Managing the interplay between mental illness and cerebral palsy

We’re delighted to welcome Laura Pettenuzzo as a guest blogger. Laura is a writer with cerebral palsy and a disability advocate living on Wurundjeri country. Passionate about accessibility, Laura writes Plain and Easy English content for various organisations, and her words have appeared in places like ABC, SBS and The Age. 

I’ve experienced anxiety and periods of depression for as long as I can remember, but until recently I hadn’t considered that there might be a connection between my cerebral palsy (CP) and mental illness.

The connection, though, is undeniable. Anecdotally, I know this to be true, through my own experience as well as that of my friends with CP. But the evidence is more than anecdotal. There is much research to indicate that adults with cerebral palsy are significantly more likely than adults without CP to experience anxiety and depression.

Identifying the connection between my disabilities has given me a different perspective and a deeper understanding of how I can prioritise and maintain my wellbeing.

It was always clear that my CP symptoms (pain, spasms, fatigue) increased in direct response to feelings of stress or anxiety. I’ve learnt that I need more rest during times of emotional turmoil or crisis, and that heat packs and stretches and pain medication become more important than ever.

Making those accommodations for myself carried – and sometimes still carries – internalised ableism. I felt shame at needing those accommodations, as though I were weaker or inferior to everyone else because of them. I’m not. In fact, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Learning that I was part of a global CP community, and that many other people with CP need similar accommodations helped me shift my perspective. I didn’t think anyone else with CP was weak or less for having support or accommodations. Why, then, could I not offer myself that same grace?

Furthermore, as one of my dear friends regularly points out, we live in bodies that are often unreliable, bodies that mean we are often at the mercy of physios, wheelchairs, support workers, or the weather. While uncertainty is a fact of life and none of us can ever fully control what happens to us, these experiences are enhanced for those of us living with CP. So, of course we’re predisposed to anxiety. Of course, I often feel isolated and lonely and disconnected. I’m living in a world that wasn’t made for me, that is often inaccessible and exclusive.

I’m not weak or less because I live with CP and mental illness. I’ve built up a level of strength and resilience that my younger self could scarcely imagine. I exert approximately 4 times the amount of energy as an able bodied person on any given task and do so living in a society with extremely low expectations of me and people like me.

I am learning to be gentle with myself, to celebrate the small victories and accept the support I need. In doing so, my CP and my mental illness are easier to manage. In doing so, I am happier and healthier and more alive than I’ve ever been.