I stood outside a sprawling casino resort, shivering as the temperature dropped below 50 degrees. I watched my breath escape my body and wade into the night air, and my service dog nuzzled my leg with his snout. Giant was the peacekeeper in the middle of the hellfire this night had become, my reminder that it would all be okay.
I was hopping back and forth to stay warm when my fiancé approached me. "I went to the front desk and ordered a cab. It will be here in 15 to 20 minutes," he said.
The casino was in the middle of nowhere, just off a country highway. There were no Lyfts around and no cabs immediately available for pickup. We had to wait outside, in the cold, because going inside just wasn't safe.
Disabled is a complex term to use when you look like me: healthy, strong, and able-bodied. But I do have a disability — post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD — and I crave the freedom to self-identify as I navigate the label-obsessed world in which we live. I don't want to have a disability; in fact, I don't think any person with a disability does. But I don't want to be expected to pretend it doesn't exist. Often, it feels as if I am being gaslighted by the world, pressured to claim good health, push myself beyond my limits, and pretend that my life hasn't been saved by a drug cocktail that my doctors have carefully curated over the past two years.
That had been exactly the case earlier that night, leading up to our chilly wait for a cab. My fiancé and I had spent the day in a nearby town, hiking and going to our favorite local restaurant. We wanted to end the evening by visiting the casino in the town over. We used to go to the casino fairly regularly, until we both decided that weekends playing Blackjack and buying diluted cocktails at inflated prices wouldn't help us save for the home and future we wanted together. That night, however, we embraced spontaneity.
I walked into the lobby with my service dog and was promptly told that although my fiancé could go in, I'd have to step to the side and wait for a manager to come verify that I actually needed a service animal. It was a little annoying, sure, but I brushed it off and suggested my fiancé go get some cocktails; we agreed to meet up when I was finished speaking with the security manager. That turned out to be wishful thinking. What unfolded was a prolonged interrogation.
Why do you have a service animal, ma'am?
"I have PTSD," I willingly explained.
What is the animal trained to do?
I cooperated by explaining the four tasks he can perform.
A lot of people come in here faking service animals. We don't allow emotional-support animals.
"I can assure you that Giant can perform specified tasks; he has been trained, and I can answer whatever questions you need to know about his skill set. Also, he is not an emotional-support animal," I said. "Those are two different things, and it is demeaning to insinuate he must be an ESA, because I have PTSD. Psychiatric-service animals are common and valid."
Look at him; he's not even doing anything right now!
This is when my blood started boiling. "Even seeing-eye dogs get breaks when their handler isn't moving or in need of immediate assistance," I responded curtly.
Clearly, the casino staff is unaware of the wide array of service animals and the services they must perform for handlers with invisible illnesses in case of emergency. "Does someone have to have a seizure, or pass out, or have a dissociative attack on command for you to honor their disability?" I shot back.