“Growing up perfectly healthy, I never second-guessed it or told myself how lucky I was. I just thought it was normal. Pretty ignorant, right? I was never educated, nor was it made clear to me, that not everyone is this lucky.
As a kid, you don’t question it, you just kind of roll with it. No pun intended. I don’t think you start asking real questions until you fully understand the answer, the older you get. Sometimes, you’re too scared to ask so you just assume and carry on, not really knowing the truth and leaving your brain wondering. You settle for the answer you give yourself, through your assumption. Sure, we have our percentages and ratios, but down the road, we never think about how all of this perfect health can be taken away. And that’s what happened in the blink of an eye in July of 2017. My invincible and adrenaline-rushed life changed within seconds.
I was 23. I’ve lived on my own since right after high school. I did the best I could to support myself and my puppies. ‘I can’t wait to move out, make my own rules, and have my own space.’ I had a lot of friends and a lot of boys chasing me. I attended a lot of parties and took a lot of road trips. I was living my best life. I was young and wild, thinking, ‘Who’s going to stop me? Eventually, I’ll grow out of it, right?’ I didn’t get that chance. I was kind of forced into it.
I had plummeted three stories from my apartment balcony because it swayed and I had no time to react and catch my balance or realize what was happening. By the time I did realize what was going on and my hand grazed the railing as I tried to catch myself, it was too late. I went into complete shock. This wasn’t just a small tumble. It was a high drop and I knew it wasn’t going to be just a couple cuts and bruises. I blacked out. I don’t remember flipping over and hitting the ground. I don’t remember the ambulance, the cops, or air care at the scene. I don’t remember two of my friends making phone calls, pleading for my family to answer, in so much shock, and terrified because I wasn’t breathing. I had hit the ground so hard, I had managed to sever my spine and spinal cord completely through. You could probably fold me like a white picnic table and then some.
No one really knew the extent of my injuries, they just knew I needed medical attention, and fast. Upon arriving at UC, I was admitted into surgery right away. As my spinal surgeon explained, my spine was mush. I’d be lucky to be stabilized and wake up with full function. I didn’t just sever my spine and spinal cord in the T5 area, which was going to result in paralysis for the rest of my life. I also managed to break six ribs on my right side, six on my left, collapse my right lung, and fracture my right scapula. I was broken in many places. Because of all my injuries, they put me into a medically induced coma, which as stubborn and persistent as I am, I fought. So after 3 days of ripping IVs and my incubator out, they figured I’d cause less damage to myself being awake, which resulted in a lot of drugs.
I couldn’t feel a thing from my neck down. I couldn’t remember…had I been in a car wreck? The last thing I remember was heading home to the pups. What was even stranger was I didn’t question much as to why I was there. I was kind of just chilling, wondering when I would be able to go home. For almost two weeks, no one had the heart to tell me what my life was going to look like from here on out. I don’t blame them. How do you tell your daughter, sister or your best friend she won’t ever be able to walk again? But when they did, I didn’t really react to it. I was emotional, but I didn’t understand. I just kept thinking, ‘Ehh, I’ll be alright. They don’t know what they’re talking about. This couldn’t have happened to me.’ I didn’t accept it or grieve it, I just kind of cried and swept it under the rug. During the next few weeks, the lower the medication dosage got, the more painful life got. They were preparing me for therapy but little did I know they were preparing me for how life would be.
I was a newborn again. Everything I had learned or everything I did to get things done, even as simple as brushing my hair or my teeth, I’d have to re-learn all over again. It was going to be a tough two months, but I wanted to get it over with so that I could go home and be normal again. Every day, I learned something new. I learned about making gravity work with you, not against you. I learned what dead weight felt like. This body wasn’t just new to me, it was new to everyone who was close to me. We were all learning. Patience was thin but we pushed.
