I have a mental disability. I acquired it four years ago in a car crash. It’s a big deal.

I could tell you the story of the crash, describe my 40-day hospital experience (only two weeks of which I remember) or the lengthy rehab that followed. I could describe the experience of re-entering life and school with a traumatic brain injury, of adjusting to being on the other side of the spectrum in school — from advanced to remedial — and of the gains and losses I had because of the injury.

I could talk about how slim my chances were of even surviving, let alone being able to function as a normal human being. I could talk about how a combination of my willpower and the love and help I received from others has gotten me this far.

That story would likely touch your heart; more religious people have seen my story as proof that there is a higher power that loves and forgives us and wants us to survive — something I don’t necessarily dispute. But I think it would be more productive if I focus on the present, on what life is like with this disability now, here at U of M, and what I think that you as a (probably) non-disabled person should know.

It has been almost exactly four years since the accident, which occurred in October of my senior year of high school. And though I’ve recovered remarkably well, I still struggle with the lasting effects on a daily basis: my short term memory is broken, which means that if I want to remember anything I have to write it down. Everyone forgets things; I simply do it more consistently, and so the detail in which I write things down must be immaculate.

Other symptoms include a lower stress threshold, frequent fatigue, an inability to deal with distractions and a generally inconsistent level of mental functionality (I have “good brain days” and “bad brain days”). Sometimes it’s overwhelming to be around a lot of people at once, due to the diversity of things that battle for my attention. My directional memory is virtually non-existent; the other day I forgot my planner with the room number of a class I had been going to twice a week for more than three weeks and I walked into two wrong lecture halls looking for the class. That example was a bit extreme, but the humiliation of routinely walking into wrong classrooms gets a bit tiring. On the other hand, there are always interesting tidbits of information to pick up in wrong classrooms. It’s all a matter of perspective, right?

My mental disability is not outwardly apparent, which is both a blessing and a curse. Invisible disabilities require consistent awareness on the part of the person carrying them, constant judgment of when it is appropriate or necessary to disclose the problem. “Hello, my name is Anna and I have a disability” might seem like an absurd introduction, but sometimes I think that introducing myself that way would be easiest.

It takes a while to learn how to interact with others after getting a traumatic brain injury. Telling people I meet about my injury early on can be better than waiting until I mess up in some way — showing them rather than telling them how broken I am. Then again, getting to know people without them knowing about the brain injury can feel liberating, like a game to see how far I can go without letting it become apparent. I usually do give in and disclose my condition eventually, often in an attempt to explain myself after I’ve become sheepish over something I’ve said or done; I can blame the disability, rather than myself. It’s a tug of war between my pride and my resistance to being labeled “disabled.”

In reality, there is no way I can know how others might respond after learning about my experience. Having a faulty short-term memory can be pretty laughable at times, especially when it causes ridiculous repetitions or adventures getting lost and found. I would like for people to feel free to laugh at my ridiculous behavior, for my disability not to be the elephant in the room people are too polite to react to.

Sometimes I think that acquiring the disability has made me into a more balanced, focused person. I have medical evidence to reinforce and identify my struggles, and sometimes I think it must be difficult not having doctors around to tell you what your cognitive problems are. I don’t want to be “normal,” but I do want my differences to be understood. I think that’s how many people feel, regardless of race, gender, eye color, favorite type of music or disability.

The moral of the story: drive safely. Be nice to the students who mistakenly walk into your lecture halfway through — they might have a disability. And don’t be shocked when “normal” people disclose personal information identifying them as different.

I can’t speak for the entire disabled community; we all have our own problems, including non-disabled students. It’s just harder for those of us with disabilities to talk about certain problems; some issues require long explanations with lengthy background stories to be properly understood.

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