Living with paralysis is not easy. The smallest tasks that most people take for granted, require help. It'll be five years since my accident, this coming June and there are still aspects of my life that are as hard to cope with as they were back in 2005. My physical wounds only took a few months to heal (what little damage that could), but my mental and emotional wounds still feel fresh sometimes.
I know every situation is unique and the life people have before their spinal cord injury plays a big role in how they cope to the drastic changes of being paralyzed. I've come across quite a few people that had no real direction, or motivation at the time of their injury, had a weak support system of friends/family and few, too little skills to fall back on. It is a blessing and a curse that I had already finished college and had begun to establish my career, when I got hurt. I have a lot of skills, real world experience and a strong support system of friends and family. Despite all that, there are many days I find it incredibly hard to find reasons why I should keep trying; why I should move forward. The inner drive that helped me to be successful on me feet, has been my source of strength, while living in a chair. I can only imagine how much harder it would be to go through all this without the support of friends/family. It makes me very sad to think about all of things I have and lost, but recognize the fact that I still have more than some people I know. I do feel blessed to have had the twenty-four "normal," healthy years that I had. Although I've only been injured a fifth of my life, the time I spent on my feet seems like a blink of the eye, in comparison to the last five years. It is the sheer fact that I worked so hard and achieved so much, that makes it hard for me to want to just give up. A part of me feels like I have to fix the mistake and get back everything and anything I can, so that I don't feel like all my efforts were a waste of time and energy.
The few months before my accident I felt as though all the pieces of my life had finally fell into place. I had the brief luck of feeling completely at peace with my life and happy about the prospects of my future. I don't know if it would really matter as to how I cope with my paralysis, if I had never felt accomplished, happy or proud. Maybe if my life before had miserable, I'd have even less reason to keep going. Contrarily, maybe I'd have less reasons to feel so sad, because I wouldn't have lost so much. I'll never know, but I believe that it is definitely a factor in why I'm able to find strength, while others can't. It's bittersweet to having felt so close to realizing my dreams, only to have it all abruptly taken away. I think part of me feels the need to salvage what I can from my old life, because I'm still chasing after those same dreams. In away, it's like how drugs addict, perpetually chase after the sensation of their first high; although no matter what they do, they never find it. I long to feel the peace and happiness that I felt, those few months before my injury.
Reality is, most of what I had is gone and there's no way to get it back. My material possessions, like my apartment, clothes, car, etc., have all been slowly replaced with newer, more accessible versions or given away. My career is gone, but it's not from lack of trying. I was a year away from tenure, so unfortunately I had nothing to use as leverage, in terms of fighting the district's decision. Although it's painful, I can understand the choice, from a business perspective. I now require a double salary (in a sense), because of my need for an instructional aide. Knowing what I know now, I'm not sure that I'd be able to handle a full time job (physically speaking and having to relying on others to get me ready and for transportation). I've found a compromise in painting. It's not as rewarding, but at least I still feel like I'm using my degree to create art and teach a message. The forth major loss (after my functional abilities,possessions &career) I've had to face is that many of my personal relationships have gone or changed. I feel as though I've tried my best to stay connected and I remain hopeful that those relationships might mend some day. My efforts just aren't good enough for everyone and I have to restrain myself, at times, from going back time after time to work things out, only to end up hurt, again. In all, at least half of my lifetime goals are on hold indefinitely and trying to be patient, while remaining hopeful seems impossible sometimes.
Everything now is a compromise. I live in my own apartment, but with roommates (currently family). I own a car, but need someone to drive it. I create art, but I'm not working in the field I love. I crave time alone and privacy, but need help for everything. I have a dog, but can't take care of her. The list goes on an on. No matter how hard my loved ones, nurses or aides try, no one will ever to be able to do things the way I'd have done them myself (and for certain things, I'd much prefer no help at all). Not to mention, each person assisting me has their own style and quirks. My day to day life is packed full of tiny compromises. Being what most people would classify as an "A" type personality, it has been exceptionally difficult having little, to no control. I like things organized and precise. I love my privacy and freedom to travel. I have high standards on how things should be done and often over do things or get things done in advance. I used to be the queen of planning & had my life charted out and color coded. All of these character traits helped me be a successful student and teacher and allowed me to take on a heavy load of responsibilities. Now, those same traits make it difficult to deal with my need to completely rely on others. I've slowly learned to embrace the motto of taking things one day at a time and have learned to be patient. I'm much better at "going with the flow," than before and have since realized that being flexible is my key to keeping my sanity.
So many disabled people I know have the attitude of, "we can do anything able-bodied people can do, only in a different way." I understand the desire to want equality and respect for people with disabilities, but the upbeat "can do" attitude just irks me sometimes. I feel as though projecting that image of "being just like everyone else" glosses over the reality of the situation and belittles the struggles that people with disabilities face every day. I rather educate the public about the challenges I face and the obstacles that are due to my paralysis. I think acceptance comes through understanding. If society is educated about the realities of paralysis, society will A- embrace the urgent need for a cure and B- be informed enough to know what people with disabilities capabilities and necessities are. I agree that people with disabilities should have equal rights in terms of employment and that more consideration should be made to making things accessible. That said, I'm a realist. The "can doers" get on my nerves, because they often only paint half the picture and sugar coat the situation. If we (those of us with paralysis) are "just like everyone else", then why should people care about helping find a cure? It bothers me that an uneducated public might think: "If things are ok, why not focus on other issues? After all, those people living in wheelchairs don't have it so bad, right? So what is people with paralysis have to do things differently? At least they can do everything we do."