For two months, I learned new ways to use my lungs. To cough, to sneeze and scream. I learned how to get dressed. I learned everything a child does growing up, all over again. I’d get frustrated and take it out on anyone near me. I’d have my good days but I sure as heck had more bad days. I was so frustrated with my new life I’d snap at the idea of opening up a bag of chips because my body was so weak. For two months, I was on a liquid diet, sometimes cheating and getting to enjoy a real meal. For two months, I didn’t feel sunshine. I didn’t feel the wind and all I had was a hospital window view of a parking lot. It was miserable. I was miserable. Every day, I pushed and pretended I was okay and had a grip on this new life because the more I said I was okay, the faster I could get home. The faster I could give my mom a break from having to come see me multiple times a day to make sure I’m being well cared for and going above and beyond before she left, only to come back again in just a few hours. I just kept telling myself, the quicker I get home, the quicker things will get back to normal.
There was no one I could relate to in rehab. There were wheelchair users but none with spinal cord injuries or close to my age. I did make one friend, who has blossomed and healed, but other than that, I was alone. I dreaded going to therapy and having young guys and girls see me at my weakest and most vulnerable state. I hated that I needed so much assistance with the simplest things. It made me feel helpless. No one understood me, they just felt bad for me. I’d hear, ‘Oh that is so sad, she’s so beautiful,’ as if my beauty was impacted because I could no longer go for a jog. Nothing boiled my blood more than hearing that. This injury caused my confidence to disappear. I no longer felt good about myself and no one saw that. They just saw a poor tiny girl in a wheelchair whose life just turned upside down. But I didn’t want that for myself or for my family. I didn’t want anyone feeling bad or sorry for me. I decided I had to fight for my strength and learn to love myself again, but do it on my terms. So I left rehab, earlier than needed. I fought for them to release me.
I moved back home, which would be a major hit to my independence but I didn’t know that yet. Leaving rehab, I got home and not even an hour of pulling into the driveway, I was out at a softball game. I was bundled up and in so much pain, but I was there. Two days later, I attended a Reds vs. Cardinals game with a very good friend of mine and the following week, I was going to the gym and therapy, on my own terms. Things were a lot harder. I didn’t have care around me, doing everything for me as they did in rehab, because they managed to get me dressed and out of bed quicker. I learned patience being at home. I learned how to get dressed for weeks! Could you imagine trying to figure out how to put and pull your pants on and off for WEEKS? Yeah, me neither. But that’s how long it took to figure out a simpler and less painful way.
I had lost so much weight being on bed rest and on a liquid diet, I looked like I had a potato sack on my body when I put my old clothes on. I realized I needed a new wardrobe and carbs. I bought clothes I knew I’d be comfortable in and ate mashed potatoes like the world was going to run out of them. What was to come next? I learned how to do my hair and makeup without falling over or out of my wheelchair. It started out leaning up against a wall, then a countertop, and finally using one hand a time. But I did it. If you look good, you feel good, right?
Next was to get rid of the para belly–it’s a thing. Since I have a high injury, I lost abdominal control, which means all of my organs and insides just hang out without a care. So that gave me a belly or a gut, whatever you’d like to call it. It also didn’t help that all the meds I was on were causing issues and bloating me. The next step was to quit all and any prescription drugs I was on. My way of doing so was to toss them all in a trash can. Wrong. Ever heard of withdrawals? By day three, I wanted to bang my head against a wall or chew my arms off. My body was in so much pain, shock and stress. I didn’t sleep for longer than 15 minute periods and if I did, I didn’t feel rested. So I weaned off of them Remember how I said I learned patience? This was key to my plan to quit all of it. I struggled a lot but I was stuck on the idea of not having to depend on something that was so horrible for my body. A year down the road from when I came home, I was successful. I had stopped taking everything. I no longer felt or looked like a zombie. The spark came back and I started to love myself more and more again.
