Losing The Life You Thought You Were Meant To Live
If you don’t know my story, have never read my book or heard me speak, you might wonder what a girl in a wheelchair could possibly say that’s relevant to your life. Most likely you’ve never been in a serious accident, spent months motionless in a hospital bed, or been faced with the prospect of living out the rest of your life in a wheelchair.
Well, what if I told you that we have more in common than you think?
When I was told that I was going to be a quadriplegic, I was devastated and felt a hopelessness that can’t be described in words. And yes, there were times when I questioned the point in even living. I couldn’t imagine
life in a wheelchair.
Like all teens I had hopes and dreams. I imagined I would marry and have a family. I was going to attend college and eventually become a professional singer (although if the whole show-biz thing didn’t work out, my Plan B was to become a choir teacher). I was going to travel the world for business and leisure, be so successful in my career that I would be financially secure… you get the picture. In the days following my
accident I questioned whether any of these dreams would become a reality for me.
And that’s where our circumstances become very similar.
Have you ever lost a job, experienced a break-up, gone through financial hardships, or [insert any of life’s other challenges here]? The truth is we’ve all experienced tragedy in some way, shape or form, and as a result we experience a sense of grief.
While it took some time for me to see it, what I came to realize is that I was not only grieving what I lost physically in the accident and my independence, I was also grieving the loss of the future I envisioned for myself. A long list of hopes and dreams I thought I would no longer accomplish. Regardless of whether you’ve lost a job, divorced a spouse, or as in my case, experienced a serious injury, it’s the grief over the life we thought we were meant to live that is often the most challenging part of the healing process.
So how can we go about accepting our new future after facing one of life’s curveballs? Whether it’s the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a dream, we must face our grief head-on. That means going through a five step process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Denial: When the doctors told me my diagnosis, I went into denial. Everyone around me kept telling me that they had seen other people with spinal cord injuries healed, and so I thought that could be me. I was sure I could get myself out of the situation. I reasoned that the doctors didn’t know how strong I was. I became determined to defy the odds and prove them wrong. After a time there was no more time for denial. Reality was sinking in and I had to face what my life was now going to be.
Anger: I had a lot to be angry about. Even though my therapists and nurses tell me today that I was not angry or depressed like other patients that they had worked with, I held my anger inside and showed it only when I was by myself, usually in the middle of the night. I wanted to remain strong for everyone around me, as I could see my family and friends struggling. I thought if I could stay strong then they would stay strong. So when it came to anger, I was ANGRY on the inside! I was angry that this happened to me, someone who was a good person, someone very undeserving of this. I was angry that my friends got to come visit me, and then go home to their normal life while I was stuck in a hospital bed with a body that did not do anything that I wanted it to do. I was also angry at myself. Why did I always have to be the klutz? How could I not know that the trapdoor was open? Why? Why? Why? I would spend my nights crying myself to sleep, waking up in the middle of the night alone; feeling like nobody could understand what I was going through.
(A side note for those who know the story of my accident: When it came to the stage of anger, I was also angry that the rehearsal had gone on after I left by ambulance, as if nothing had happened to me. But truthfully, I never struggled with anger with my director or those who were there by the trapdoor. I’m often asked if I was mad at the people at the theater. It would be months before I would know about the negligence that happened but I ultimately knew that no one there had ill intentions or tried to make this happen.)
Bargaining: The third stage of grief came when I moved home. After five months of therapy, one month of living in the Ronald McDonald house, and three weeks living at a friend’s house, I got to move into my new home that was built to be accessible for my wheelchair. I was so excited for this and felt that this would give me a sense of normalcy and a place that I could now call home. I was still angry that I could not go home to the house that I had lived in my entire life, but I was trying to focus on the positive.
In my time of being in the hospital, being surrounded by nurses and doctors, I was protected and sheltered from the reality of life. When I made the transition home I was overwhelmed with how different my life was now and that I was different from everyone else. I felt like a freak of nature and could barely stand to look at myself in a mirror. I would have done anything to go back to the way my life was before the accident. I wanted to go back in time, see that the trapdoor was open, and avoid the accident from ever happening. I began thinking to myself, “If only…” and “What if…?” This clearly was the third stage of grief: bargaining. I constantly thought about the past, and wished that I could go back.
Depression: When it comes to the stages of grief, the process is not always linear. For me I experienced parts of the process simultaneously. I experienced depression while I was doing my rehabilitation and then again when I moved home. The reality of my situation was becoming more and more real and I could see what a burden I was being on my family. When I thought of the future I wanted to completely crumble to pieces in pain and sorrow. I had intense feelings of emptiness, sadness, and hopelessness. When my nurses would come in to get me out of bed, I was embarrassed by the things they needed to do for me and that only sent my depression spiraling out of control. I did not know at the time, but my psychologist put me on an antidepressant to help with this negative feeling that I could not shake. Again, like anger, most of the time I held my depression inside and rarely showed my sadness, but it was definitely there.
Acceptance: The grieving process came and went over time. Things seemed to be getting better, but then suddenly a bad day would result in feelings of grief resurfacing. A bad day would really throw me for a loop, and it would literally take days for my positive attitude to return. Thankfully, the good days began to happen more frequently and the bad days less.
I think the hardest part about my situation was relying on others to come in and to care for me in some of the most private of ways. I hated being dependent on others and was frustrated easily by my reliance on them. I tried to be patient but sometimes I would get so angry when things were not done the way I wanted. Even though I’m sure this is typical for anyone adjusting to a new normal, it took time before I finally came to the realization that this was going to be my life forever and I needed to get used to it. It is here that I accepted my life and truly began to look at things differently. This was the beginning of acceptance for me – the last stage of the grief process.
For many years I believed that I would walk by a miracle. Even though I will always believe in miracles and still see them every day, I saw in my life how it was holding me back from moving on and enjoying my life right where I was at – sitting down. Instead of going to movies with friends, I would stay home and get in my standing wheelchair so that my legs would be ready when I was healed. I spent a lot of my time focusing on healing, and even though I know it was never a waste of time, I came to a point in my life when I realized that I needed to accept where I was at and begin to enjoy my life. I saw that I could be happy sitting in this wheelchair. If I was healed it would certainly be a bonus, but I would not let my happiness hinge on that.
This took me almost 10 years! Since that time, I make the most of every day. I enjoy my life, and choose to love where I am at while living a bold and zestful life. It would’ve been easy to sit home and stare out the window, wishing that my accident had not happened, but where would that have gotten me?
My challenge to you is to take the tragedies and challenges you experience and courageously take a journey through grief. As difficult as the process may be, it’s the only way to truly heal. I can’t promise it will be easy or quick; however, I can promise that what you’ll find on the other side is worth it. I can honestly say that today my life is better than it was before my accident, that I’m happier than ever, and have learned so many wonderful lessons along the way. I love my life and would not trade it with anyone!