If you’d seen me just after my boyfriend’s SUV crashed into a tree and destroyed two of the vertebrae in my spine, you probably wouldn’t have known anything was wrong. I’d been lying across the backseat, sleeping, when the car slipped on ice and began hydroplaning across I-495 E in upstate New York. I was lying in the exact same position when I came to some seconds later, chest feeling tight but no sign of injury otherwise.
Neither my boyfriend nor I suspected anything was amiss. Hell, it wasn’t until I tried to sit up that my back even started to hurt.
After I’d been processed through the ER, I remember lying on the hospital bed in the intensive care unit, brain still racing despite all the morphine pumping through me. It was the first chance I had to gather my thoughts at all, because the hours since the crash had been a flurry of pain and sirens and frantic emergency responders. I was terrified of touching my stomach or legs, because I couldn’t move or feel anything down there, and it felt like I had giant sacks of meat dangling from my chest instead of working body parts. My very first thought was, “Oh god, what if I can’t travel anymore?”
See, to a writer like me, the ability to collect stories, mentally and physically, is life’s only purpose. Add in the fact that I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe there’s any meaning in life besides traveling and experiencing as much of the world as possible, and I had myself a right existential crisis.
Funny thing is, I never really expected my injury to be permanent. In fact, that first moment in our mangled car when I realized I couldn’t move my legs anymore — even as I was crying aloud about how f*cked I was — I was thinking with full confidence, “Doctors will fix this.”
Six months later — after the hospital and inpatient rehab, and reaching the first big “milestone” in my recovery (doctors say the first six months post-injury is when most recovery from spinal cord injury takes place) — I started wondering why I’d survived at all. While little things came back — like slight pressure sensitivity and the ability to distinguish pain from pleasure in my lower limbs — there was nothing significant enough for my doctors to give any credence to. For that matter, rehab had also been a disappointment, because whereas I’d thought rehab was for working to get function back, it had instead focused on making do with what little I had left. And anytime I’d spoken about those tiny signs of recovery, I was always told “Don’t put too much significance in that,” never “See? There’s still hope of recovery, no matter how slim.”
The big obstacle, though, was that I just couldn’t believe that something so stupid as lying down could destroy my life like this. It felt like a giant farce, an even bigger eff you than if the car had rolled off a cliff or if I’d been thrown from the car. Never mind all the other effects of becoming “disabled”: I had the world’s most inane story of loss, and that was the biggest insult to injury.
What started to help was a Roald Dahl quote I found some time later. He was profoundly familiar with disability and loss, having himself endured lifelong chronic pain after surviving a terrible plane crash during World War II, and witnessed death and near death among his children and first wife. The quote is from a letter he wrote to his mentor Charles E. Marsh, who like Dahl’s wife suffered severe damage to his speech and mobility due to illness. In it, he says:
“I know that serious illness is a good thing for the mind. It is always worth it afterwards. There’s something of the yogi about it, with all its self-disciplines and horrors. And it’s one of the few experiences that you’d never had up to now. So take my view and be kind of thankful that it came.”
It’s weird to think of spinal cord injury as an experience that anyone should feel “lucky” to have. Mind you, two years post-injury, it’s not a mindset I’ve gotten anywhere close to achieving. There’s still very much a part of me that wakes up every morning and can’t believe I don’t have a fully functioning body. But while I don’t think I’ll ever accept my situation, I do like to think that I’ve gotten better at coping with it. For example, I’ve gotten over my denial about needing a wheelchair, which in turn has made me more proactive in securing better mobility equipment. I’m finally allowing myself to acknowledge some of the positives — even when they’re few — of being in my position, like spending less money on dumb seasonal fashion trends (because that stuff just doesn’t matter as much), being able to spend more time with my dog at home (since I’m no longer working full time at an office), or having a great justification for exploring new avenues in life vs. jumping back into the 9-to-5 of things. And I’ve been taking small steps to keep my mind in shape too, such as leaving the house at least once a day and taking on more and more projects in freelance design, which I’d always been interested in but never had the time to pursue.
That’s the thing about writing, is that just like how an inept storyteller can ruin the best story, even the dullest story can be packaged and presented in a meaningful way. And that’s the thing about injury, too, is that the way you shape your experience around it is how you define its impact. I never listen to the people who say, “You can still do everything you used to do before your injury,” because that’s just not true. I can’t feel soft blades of spring grass with my toes, and I can’t enjoy that thrill of shock when plunging my feet into cold ocean water. But I’m finding more and more ways to remember that being able to move my limbs isn’t all there is to my life. That for me is the first step in reconnecting with my past, present, future, and above all, myself.