The next step was to get stronger. I got a gym membership, which didn’t last long. I got tired of getting high fived for being there or being told, ‘It’s so nice to see you out and about, still enjoying life.’ What does one mean by that? Do they expect those who are wheelchair users or have a disability or a disease to just hide away and never leave their house? Is it that far from normal to see someone still making the best of their life with or without legs? So I would work out at home. I managed to toss the sliding board, which at first helped me with transfers on to furniture or in and out of cars and I got rid of my high backrest because I strengthened my trunk control. I did all of this, not just for me but for those who stuck out by me and didn’t leave. I wanted to show them I’m capable of anything and every time I’m out, I won’t need assistance. If I do, I’ll simply ask.
Rehab didn’t teach me much. They just kind of taught me how to manage if I had to, in case someone couldn’t come to my rescue as quickly as I’d need them. They just threw me out in the world and expected me to adapt without any idea of what this new life would be like. I didn’t know anything. All I knew was that I couldn’t walk and now needed to use medical supplies to go numbers one and two. That is all. So I took to social media and joined every support group I could find. I posted daily, no question was too small or too dumb. I asked and I pestered until I felt like I had a better idea of things. Through those support groups, I met people my age I could vent to and or relate to. With those support groups, I started traveling. I go to different states and I meet others who suffer from spinal cord injuries. Whether they’re a new injury or old, I go because not only can I learn something new, they can learn something from me. It wasn’t until I started reaching out to people from support groups or responding to others that I learned there are a lot of people who suffer, bury their worries, and just give up on enjoying life. They choose not to accept it or they just get tired. Those are the people I reach out to and speak with the most. I’m not perfect and I too struggle some days, but I think I’ve adapted well enough to help someone realize everything will be okay. I’ve learned I can still have my ‘old life,’ just with a bit of a twist. I still have the same support I had before my injury, it’s just a different kind of support.
Nothing warms my heart more than receiving messages saying I’ve changed someone’s perspective on life (injured or not) or that their daughter or son would love for me to reach out and talk to them. Every day, I become more and more educated on all the opportunities out there. Whether it’s support groups, adaptive sports, or medical technology to help make life a bit easier, it showed me that life ain’t all that different standing up or sitting down. The hardest aspect of dealing with a spinal cord injury isn’t the fact that I can’t walk. It’s not being able to know if a place is accessible upon arriving, even if you googled or called ahead. It’s not knowing if your body is going to have a good or bad day and if will it lead to an accident before you’re finished getting dressed for the day. It’s dealing with pain and spasticity, being easily prone to infections, getting sores, and living a more sheltered life because of all the ‘what if’s.’ The easiest part of this injury to me is the not walking part. I’ll always stand by that. Maybe not physically but mentally.
The deepest questions I get are, ‘Is dating hard?’ and ‘Will you ever be able to have kids?’ No, and yes. Dating hasn’t changed for me. I can’t speak for others but I still put myself out there and I still get glammed up for a nice dinner and movie. Has it been the same? Of course not. It’s a bit more difficult to have to explain to someone what your injury is and what the extent of it is. Each spinal cord injury is different. We all heal differently, too. A lot of guys I do find that are interested in me don’t see the wheelchair, they just see me. They say it’s because of the way I carry myself and how I don’t let it stop me, they see my strength and struggles, you know? So far, I can’t complain about the dating world. What does suck is finding a cutie who lives in a house or apartment that requires conquering steps to go in. At that point, you kind of pick and choose your battle.
It’s been two long years and every day, I still learn a new way of doing the simplest tasks. I’m so glad I’m still open to learning and not just settling. I have come so far, and I have so much more to accomplish in order to fully feel independent but I’ll get there in my own time. In this new year, I’ll be behind the wheel in no time, using my hand controls to give myself a bit more freedom. Just know life is precious and so so fragile. Take each day with gratitude. Your worst day might be someone’s best. Don’t forget to find a way to make yourself and the people around you feel thankful for the smallest things. I’m 26 years old now, and never in my life did I think I’d be rocking a diaper and popping wheelies on the dance floor, but tomorrow’s never promised. One roll at a time, am I right?”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ania Janaszek. Follow her on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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