There’s no way to avoid the blunt, honest truth: Paralysis from a spinal cord injury is a great personal tragedy. We go through rehab and “recover” enough to resume our lives on a much different path. For some newly-injured adults, established careers are ruined or severely compromised. For those who are injured at a younger age (as I was), life goals must be completely redefined. Family ties are strengthened or broken by the trauma; relationships crumble or survive.
One way or another, we become intimate with three words – “paralyzed for life” (or until a cure is found) – that strike terror in the hearts of nondisabled people everywhere. It’s almost impossible to live with paralysis and not feel stigmatized by those who see you as the aftermath of a worst-case scenario. As survivors, we’re considered brave, heroic and inspiring simply for living the lives we never planned for ourselves.
A Life-Long Process
Paralysis is accompanied by a coping process that is very similar to the “five stages of grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) identified by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her groundbreaking 1969 book On Death and Dying. The last stage—acceptance—is the state of mind we strive for every day.
Some of us accept paralysis more easily than others, but only a fool would deny that it’s a life-long process. It’s only natural for acceptance to be preceded by denial, anger, bargaining (i.e. with God, the Universe, etc.) and depression. To that list I would add frustration — the one emotion, for me personally, that’s been the hardest to control.
Control is the operative word here: to control our emotions is to control our paralysis so it doesn’t seize control of us. Control comes in all shapes and sizes according to our faith (or lack of it), our sense of humor and irony, intelligence, family dynamics, personal outlook and psychological makeup. Who we are at the time of injury will largely determine who we’ll become afterwards.
The good news is we’re still in control. And with that in mind, here’s a little secret for you: Happiness is a choice. It has absolutely nothing to do with career, relationships, wealth, prestige, power or any of the other yardsticks used to define mainstream success. Those and other external factors may affect our feelings of contentment, pride and achievement, but happiness is entirely internal. It’s a state of mind that we can consciously choose as we navigate through hardship.
It’s Not Always Easy
What choosing happiness means, for me, is that we are almost entirely responsible for our own state of mind. We can allow ourselves to be sad, angry, frustrated, lonely, and altogether miserable, but we choose whether to sustain those emotions until they devour us from the inside. And because negativity goes hand in hand with feelings of resistance, non-acceptance and life-draining gloom, why would anyone choose (in the parlance of Star Wars) to embrace the dark side?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ignoring the reality of depression as a biochemical condition. I’m also not suggesting that we can always greet each day with laughter and optimism (although you should keep that up if it works for you). All I’m saying is that, when faced with a choice between energy-feeding positivity and soul-depleting negativity, why would anyone choose the latter? Even if you dwell on negatives, you can still heed the simple advice I was given by a girlfriend long ago: Fake it ‘til you make it. Reinforce a healthy attitude until it starts to reinforce itself.
This advice surely applies to everyone, but when you throw paralysis into the mix it becomes an essential mode of survival. If you insist on making yourself and everyone around you miserable, you don’t deserve sympathy from anyone. Much better, then, to (as the old song goes) accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.
Trust me, it works. Not that long ago, I never would have believed it, but now I know it’s true. I know it right down to the marrow of my bones.
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