written by S.B. Lakes
When I was young, whenever I would get frustrated with something, my parents would say, “It’s hard, but you can do it.”
Throughout life, I’ve taken this to heart; I powered through and did the things, even when there was a crushing amount of work to be done. Friends called it “superpowers”, and I found myself using it more and more often. Superpowers always have their cost – get the power of the Dark Side at the expense of your morality, get magic powers when you sacrifice the thing you love most, and so on. For me, I’d be exhausted the next day, a gibbering baboon who looked like they’d stayed awake for three days straight, but the feeling was always that it was worth it because that’s what you gotta do to get it done. It’s hard, but you can do it.
Today I both write SFF and work in a high-powered slice of tech. In tech, superpowers are the norm. Superpowers are expected. Superpowers are your basic prerequisite, because of course you’re going to work-hard-play-hard, you’re going to go-go-go and get-shit-done. (You probably have a t-shirt or mug with at least one of these phrases, possibly handed out by your employer.) There is no place for weakness in this environment.
There is no place for disability in this environment.
In the past 5+ years, working with a wide variety of client companies, I haven’t seen a single person with a visible disability. Any invisible ones have been carefully hidden away.
Even without my disability, I’ve never been healthy. In the past five years alone, I’ve dealt with a bizarre constellation of medical issues. Car accidents, emergency appendectomy, shingles… nothing connected, but many things. Some I can hide. Some I can’t, but there’s still an expectation to push through. A regular sick day usually means working from home, smiling and cogent on the video conference, trying to ignore the fever heating my cheeks or my nose that’s been rubbed raw from tissues. The last time I had a real sick day, I was two weeks after major surgery and on serious painkillers. The following week, still high as a kite on vicodin and barely able to shuffle to the fridge and back, my then-client insisted that I get some work done and I’d been out long enough. But at least all of these issue were temporary, and none actually disabling.
Which brings me to my actual, invisible disability. I’ve struggled with sometimes-crippling depression since high school. I’ve checked myself into two different hospital programs, one of which included a week of inpatient care. It’s hard enough to smile and pretend I’m stronger than I really am when recovering from a physical illness. It’s excruciating while depressed. In my field, depression is an unheard-of weakness. People acknowledge that I can’t help it if I was hit by a car, but depression is still seen as a personal failing.
I am not “out” in tech, because I would stop getting business. This piece is the first and only work I’ve ever written under a pseudonym – I can’t afford the risk. Who wants to work with someone who might one day just be too sad to come in? What’s the point? Just get over your bullshit and get this shit done. Superpower your way through and you’ll be fine. So I grit my teeth and smile, smile even when my cheeks feel like they each have a one-ton weight smuggled within them, smile when it’s all I can do to keep the tears from squeezing out and rolling down my unprofessional face and dripping onto my unprofessional laptop that would fizzle and sizz in the very reaction that I’m now suppressing in myself. (Superpower through it. It’s hard, but you can do it.)
Depression feels like the opposite of superpowers. Instead of being able to burst through expectations and accomplish superhuman amounts of work, I’m saddled with some sort of superkryptonite. Not only can I not do things that are super, but I find it hard to do incredibly basic things. Showering is difficult. Dishes nigh impossible. Dragging myself to work is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, because the weight of the burden wants to crush me to the ground. And I want to let it, because it would be so much easier to let myself be pulverized into mush than fight for just one minute longer. (It’s hard, and you might not actually be able to do it. That’s a scary thought.)
And in a scenario where I have to hide my disability for fear of losing my job, I feel like a backwards Clark Kent. Masquerading amongst the superheroes, ever afraid that someone would notice that I squint a bit and sometimes bump into things and really if I put on glasses I’d look just like that non-super reporter guy. Nobody needs to bring in that non-super reporter guy to get things done.
Which brings me to the SFF part of my life. There are many issues with disability in science fiction and fantasy. Evil people are disabled or disfigured almost by their nature: see Star Wars’ Snoke, Wonder Woman’s Dr. Poison, Doctor Who’s Davros, and so on. Cons still don’t do enough for people with disabilities. I can’t count the number of times a panelist has decided they’re naturally loud enough to “not need a mic” so I can’t hear them (much less be heard by those with hearing limitations), or seen a panelist in a wheelchair struggle to get onto a ramp-free stage. There’s a lot that needs to be improved.
But despite all this, the SFF world has been my disability salvation. This was the very first world where I was allowed to be “out” with no consequences, and met a number of folks with the same struggle. I could have depression and still be OK, a person worth working with. Hell, I could have depression because I’d been cooped up for too long dealing with yet another illness (my current situation), and still be OK. I was able to open up about my difficulties, my clashing needs to be productive and also practice self-care, in part because so many others were openly fighting the same battles. In the past few years, the SFF community taught me about the concept of spoons, and saving your energy for the things that matter most. This is the community that lovingly yelled at me to stop being ridiculous while I was berating myself for taking too long to finish a novel draft. They told me to start taking better care of my mental health, which included taking breaks.
Not only did I not need superpowers to be accepted in this community, it seemed like nobody did. The outpouring of empathy and love became one of my strongest sources of support, with the echo of “it’s hard, and sometimes you don’t need to do it. It’s OK if you don’t.”
This contrast is startling.
When I had a week-long crippling migraine, an editor sent me copy edits to review. I knew it would be OK to request a few more days, because I wasn’t able to concentrate very well with the pain, and they were fine with it. That same week, my tech job showed no such courtesy, and I had multiple skull-shattering, painfully loud video conferences.
When I was depressed and struggling to make it through the day, I had another editor ask for a revise-and-resubmit for a story. I’d seen others do it, so I knew it would be OK to ask for another few weeks because I was too depressed to make progress. He told me to take care of myself. At the same time, not being “out” in my day job, I was juggling three very demanding clients with no way to get a reprieve. I dragged myself forward on each new project, each new request, whispering “it’s hard, but you can do it” as I trudged through.
When I was extremely depressed and was in a hospital program, getting intense therapy for four hours every weekday, my corner of the SFF community sent me love and support. It was clear that all writing had to come to an indefinite halt. In fact it should’ve been clear that all work had to come to an indefinite halt. But instead I found myself dragging my wrung-out carcass directly from the hospital to a client planning session. Depression, which gives your frontal lobe a whallop and makes it hard to concentrate or think, had me scraping together my remaining neurons (already frazzled from the hospital session) to focus not on rest and my own health, but on a soon-to-be-dead company’s plans for their next product launch.
The SFF community still has a way to go towards eliminating ableism, both in its media and within its community. But for me, this has been the one place in my life where it’s completely OK that I’m not quite Superman. I can drop the fake smile and the veneer of hypercompetence, and have one less burden to lift. I can take care of myself and my health. Things are hard, and I’m OK whether I can do them or not.
It’s good to be home.
S. B. Lakes is a fantasy and science fiction writer who works in tech. They’ve been dealing with depression for about twenty years, and have been hiding it from their professional tech life out of necessity. They’ve published under another name at several magazines, including Lightspeed and Analog.