What does it take for someone to realize the “fragility of being human?” How do you convince someone just how susceptible we ALL are to tragedy striking without a moments notice?
Growing up, we are encouraged never to take things for granted, to appreciate what we have, and that we aren’t invincible. Though we’ve been provided with these perspectives we think “yeah, yeah…I’m young, happy and healthy; let me worry when I’m 50.”
That said, consider this: What happens when an untimely event occurs and you’ve done nothing BUT take your “young, happy and healthy” life for granted, and your entire world is changed/rearranged in an instant? Even more intriguing, how would you handle this seemingly cataclysmic event when we have no frame of reference to draw from?
The truth is, we don’t know how we would react to a certain situation until it finally happens to us, that’s because we have no frame of reference to draw from. Unfortunately, I was that girl in her 20’s who believed life owed me. I paid my dues…right?
After years of dedication to both academia and athletics, I received a scholarship, which afforded me the opportunity to attend college and earn my way to playing Division I softball. I finished my academic career by receiving a BS and MS in Kinesiology, but my softball career was just getting started. Being so passionate about the game I spent 18 years playing, I went on to become a Graduate Assistant Softball coach at the NCAA Division II level, followed by a short stint as an Assistant Coach, only to ultimately be promoted to the position of Head Softball Coach at the NAIA and NCAA Division III levels.
During this journey in my career, as an athlete and coach, I didn’t allow many people in my world unless they helped me achieve MY goals. I was laser-focused, determined, striving for that “big time” Division I coaching job; and if you got in my way…so long! I was so wrapped up into things that hadn’t even occurred in my life, that I turned into a workaholic, though admittedly, I loved what I was doing…70-80 hour work weeks didn’t feel like work because I loved my what I was doing. But, there was a price to pay for having such a singular focus. Romantic relationships suffered dearly and ended badly, friendships were there but didn’t remain, but I’ll be damned if I hadn’t met each and every goal I had set for myself… up until April 27th of 2015. It’s amazing how disillusioned we can become. Chasing after the proverbial carrot to the exclusion of everything else meaningful in our lives.
In January of 2014 I injured my lower back while coaching, herniating a disc in the L4-L5 region. It wasn’t until I completed some physical therapy without success that I decided on getting a Laminectomy/Discectomy on the herniation. The injury was preventing me from doing my job as well as I needed to in order for the team to be successful, and I wasn’t able to perform many of my favorite hobbies, most notably hiking and adventuring/exploring. My doctor convinced me it was a simple procedure, and by golly “Tiger Woods just had the same surgery!” I specifically planned on getting this surgery “after” our softball season so I could use the summer to recover and hike in the beautiful state I had been working in, but never had the opportunity to explore.
THE DAY THAT CHANGED MY LIFE
April 27th, 2015: My mother and father drove over 8 hours from Kentucky to take me to the hospital where my procedure was taking place so they could be there to help manage my post-op care that was supposed to last only a day or two after surgery. I remember going back for surgery in my stylish hospital gown, non-slip, fancy socks and a hair net I couldn’t quite figure out, but what the hell. Mom, of course, snapped a photo of me as they wheeled me off saying, “When you wake up you’ll feel all better.” Huge smile and all, I smiled and replied by saying, “I am SO ready!”
Then I woke up. Something was wrong…something was very, very wrong. I tried moving my feet and wiggling my toes and I couldn’t. I also realized that I couldn’t move either leg very well, but my right side felt much worse from the waist down. And yes, “that” lady area…Numb. When I was finally able to see my parents, something about the look on their faces told me everything. Of course, I was in denial, so I couldn’t give myself permission to cry. Resisting my worst fears, I had to be brave. I had to believe I would wake up and it would all be better…but it wasn’t, nor was it going to be.
The paralysis was becoming progressively worse throughout the night and any hope for tactile sensation was absent from the waist down. I had pain to a level I had never experienced prior to surgery, but couldn’t feel my skin in these areas. The best way I could describe this pain was simple, it felt as if someone was taking a serrated edged knife to my nerves. Boy, did it ever!
