How a Spinal Cord Injury Brings Me Peace in a Pandemic

Last updated: 04-03-2020

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How a Spinal Cord Injury Brings Me Peace in a Pandemic

Raise your hand if the situation surrounding our global health crisis has gotten you out of your comfort zone.

I’m sure if I could see a room of those reading this blog, many, if not most of you would have your hands raised. Life as we know it has changed drastically and we are having to alter our routines, our determinations about what is or isn’t possible, and in many cases look at the world with a whole new lens.

But it’s also an excellent exercise in stretching out of our comfort zones and becoming more flexible and pliable in our everyday lives.

Twenty years ago, when I sustained a spinal cord injury, my life changed in five seconds time. There was no predicting it would happen, or plans made if it did. I simply left my house one day and didn’t return. The night before the bike ride that would change my life, I slept in my bed like any other night. I never dreamed (or had nightmares rather) that in less than 24 hours, I would cease to be able to walk and I’d have to learn a whole new way of life.

In many ways, I feel that uncertainty around me right now. As I talk with friends and family, many people are sharing the anxiety about not knowing what’s going to (or not going to) happen, feeling unprepared for the future, concerned that at the end of this pandemic, things may not turn out alright.

I won’t say that I have no concerns in this moment, (or that there aren’t thousands of people on the frontline of this battle who are in the thick of this situation) because that would be untrue.

But I believe that my past has given me hope and a perspective that has me sleeping easier at night. I know difficulty can and likely will come my way in some form or another. But I also know that I have faced demons before that seemed unsurmountable, yet managed to emerge on the other side with optimism intact and the drive to move forward.

When I was a patient at Craig Rehab Hospital in Englewood, Colo., there was one statement I would continually hear from my physical therapists, which used to drive me mad. They would tell me that when all was said and done (and there was A LOT to be said and done), my life wasn’t over because of my paralysis. They (not just a single therapist, but every. Single. Therapist.), would say, “you’ll still be able to do all the same things you did before your accident. You will just have to find a new way to do them.”

Oh, that used to infuriate me! My physical therapist would say it at the end of my session when I knew she was walking out of my room to go on a bike ride or run. And I’d think, easy for you to say. You get to walk out of here as if nothing happened.

Meanwhile, I would feel sorry for myself taking a tally of the things I couldn’t do. I’d never exercise my passion for riding a bike again. Or be able to stop by a friend’s house on a whim and run up the steps to the front porch to ring the doorbell. I would never walk down an aisle wearing a flowing white wedding gown. Or drive my month-old manual drive mini-SUV again. Never do another tumbling run, ending in a backflip (gymnastics being one of my other passions). Never, never, never. There were so many nevers, that once I got going down that road, it wasn’t long before I began to despise my mere existence. And at the end of my very long list, I was sure it would be punctuated with ‘will never be happy again.’

I stewed in that place for months. But eventually, I was able to reframe my thinking and my doing. I purchased a handcycle and after miles and miles of riding, I found the same love for and benefit of my new mode of transportation that I did for my bicycle. I learned that you can drive a car with your hands, and got what I thought was a super cool ride—a Subaru Outback. I went back to work full-time. My friends and I did new (and some old) activities and found ways to make them accessible. Before I knew it, my life was more complete post-injury than it was prior. And it was all because I opened my mind and looked for new possibilities. I also realized that different doesn’t have to equate to bad. It’s just—different.

Now, you may not find me running up a staircase anytime soon, but because of the ingenuity and creativity of my friends and family, other folks with disabilities, and even my own ability to stretch—there are few activities I’ve come upon that I couldn’t do. Of course, not all of them would I want to do (I’ll pass on jumping out of airplanes and downhill skiing), but I have learned one very important fact. There’s always (or at least 98+/- % of the time) more than one way to achieve a goal. And most of the time it honestly comes down to having the desire to achieve, despite the circumstances.

So, as you navigate the next few months of changes, discomfort and “nevers,” give yourself a moment to stop and think about the bigger picture. See the opportunity that lies in your challenges, the gift of learning to think differently and creatively and the optimistic attitude that for every problem there is a solution. It simply may be different than you had originally thought.

After all, the world is still full of wonder and beauty, you just might have to find a new lens with which to view it.

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