There is Nothing Wrong with You

There is a new movie out, based on a book, called Me Before You. It tells a story about a man who is very suddenly severely disabled in an accident. Despite the bubbly attendant at his bedside, he is depressed by his circumstances and cannot come to terms with the future he sees before him. He ultimately chooses to end his own life.

There is a massive movement to protest this movie on the grounds that it “normalizes” suicide for disabled people. The objection is that it reinforces the idea that life is not worth living with a disability. The protesters fear that the movie portrays choosing suicide over life in such a situation is portrayed as a noble choice. There is a very great deal of self-righteous furor around this movie (and presumably the source book).

I keep hearing about this movie in this context and to be honest the protests make me very uncomfortable. I agree that we don’t want to glamorize suicide, but I disagree that telling stories about it does that. I don’t think that stories about people with suddenly inflicted disabilities need to always be uplifting. It seems to me that denying this reaction to a sudden disability is far more harmful than telling stories that include it could ever be.

It is completely normal for people with disabilities, particularly disabilities that become part of a person’s life when they were previously living without any such circumstance, to become seriously depressed and even suicidal. Denying that as a normal response bothers me a lot more than a story about a disabled person who is suicidal does. Sometimes we have to hear about the people who didn’t get through that depression in order to begin to understand it.

It is tragic and sad that people consider suicide or actually choose to die instead of live their lives with disabilities, but it is a fact of the world we live in and pretending it is not will not help us address it. If we refuse to allow stories to be told that have outcomes we don’t like we will never learn to be supportive and accepting. We will never learn to accept it when we face such depression and despair ourselves.

The sad and frustrating reality of our culture is that we don’t believe people with disabilities can have lives that are as happy and fulfilling as lives without them. We look at disabled people with a sort of condescending pity, no matter how much we say otherwise. We often say all the right things, but we don’t act it. And sometimes we have good reasons for it and great intentions behind it, but that doesn’t change that the story it tells is that life as a disabled person is not as full of potential as life not disabled.

We say things like “oh, I couldn’t live that way, you are so strong.” That does not tell someone they are special for living with it, it tells them that having it in the first place makes their life less worth living, less full of hope. It tells them they are broken. If we want to change the story, we have to stop seeing disabilities as exceptional and start seeing them as simply challenges not everyone faces in a world where everyone faces challenges.

It is really hard to have a disability and not see a world full of people who don’t seem to have such challenges in their lives. It feels unfair and like the disability is a burden most people never even have to understand how to carry. It feels like being disabled means your life will be somehow diminished. And because our culture encourages hiding disabilities whenever possible and treating those who obviously have them as if they do have a diminished capacity to manage their lives, that impression is always going to be there at least some of the time even for the proudest, most capable disabled person.

It seems to me that banning stories were people are depressed or who cannot accept their realities will only teach us all that being depressed or struggling to accept a situation is not ok. And it is. It needs to be. Depression and the idea that a life with a disability cannot be as full as a life without one are both very real and very serious. They are shockingly common factors in our culture. As long as we continue telling people that becoming depressed or feeling like maybe it would be better if they were dead means that something is wrong with them we will never be able to actually help them.

One of the most dangerous features of mental health difficulties is that we often believe they mean that we are defective. We look around at all the stories of happy people and it is very easy to feel like there is something wrong with us for not being happy too. And there is nothing abnormal or wrong with being depressed. What is wrong is telling someone who is facing a major life-altering change that being upset or feeling hopeless or questioning if it’s worth it to go on that being sad or depressed about that means something is wrong with them. Depression is a part of coping for so many people. It’s a part of grieving the life we have lost and coming to terms with the life ahead of us. For some people that is a lifetime struggle and for some it is of shorter duration and for everyone who suffers from it help can be a lifesaver, but it isn’t abnormal or wrong.

And sometimes, just as with everything else in the world, people fail to meet that challenge and come to terms with whatever they are struggling with. It’s a terribly hard thing to do. Heartbreakingly so. And it’s still hard, but so much more manageable, with empathetic help and messages that being depressed about such parts of life is ok. Even needing medical treatment to get through it is ok. It’s not a weakness to ask for help and it’s not a weakness to need it.

Nobody is happy about suddenly having a disability that materially changes their life. That is normal. And we should absolutely work to make suicide less common, but telling people that feeling suicidal in such a moment means something is wrong with them will only make it worse. It makes them hide it and feel like they are weak and even more hopeless (what is the point of it all if even the feelings you cannot control mean you are broken?).

There need to be stories of noble disabled men and women who hold their heads high and fight the good fight and live lives as full and rich as if they had no disability with nary a blip of doubt. Those are undoubtedly important. But there also need to be stories about people who sink into despair when faced with such a challenge and the sudden reality of a future much different than that they planned for. There need to be stories of people who get through their depression and become stronger for it, but there also need to be stories of people who fail to come out the other side of that despair and never manage to build new lives and new plans. We can’t all be so noble and resiliant that we never lose hope. Even the people who appear to never get depressed often struggle with their own despair at times. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with any of us.

So yes, I think it’s tragic that the main character in this movie ultimately gives in to that depression and ends his own life. But I also think maybe that is exactly the story we need to hear sometimes, both those of us who are disabled and those of us who are not. If we as audience can see how rich and full the life he gives up could have been, then maybe we can learn to stop treating disability with pity in general and recognize the struggles that those who have them go through to accept the challenges they face. And maybe we can learn to not see depression as something wrong with someone so much as something normal that simply might need to be recognized so that help can be given.

There is nothing wrong with feeling hopeless and depressed. There is only something wrong with denying that it is normal. There is something wrong with telling the many, many people who do feel that way that they are failing simply by feeling that way. There is something wrong with not recognizing that this is a reality and maybe we all need to change the story they hear in order to help give them hope again.

Maybe what we need to learn from this movie and others like it is that life is not hopeless no matter how big the challenges we face are, but that doesn’t mean we won’t feel like it is sometimes. If you look through the stories that are at the core of our culture, you find a pattern in them where the hero does despair and lose hope for a while only to come out the other side of that depression stronger than they were before. Maybe that sadness is a actually the possibility of strength, the challenge we need to face to grow. And maybe, like all challenges, there are people who simply can’t overcome it alone. And that’s ok too. We should never have to meet every challenge alone.

Instead of saying disabilities aren’t hard to accept or that becoming depressed, even suicidal, as a result of them means that something is wrong, maybe we need to consider that it’s simply part of the process for many and do what we can to help them regain hope instead of saying that losing it is a weakness of character. It’s not a weakness, it’s a part of being human. And learning to accept and face a disability and what it means for your life is very hard.

Nobody is able to be perfectly optimistic and hopeful all the time. And that’s ok.