Obviously, my family and I were gravely concerned and were, unfortunately, forced to battle with those involved to get an MRI ordered the next day. Up to that point, everyone was waiting for things to improve, while I was getting worse by the minute. Once I was able to get the MRI midday, it revealed that a blood clot had formed in my spinal column and my doctor said this “could be the cause” of my paralysis. However, I was told to wait it out for a while and if things kept getting worse, they would go in for another surgery. Clearly, things weren’t going to get better.
That same day, April 28th, another surgery was performed (at the end of their other scheduled surgeries) to remove the clot and to examine if anything else could be causing the paralysis and nerve pain. However, this time when I woke up both legs were equally paralyzed and the numbness had overtaken my lower half. At this point, I didn’t have the mental capability to cry even if I wanted to. I was in shock; this shock led to anger and bitterness I had never felt before. I mean, who wakes up paralyzed and is happy about it, right? I can’t say I was the most pleasant patient they’ve ever had after that.
A few days later, the hospital where I had undergone the procedure(s) agreed I had suffered a spinal cord injury that they were not equipped to treat. I was then taken to the University of North Carolina Health Center to undergo examinations, discuss treatment options, speak with physiatrists and eventually was admitted into their inpatient rehabilitation center that specialized in spinal cord injuries. I had suffered from injury to the Cauda Equina causing “Cauda Equina Syndrome” (CES) and had developed “Arachnoiditis” as a result of the surgeries I had undergone. On top of that, my disc was still protruding as shown on the MRI’s taken after transferring hospitals, and felt as if it was impinging my nerves just as badly as it had prior to surgery. After almost a week of almost complete immobility, what worked on my left leg, didn’t work on my right and visa versa; but just having a few muscles working here and there gave me hope; at least enough to fake it ‘till I made it…so the saying goes!
I was in the hospital for an entire month and eventually learned how to use a wheelchair, walker and cane to get around. When I was finally discharged, I was still partially paralyzed, but had learned through Occupational Therapy (OT) how to get around and take care of myself with assistive devices in order to live as normally as possible…shower chairs, 4-wheel “fancy” walkers and all! I was told it could be 3-6 months before my muscles were fully functioning again, that is, if they ever would. Doctors and physical therapists stressed that each individual is different; some take a few months, some take 6; some take a year, some take two; some fully recover, some don’t.
I was 29 years old and, at the time, I had a girlfriend I loved more than anything, a great career that was leading to something bigger, a border collie that kept me as active as he was, and a desire to conquer the world because I was “invincible,” or so I thought. I wasn’t. I’m human :).
For months, I hid my fears and emotions from everyone. I was determined to continue coaching, even though it was on a walker and sometimes a cane; I would hit balls to our infielders/outfielders while sitting on a bucket and if I had to line or chalk the field, I used the equipment as my “walker” in order to get the job done. I had to learn how to delegate more than I was comfortable with, and I couldn’t be more grateful to my Assistant Coach at the time…he was a trooper and did everything I needed him to. Doctors strongly urged I give it up, but “giving up” wasn’t in my vocabulary. A little over 4 months after surgery, Greensboro, NC had a 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb that consisted of climbing 73 flights of stairs to mimic how far our heroes had made it on that fateful day in 2001. I had my players participate in this amazing event. Little did they know, I was about to hit this head on myself, and I did! If I couldn’t be 100% physically, I knew I had to try and be 100% mentally for my players, my family, and for my girlfriend. That’s where this story takes a turn.
After about 7-8 months of outpatient physical therapy, insurance in the form of Workman’s Compensation due to the work related injury stopped being paid out. As a result, my treatments ended. They said I was at “Maximum Medical Improvement” (MMI), and that was it. It’s a sad commentary that our physical well-being is determined by others and reduced down to money; the value of which is completely arbitrary.
