Challenges of Life After Spinal Cord Injury

Trying Hard Not to Ask “Why Me?”

I think that anyone who acquires a disability after a number of years of living a fully functioning, able-bodied life ends up wanting to ask “why me?” at some point. In my case, my fate was changed instantly at the age of 17 in a traumatic and catastrophic paralyzing diving accident. But I’ve never really asked “why me?” even though my spinal cord injury felt unfair and undeserving.

When I was immediately diagnosed a quadriplegic and was plunged into a very long and difficult four and a half month rehab period – two months of which were spent in Denver away from my family – I didn’t ask “why me?” Instead, I prayed for a full recovery and focused on the next step in rehab to improve my situation the best that I could.

Hand in hand with that, when I was forced into living a difficult, limiting, and inaccessible disability lifestyle I didn’t ask “why me?” I just tried – and still try – to soldier through every day the best I can.

When I returned to high school and went from being one of the more popular students with an active social life to fairly invisible and barely hung out with any of my friends I didn’t ask “why me?” Even though it was one of the most difficult periods of my life I just tried to get through every day with courage.

When a few good friends made “a pact” not to talk about my accident or me in a wheelchair, and then disappeared from my life, I didn’t ask “why me?” I just learned the hard way who my true friends were.

When a girlfriend broke up with me because she wanted more of a “normal” life I didn’t ask “why me?” even though it was a tough pill to swallow.

When I didn’t get the typical college experience (e.g. dorm life, house with friends, lots of parties, going to the bars a lot) because I lived at home with my parents the whole time I didn’t ask “why me?” I took it one semester at a time and tried to get as much out of it as I could.

When I didn’t get into the University of Wisconsin Law School – the school I had my heart set on – two years in a row I didn’t ask “why me?” I just moved on to my second choice – William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, MN – and I think it turned out to be a much better experience. It is a great school, I made lots of good friends, and it kept me closer to my family.

When all my fellow law school students were allowed to use laptops to type their exams and I still had to hand write mine with my quad writing device because writing was easier for me, I didn’t ask “why me?” even though I am convinced that I didn’t get the grades that I deserved because professors couldn’t read my handwriting.

The last two months of my last semester of law school was one of the darkest and most stressful periods of my life because after being a part-time student I had to go full-time in order to graduate on time, I had to finish an independent research paper, I couldn’t see my new baby nephew for a month, and I had to take all my finals feeling crummy with Bell’s Palsy (partial paralysis of the face). I didn’t ask “why me?” I just focused on the fact that I was almost done with school and how good it would feel to hold that cute little guy again.

When I graduated in the bottom half to bottom third of my law school class even though I worked very hard and overcame twice the challenges as everyone else I didn’t ask “why me?” I knew that I had a law degree, passed the bar, and was a licensed attorney, which is more than a lot of people can say. I knew I would still get a good job opportunity eventually.

When a good friend of mine very cavalierly used the circumstances of my diving accident as an excuse to get out of a college class without penalty and onto a spring break flight (i.e. because he had to visit his friend who just had a bad accident) I didn’t ask “why me?” I just figured good riddance to someone who wasn’t a true friend anyway.

When I found myself job searching unsuccessfully for up to four years in the toughest economy since the Great Depression in a market over-saturated with other attorneys I didn’t ask “why me?” even though it really sucked. I just stayed positive, patient, and kept plugging away. In the meantime I started a nonprofit company, the Minnesota Spinal Cord injury Association, to keep me busy.

When I spent twelve years single and dateless I didn’t ask “why me?” I just stayed optimistic that the girl for me would show up eventually. That said, I definitely wasn’t asking “why me?” over the last year. I met someone very special and it developed into a great relationship. The more time that I spent with her the more beautiful (inside and out), fun, smart, cool, sweet, and amazing I found her to be. She became my biggest cheerleader and my best friend. My love for her and happiness with our relationship easily masked my building frustrations over my lengthening job search, dwindling finances, and the challenges and self consciousness of my disability lifestyle. Going to bed every night and waking up every morning knowing that someone loved me so much and was happy to be with me was a wonderful feeling. It was the happiest, most fun, and best year of my life because of her.

Life After Spinal Cord Injury for Wheelchair UsersBut about a month ago I found myself truly wondering “why me?” for the first time since my SCI. Within four days of each other I lost out on two job opportunities and went through a surprising breakup. The combination of the three had me feeling sadder, lonelier, more ashamed, and in general lower than I have felt at any point in my life. I’ve always been an everything happens for a reason/God has a plan guy, but a plan that left me unemployed, with strained finances, and without the great love of my life is one that I didn’t understand.

The following Sunday I attended a church service for the first time since moving to Minneapolis and was moved to tears, which is why it was a good thing that I was sitting in the back by myself. A few days later I represented my brother-in-law in the court hearing (my first time in court) that finalized his stepparent adoption of my nephew. It was a big moment for our family and it made all of the challenges of getting though law school, passing the bar, and my ongoing job search worth every second. The following week I had a job interview, did well, and I got the job last week. So I can now put unemployment behind me at least.

