I’d like to give you something, something really fine, and I don’t know how.
Listen: Something hard has happened to us both, and neither of us likes it. You’d have to be a little nutty to like it, despite the inexplicable fact that you’ll encounter lots of us who say our lives have been improved by our accidents. Strange. Still and all, I don’t think it takes much heavy thought for anyone who’s broken a back or neck to realize that big changes are coming and that nobody is giving anybody much choice in the matter.
What I want to give you is not a pep talk, sermon, complaint or even advice.
I don’t want to give you a lot of how-to-do-it information about SCI, because others are more competent to do this and have done it better, as noted in the bibliography.
I don’t want to project for you an image of yourself, because that would be presumptuous; and I know that right after I broke my back I wouldn’t have identified much with the way I see myself now.
So what’s to give? Here I am, a paraplegic charged with inspiring all you newcomers to a cheerful acceptance of wheelchairs, respirators, braces, catheters and cystometrograms, and I don’t even like those things. A friend suggested I call this book THE JOY OF PARALYSIS.
I don’t want to tell you that life will become easier, or the choices simpler, or that SCI is in any way beneficial to one’s mental and physical health, because those things aren’t true.
I do want to tell you that this monumental inconvenience can be lived through, lived with, loved with, laughed with, surmounted, shared, transcended and that —look out, here comes the pitch— YOU HAVE NOT BEEN DEPRIVED OF CHOICE.
You haven’t been deprived of choice. You do have a lot of options. You can be OK if you choose to be OK. The future, however unfathomable, is yours. There are more than enough things you can do after a broken back or neck, and some of them you’ll like so much that you’ll be unable to contain the joy.
(I was a shy kid. I remember the first time I got drunk in a bar, loose enough to dance with an abandon my sober self denied me, then leaning against a urinal and thinking: There’s too much fun here. I can’t hold it all in. Later on, I thought the same thing skiing waist-deep powder snow in Jackson Hole, climbing mountains in Antarctica, floating in the arms of peyote back when it was still legal and kayaking after my accident. When your cup of rewards runneth over, it’s a good time. My cup still runs over about as often as anyone else’s. So will yours.)
I’m not religious. I’m not a saint. I’m not free of occasional depression, nor am I an incurable optimist. So ’tis not I offered up as example, but a farflung and chaotic scramble of wheelers, gimps, cripples and whatnots who have not only survived, but are happy they did.
It seems important to stress that these people were easy to find. For each of us profiled here, there are many thousands of others living equally vital lives. It should also be said that I don’t expect you to identify fully with any of us. Wheelchairs don’t make us alike. What’s more, wheelchairs and braces don’t look good to anyone until they bestow their gift of mobility. Until that event transpires, they are the stigmata of everything you don’t want. And not everyone wants to be a lawyer, a jock, a city dweller, a parent, an employee or an employer. Everyone does want a life that brings satisfaction. While none of the people in this book may lead lives matching your goals, they do offer proof that lots of wheelers are meeting their goals.
I have lived two lives, both reasonably successful in the eyes of others, but, as lives will be when they’re your own, both mixtures of success and defeat. One life preceded my accident, and the other follows. One is over, at the age of 31, and the other, in its adolescent stage at 43, is just a kid.
Like all adolescence, my second life is joyful and cranky, ecstatic and troubled. Quick to overreact, it jumps from extreme to extreme, is opinionated beyond words, and is subject to youthful exuberances and depressions which lack the maturity to coexist. In short, my balance, my perspective, my sense of humor are easily messed up by being too polarized, too black and white.
Shucks, is that all?
New things in life are usually welcome. Getting married, having children, moving into a new house, job or relationship — they’re not fun because they’re easy. They’re fun because they draw more substance from us, because they make us rise to new occasions and become larger people. So it should be with a second life. It’s new and you’re alive and the opportunity to jump in is rapidly approaching.
“I wasn’t very damned happy about getting my neck broke!”
“I really didn’t understand what happened to me, you know. I thought if I went to the hospital, they’d give me something and I’d get better.”
“The first doctor I asked, in Belgium, said I’d be walking in six months. The next one told me nine months. And I thought, Jeez, if it’s going to be nine months, then I just don’t want to live if I have to wait that long. So I stopped asking questions then, because I thought the next one would be even longer.
“I knew, without any doubt in my mind, that I was gonna walk again, and nobody ever told me that I wasn’t gonna walk again. I can’t even pinpoint when I learned it was permanent. I know what the process was. It was when I was out at the University of Illinois and saw some of these people that had been five and ten years since their accidents, and these poor bastards weren’t walking yet!”