I broke my neck vertebrae when I was 17. The loss was immediate and devastating: paralysis from my fingertips down to my toes and all the physical, social and emotional upheaval that came with it. For a while, the struggle was real but for me it was short lived.
I know what most readers will want to hear: the grisly details, the trauma, the triumph, and the answer to how I can possibly deal with this terrible outcome on a daily basis. But here’s the thing: the outcome of my spinal cord injury is no longer terrible. I didn’t overcome, I adapted. The story of my spinal cord injury is something I choose not to focus on, celebrate or re-live. And after 40 years of living with paralysis, I feel privileged. My journey has been stunningly transformative. The world is still my oyster and I have already lived as an able-bodied person, and now as a disabled person, increasing my personal repertoire of what it means to be human. From the looks of pity I get on a daily basis being seen in a wheelchair I know that many may never understand that their reaction is misplaced. The best complement is being told I don’t look at you as being disabled.
You know what is worse than not walking? Not living. Some would say that living in a world where there is a deeply entrenched social stigma where bodies that don’t fit a cultural “norm” are marginalized. Not living whether your walking or riding is a true tragity.
Stop worrying about how the world views you. I don’t give a shit if society thinks that having a disability is a dirty word and a wheelchair is a symbol of confinement, not freedom. Yes I live in a world where being a quadriplegic will cause others to question your worth. I have been rejected when applying for adoption. I have been questioned as to my ability to coach sports and yes, passed up for promotions.
In the face of these challenges that have nothing to do with being disabled, and everything to do with social and environmental barriers, what has strengthened my faith, my resolve, and my perspective has been the consideration of other people’s lives, particularly those who were born with a disability and who are also at ease and in harmony with their body and identity does not matter. Those who know that their personhood and value is never in question, never having to fight for their health, equality, inclusion, and access are not my battle.
I cannot eradicate societal toxicity. Toxicity comes in products, environments, and relationships. It also comes in our ways of thinking. Toxic thinking about illness or disability is unfortunately a knee-jerk social phenomenon. People clam up at thoughts of disability – sustaining an injury or illness, giving birth to a disabled child, taking care of a disabled parent, and making love to a person with a disability. Cleansing ourselves of the fear of disability will prepare us for the many inevitable seasons of life, allowing us to find beauty in unexpected places.
My goal on a personal level is to strengthen your resolve, confidence and personal mental and emotional grit. This strengthening can be achieved by taking a Sage approach towards the concepts of pain and suffering. Pain and suffering are two different things. Pain is the body’s signal that something is wrong with the body and needs medical attention. Suffering is a psychological response to pain eliciting unproductive responses to pain such as: “Why me?” “I can’t do this,” or “I hate being disabled.” Judgment is the cause of this suffering and by transforming judgment into loving acceptance; we can honor and nurture our gorgeous, changing human bodies in all their states of being. It takes practice.
Actually everybody is broken in some way so, welcome to the club, my friend. At any point in time, you are broken, I am broken. It can be undoubtedly difficult, but by cleansing our minds of judgment, fear, and stigma, we can experience the wholeness and rich abundance the world has to offer even in unconventional, or alternatively functioning bodies. It doesn’t take a day, or reading an article to get to this place of healing, but by embracing the impermanent nature of our bodies, we find the privilege of being alive.
Shift your thinking and detox about things you cant change. I can genuinely say that words used to describe me like quadriplegic, disabled, and paralyzed have no impact on me. I can say that my lived experience with disability and successful adaptation has opened up new worlds to me and broken negative stereotypes.
I am enriched by the disability community, I am motivated to try new and daring things in this defiant mind set, I embrace the fringes, I feel prepared for an array of challenges because I have the toolkit to deal with my fears, and I have learned the undeniable power of resilience and grit.
Compliments of Swift Outdoor Accessible Recreation (SOAR) and the Quadfather. soarnonprofit.comsoar