All that being said, I’ve been pushed to the brink of asking “why me?” quite a bit throughout my SCI lifestyle, especially lately. But I know that I’m a really good guy who works and tries hard in all facets of my life. I have a great family who loves and supports me, and a bunch of good friends. I have a strong educational background and a good skill set that gives me lots of employment potential. I think that I was a good boyfriend and offered a lot of really great qualities to the relationship. I’m healthy. My nonprofit is about to start up and hopefully help a lot of people. So no, I don’t need to ask “why me?” But it’s really hard not to sometimes.

Do you ever find yourself asking “why me?” How do you move forward positively?

Photo source: shraful kadir

3 replies
  1. Tency
    Tency says:

    Dear Shawn,
    Well this is an interesting topic..what drives me up the wall is the fact that the system is so harsh on disabled to begin with. I survived polio as a child, but after living very actively for some 42 years was slowly hit with the dejavu experience of having my substitute nerves that grew back as a child start to die off. The pain and the exhaustion that result from the post-polio syndrome can easily get me down. However, the hardest thing that I came against was the unbelievable insensitivity of the system with regards to helping us, rather than hurting us. I became homeless before I was finally granted my social security disability. Then it seems that there are all sorts of cracks in the system to drive me postal. Soon after I was also told I would have to wait 24 months more to qualify for Medicare. I couldn’t afford to stay in the U.S. so I left to find an affordable disabled assisted living unit outside of the country much to the suggestions of others and even Social Security staff.
    I know that most disabled can relate. If anything I wish I had become a lawyer, but who knew. I worked in clinical cancer research most of my adult life and remember having to fight with insurance companies constantly to help patients get treatments. Our health system is short one very important branch, we need health patient advocacy to help those during a vulnerable time. We also need a separate department to help the disabled, so that they are not left to have to go from office to office trying to get themselves on a survival track. Most recently, I was asked to get my doctor to fill out a form to have the balance of a student loan discharged, I complied only to have them reject it because it was not a U.S. licensed doctor. I had to move out of the country to afford to live in place where I could get by on my disability. My doctor graduated Medical school in the U.S. and was born and raised there. She could not believe that they would expect me to try to see a doctor in the U.S. when I hardly make it to the end of the month now. You would have thought that the copy of the Social Security letter just a year and a half ago stating that I was permanently disabled would be sufficient for the Student Financial Aid, but no, instead 11 months later with interest accruing even during that time, they decided that I would have to get a U.S. doctor to complete the form. They knew where I lived and never mentioned this caveat before..So unfortunately, the hardest part of life now is often having to deal with senseless government offices and the emotional toll that it takes is often the last thing I need now, since I am supposed to avoid stress. My question would not be why me, but just why is the system so insensitive and dysfunctional? Thanks again for posting this. 10C

  2. Brian
    Brian says:

    What’s up Shawn,
    My name is Brian, I’m 28 y.o, and barely over a year ago I was a passenger in a quite horrific car accident that left me paralyzed from the waist down,and very little use of my right hand. The results were devastating for all involved (to say the least). Let’s just say I am lucky to be typing this right now.
    Even after awakening from a 3 week induced coma, it took nearly a month (in the hospital) to fully grasp the life changing situation that lay ahead of me.Maybe it was the drugs,or maybe it was my obliviousness to anything negative attitude I generally carry.Regardless,once I understood the seriousness of what had happened, I immediately thought to my self ” Why Me?!” Then I had an epiphany! As far as the permanence of parallelization goes, there is nothing you can do about it….at all…ever.
    So I said “Screw it!,I’m gonna be the coolest dude in a wheelchair anyone has ever met”
    That mantra only goes so far though.It is very difficult to live day by day in a wheelchair (as you know).General things you take for granted suddenly become challenging.For instance: stairs,items in places reserved for people who can stand(hence the reason I even know of this website),doctors,insurance coverage(dont get me started Tency,I cant even get Medicaid because I get to much money from S.S.haha,I’m still under the poverty line. Such BS), and namely girls………
    I am fortunate enough to have a loving,caring,beautiful girlfriend that helps me out so much. Not in a physical way by any means. She will get so pissed if I am to tired to get myself in or out of bed or do some sort of power reach for her corny magazine or something.That aside,it helps to receive some one doubting your physical possibilities.Challenging and fun at the same time.It’s hella lame,but women,just like men are very judgmental.And you cannot deny that you have never been that way
    Shawn, you’re a lawyer…….End of story. From what you wrote, if I was a movie producer I would make so much money off of your story. And I’m pretty sure that if you exuded the amount of confidence it would take to pass the BAR, on a regular basis,you would be surrounded by women that adore you.
    That dumbness aside, I’m glad you shared your story.It is actually relieving to hear/read someone else’s side of a similar situation. I’ve thought about,but never really spoke/wrote anything to this degree about my current state.I’m only a year in,and not at the same level of as you. I still feel your state of pain. some times physical,a lot of times mental. Just know that I’m right there with you bro!
    P.S. My website link is to a video of me from just a couple years back,I used to get free stuff just to skateboard.Not being able to do that hurts me more than anything else. But I recently just got invited to have my own art show at a local gallery. One dream lost,another reborn. We got this man!

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