The truth of the matter is, I can't do everything most people can do and neither can the millions of other people suffering with paralysis. Yes, if we (those of us with paralysis) have the right services and support, we can still participate in many things and live full lives. If given the opportunity, we can contribute to society and be productive and certainly deserve respect. However, the reality is, that we are helpless without other people. Our minds might function just fine and we may "call the shots," but in the end, we can not do it alone. At times, I think the "can do" attitude stems from the need to want to feel included or not wanting to wound a person's sense of pride. Some times I think, maybe deep down, the "can do" attitude means that person has accepted his/her disability and has given up on a cure. Other times, I think the "can doer" uses that mind set to help himself/herself cope with all the loss, while trying not to put emphasis on all the realities of life that come along with being paralyzed. However, society needs to see the whole picture. Many people are completely clueless of what a day in the life of someone with paralysis is like. The things that often go overlooked or seem insignificant to an able-bodied person are often big ordeals and stressful for people with disabilities. Toileting is a perfect example of something that the average person doesn't think about, because for them it is a private, personal matter and even if they have insecurities, they have the option not to share them. Going to the bathroom is a basic necessity of life, so no matter how unpleasant, or embarrassing it might be, my paralysis forces me to invite other people into my very private space, in order to help me. I have no choice but to cope with the situation. Cope, or go crazy, I suppose. I've had low self esteem my entire life, so I understand the desire to want to mask flaws or perceived abnormalities. Deep down everyone wants to fit in.
The danger of always acting like a "can doer"' is that it ignores the all the reasons why paralysis is so awful and it can back fire in terms of people's quest for equality. The expression "careful what you wish for, because you might just get it," often crosses my mind. For people with disabilities to be truly "equal" to mainstream society, that would imply that we don't need any special allowances or modifications. Naturally, that is absurd. Most people mean "equal opportunity," when they refer to being equal and do not that people with disabilities should be held to the same criteria as everyone else. I see a problem with this mentality. You can't have your cake and eat it too. I agree that people with disabilities should be given equal opportunity and should be provided with what ever adaptations, modifications or assistance they need, in order for them to be able to be included or productive members of society. However, I think it's critical that the average person know why modifications are necessary in the first place. For example, the fact that I rely on someone else to get dressed, eat, get in my chair and to provide me with transportation. It's not always feasible for me to be on time and I often have to cancel plans. However, these are issues outside of my control and should not reflect poorly on me or be counted against me. Trust me, I would love to be able to hop out of bed into the shower and out the door. Reality is, I can't and while I might have been a very punctual person before, it's not always the case now. People need to be educated. The more people know about various disabilities, the easier it is to promote understanding and acceptance. If more people really knew about the nuances of paralysis and how the disability effects the individual and the extended family, there would be a much louder cry for a cure. If more people understood the challenges of living with a disability people would be more aware and sensitive towards the needs of disabled community. Think about how many times you've gone out and thought, "Why isn't the ramp over here?"; "Am I going to be able to fit a wheelchair through there?"; "How am I going to open that door?." Most people don't consider things with disabilities in mind, partly out of ignorance and party because it hasn't impacted their life.
I think it's our job (those of us living with disabilities and those of us that have loved ones with disabilities) to get out there and help people see why we are fighting for a cure. I applaud others for trying to inspire and be role modes for other people with disabilities. I think it's important that we support one another. Don't get me wrong, I'm not totally against the "can do" attitude. I'm also by no means perfect or think I'm always right. I have a ton of insecurities and vanities. Everyone can benefit from a positive message. "Can doers" offer hope and inspiration to everyone, because of what they do, despite their limitations. I suppose there are certain aspects of my life that others might say are motivational or positive. It's certainly not my goal to be a downer or negative. It is my mission to be realistic. As embarrassing as it is at times, I open myself up to the public, in hopes of raising awareness. I'm not comfortable with my current situation. I'm not looking for pity, but it doesn't offend me when people express sympathy for my situation. I don't view that as degrading; I view it as sympathetic. You know what? I'm sorry for my situation too. It is sad to think about everything I lost and it's not easy living with paralysis. Pride is useless to me. I can't think of anything about paralysis that I'm proud of. I feel satisfaction and/or accomplished at times. I don't have to try. I certainly don't have to make myself uncomfortable in hopes of helping find a cure. I do what I do because I feel a need to educate people. In fact, I think those of us with spinal cord injuries have a valuable, unique perspective to share, because we can relate to both able body people as well as disabled body people. Spinal cord injuries can happen to anyone at any time and have the potential to radically change a life in a matter of seconds. People might not seriously consider the risk of disease, especially if they are young and healthy, but no one can ignore the potential of injury. Spinal cord injuries have nothing to do with genetics, diet, race or gender; everyone is susceptible. In a way I think of raising awareness as a moral obligation, in addition to its benefits of fostering understanding and raising support for a cure.
All in all, I just wish people would be honest. Be real. Be open. Let people in and help them understand why we need a cure. The bottom line is that, no matter how happy or how well someone copes with his/her disability, I'm 99% certain that anyone would gladly trade his/her chair in exchange for a cure. No rational human being would choose dependence, sickness and obstacles over health and freedom. Put your pride aside for the greater good (even if it''s just every now and then) and help fight for a cure. The more people you touch (effect, inspire, motivate and/or educate), the more people will care. I work on coping with my situation every day. I try to make the best of my situation, but I refuse to ever accept my paralysis. I know it's my reality, for now and even perhaps until I die, but I will never accept that it's ok. It's not ok. No one should have to live like this. At the very least, everyone deserves to be healthy and I would never wish this life on someone else. That is why I say it's my responsibility to do something, even if it's small.