01 Growing up, Alison would struggle with anxiety and depression.
02 During her freshman year of college, a teacher singled her out in class, and she felt defeated over her anxiety being misinterpreted.
03 Underneath the surface, she also had undiagnosed OCD and was trying to manage her intrusive thoughts.
04 When she finally got diagnosed and leaned into her role as an advocate, she realized how much needs to be changed within our ableist society.
My freshman year of college, I took a French class that required participation.
That meant no sitting in the back, no crouching to make myself less noticeable, and no distractions as I take sloppy notes for 90 minutes. It was also a class that was held five times a week instead of the regular two or three. The consistency was supposed to help us absorb the new language, but it also meant I never got a break from the anxiety of being called on without warning. It was like I took a deep breath every Monday morning and couldn’t exhale until Friday.
To ease some of that anxiety, I studied every night, reviewing my homework and practicing verb conjugation. Despite my preparation, I spent every morning hyper aware of everything my body was doing—every tummy rumble, every breath, every squeak my chair made.
The most dreaded part of class was our conjugation exercises: Madame Dubois would toss a Koosh ball around the room and randomly pick students to conjugate a verb. Everything about it made me sweat, but nothing was worse than the very real possibility of not catching the ball. Although I knew it shouldn’t be difficult, my nerves made me a shaky, uncoordinated mess.
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Then, the moment arrived.
She tossed me the ball and said, “Je?”
I caught it and replied, “Vais.”
Wait, that was easy! I tossed the ball back in relief, but to my confusion and slight horror, Madame Dubois didn’t move on to the next student. She tossed the ball right back to me.
“Tu?” she asked.
“Vas,” I stammered back.
“Elle?” she said, eyes locked on me.
“Va,” I said, my face burning in humiliation.
What was going on? Why was she doing this? As the class let out, she said, “Mademoiselle Lee, can I have a word with you?” Classmates turned to see what was going on.
Once it was just the two of us, she said, “I need you to change your attitude. When you sit there with a bored look on your face, you’re affecting everyone. Your attitude sets the tone for the whole class.”
What? A bored look? But I was terrified! I was on edge the whole time, hoping and praying I wouldn’t be singled out, and if she were to call on me, I wouldn’t make a fool of myself. And there was something wrong with my face? That everyone else noticed? I was mortified.
I was on edge the whole time, hoping and praying I wouldn’t be singled out.
Back in my dorm room, I put on my roommate’s Tori Amos CD and cranked up “Little Earthquakes.” Dramatic? Maybe. But it felt like the end of the world. I was barely a month into my college career and somehow I got in trouble. My best wasn’t good enough. And I had a “bad attitude” that “affected everyone.”
Yes, I was crying on the top bunk because my professor seemed out to get me, but it was also because I was simultaneously being tortured with blasphemous intrusive thoughts. I agonized over whether I was attracted to the girl down the hall, not the guys in any of my classes. I was tortured by visions of hell and the eternal damnation I thought was my destiny. My life felt like it was basically over in every way that mattered. French class was the least of my worries.
Eventually, I was diagnosed with OCD and prescribed an antidepressant. Since my freshman year of college, my life has turned around. I’ve learned that avoiding triggers only makes them harder to deal with and that I should face my fears instead. I’ve gotten into advocacy work and sometimes speak in front of crowds. However, I am still by nature a shy person. I’m not “over” my anxiety disorder and can’t always jump into new situations with ease.
I was tortured by visions of hell and the eternal damnation I thought was my destiny.
The pandemic has also introduced another way to feel anxious and awkward—video meetings. People wonder why they feel so tired when “all” they’ve done is sit in meetings all day. Well, it’s exhausting to stare at a screen. When you’re talking, the whole focus is on you. Your face takes up the screen and even when you’re not talking, you feel like you could be the focus of attention. Are people looking at me right now? If I cough, should I mute myself? What do they think of the books on the shelf behind me? As long as other people are involved, remotely or not, feeling anxious is a possibility.
After a few years of being diagnosed and learning how to navigate the world with anxiety, I realized the unrealistic expectations everyone is asked to meet. In workplaces and at school, we’re all supposed to respond with the same level of enthusiasm, to speak up in meetings, and to participate fully.
But this kind of thinking is ableist. Full stop.
Until the world can become more inclusive, I’ve learned how to ask for accommodations even when it makes me seem like a bit of a diva. Like when I do speaking engagements, I’ll ask plainly, “Do we have to stand? Can we sit behind a table instead?” When I’m able to sit, I can shake my legs under the table, refer to my notes, and take sips of water so I don’t croak when I speak. I don’t ask these things to seem rude, but because I know I need them.
I realized the unrealistic expectations everyone is asked to meet.
One positive of this past year is how accommodating many workplaces have become. Should these accommodations have been made available for people with disabilities a long time ago? Yes! But now we’re in a place where we can demand better and more equal treatment because we know it’s possible. Some employers have loosened their rules on Zoom calls, saying no one has to be on camera, or let people get glimpses into their homes and private lives. When we ask for accommodations these days in the midst of a mental health crisis, it finally feels like people can understand why setting boundaries is so important.
Since that day in French class, I’ve learned how important it is to create safe environments for everybody. It’s not always fair to assume a person is disinterested. When we begin to have conversations about how anxiety can show up in the classroom or the workplace, we’re able to help people like my younger self avoid crying in dorm rooms, wondering what’s wrong with us.
No one should feel less than for trying to manage their symptoms, or question their own self worth because of the ableism they’ve endured. I use my story to prevent situations like these from happening again, and to help others feel empowered to use their own voice for change.