen To You: I’m 23 And On Disability

Emma Brown
Emma Brown

I’m 23, and I look just like you. I spend most of my days in a cubicle and most of my nights wondering why. I go to church, I pay taxes, I wear a tiara on my birthday. I’m at the grocery store, I’m crossing the street, I’m next to you at a red light. You may have just seen me on my jog through the city – but then again, I blend right in.

I’m 23, and I have Chronic Lyme Disease. If you don’t know anything else about CLD, know this: it is technically preventable and entirely debilitating if untreated. About ten years ago, I was bitten by a bug in the wrong place and the wrong time, and if anybody had noticed – my parents, my sisters, my teachers, my friends, or (most importantly) me – my life would be unfathomably different than it is now. But we didn’t, and it’s not, and that little shit latched onto my scalp/back/ankle just long enough to affect my natural trajectory on this green earth. Ten years later, I have an answer and a solution: a solution that requires me to stand on a cliff of life crises and look straight down.

I’m 23, and something about me is “chronic.” As humans, it is our given right to be inherently and tragically flawed, and we all find ourselves to be in some way. But “chronic” is just so heavy. “Chronic” is for conditions that plague middle-aged men. “Chronic” means that even if I’m lucky enough to make it to 103 like my great-great Aunt Sheila did, I’m going to carry this with me the entire time. Everywhere, always. Think of whatever weighs you down the most and add the word “chronic” to it. Chronic obesity. Chronic addiction. Chronic crippling shyness. Chronic tedious job, chronic milquetoast relationship, chronic subpar living. “Chronic” just feels like I’m trapped in this cage and all I can do is make the bars thinner and smaller, but they will still be there. They will always be there.

I’m 23, and I’ll have to take a medical leave of disability from work this year. In a world where my only societal responsibility as a recent college grad is to find a job and show up to it every day, I find that I’ll soon be incapable of just that. A fellow associate summed it up in two words: “Disability, already?” Yes, already. Already, as in I have the next 39 years of my corporate career to take disability, so why start now? Already, as in if I’m this broken now, what shape could I possibly be in when I’m in my 50s like the average person that takes disability leave? Already, as in I just got to the real world and started making a name for myself, and now that name is painted with the hue of physical inability. Already, as in what am I going to be like when I come back? Will I come back? Can I? What else would I do for the next 39 years until retirement – be disabled?

I’m 23, and my doctor had to break the news to me about what my hypothetical baby’s life is going to be like. (For some, 23 may be an appropriate age to have this discussion, but I find that I am SOOO TOO YOUNG FOR THIS.) And hypothetically, it’s going to be extremely difficult for this hypothetical baby to come into being, not to mention much easier for it to slip out of existence as surreptitiously as it came. And hypothetically, anything that comes from me will be made from me, and my genetic material has already and chronically been altered in an irreparable manner. And hypothetically, I’m doing the math and counting up the bags and it feels like the weight of this world is too much for me to carry, much less for any hypothetical husband to have to shoulder as well. And suddenly, the notion of finding anyone to accept and love and commit to me in spite of these hypothetical outcomes seems like a longer shot than ever.

Hypothetically.

I’m 23, and I have to continually remind myself of who I am and, more importantly, who I am not: that I’m not the broken GI tract or the whacked out nervous system; that I’m better than stopping in the middle of a stairwell to remember that I’m going down the stairs; that I’m truly a writer and singer and dancer and laugher and lover and not a hollow shell of a woman pumped so full of drugs that she has relinquished the right to be and instead lies stagnant in the dark, counting the hours until she can stop existing and start truly living again.

I’m 23, and this is just a lot to think about right now. TC mark

image –Emma Brown

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