It was the end of January of 2016. A little over a month later, I had to resign from my college coaching position because my body was failing me. Without the proper treatment, I wasn’t getting better, only worse. Dodging foul balls at 3rd base wasn’t an easy task either; it became dangerous, and the constant standing and traveling for games only made matters worse. My only recourse was to give up the one thing I spent my entire 20’s trying to achieve…being a college softball coach.
After resigning, I went into a deep depression. I hid myself from the world, took myself off of most social media platforms because discussing what had happened was just like reliving it all over again. I relied solely on my family and girlfriend to ground me and keep my head above water emotionally…an impossible task at the time.
HOW “NOT” TO RESPOND
Initially, I had high hopes that things would improve, but there’s a wall you come to in this grieving process when you’ve plateaued in your recovery. You either break through it or let it stop you. Unfortunately, I surrendered and I chose the latter. Something I would’ve lectured my players NOT to do in a life-altering situation, but I wasn’t “me” anymore at this stage of the game. Pun intended.
Feeling sorry for myself, which is to be expected given the situation, and feeling like I had become a burden to others, I wasn’t able to accept how dependent I had become on the people around me. I didn’t like asking for help because it wasn’t in my DNA, nor was I emotionally equipped to rely on other people. Handling the situation very poorly, I eventually pushed everyone I cared about out of my life, and unintentionally the one person I loved more than anything. I was taking my anger out on the only people who were standing by my side and expecting them to just take it and forgive me… “I was just venting” and “it wasn’t personal” became daily phrases. I had bottled up all of these emotions since waking up partially paralyzed, trying to be “brave,” that it all came to a head at the worst possible time…when I had nothing left.
Waiting well over a year for insurance to allow me to resume my physical therapy program only put me in a worse situation. Over the course of this time, I had lost nearly 40 pounds, I had no one to talk to about anything because I pushed them all away, I had to move back home with my parents, and not only had I given up on myself, my girlfriend had as well. I don’t blame her. While I was living a self-loathing life, I was impossible for a LONG time. I became that “typical” millennial living in mom and dad’s basement, wasting away, as if I was powerless; literally hiding in a basement because I was not going to let people see me in a vulnerable situation.
But, we can only grieve for so long. In time, I realized I wasn’t powerless. The only thing holding me back was the self-deprecating internal dialogue I was having with myself. All I could do was see my limitations, not my potential.
That brings me back to the question I put forth at the beginning of this blog. How would you react to a life-altering event?
I always considered myself a fighter, “balls to the wall”, athlete/coach, but something changed inside of me when I woke up that day in April. It wasn’t until March of this year I really “woke up”.
Prior to now, feeling victimized by the unforeseen circumstances I found myself in, I became oblivious to how selfish and impatient I had become. I had a short fuse and became easily frustrated. I handled things by blaming others, when in reality I was just projecting the frustration of having to rely on everyone onto them, often hurting those that were selflessly trying their best to accommodate me. I had always been someone who knew how to get things done, but this wasn’t something I saw a way out of. I had not yet figured out how I was going to make this new life manageable and even more so, make it work for ME as an extremely active individual.
Amidst all of the battles in my own mind, what flipped the switch for me was when my former girlfriend called me out. The hostile conversations I was having with myself were being projected onto her each time we saw each other. She got tired of it and told me she no longer wanted to hear my problems; she had grown weary of enabling my “woe is me narrative” and everything we had, ended. We aren’t even friends…after more than 3 years of being in each other’s lives. I was heartbroken, but I had to learn how to be my own support system for a while and get myself out of the funk. After all, I had put myself there, nobody else.
I could no longer see my “new normal” as something to be ashamed of or embarrassed by. I knew I had to go beyond my comfort zone and put myself back into the world. I had been handed an opportunity to rebuild myself into a stronger, kinder, more resilient and confident version of who I used to be. I was given a chance to rescue myself from myself and this stranger I had become.
For the first time, I “chose” to make that change…
“CHOOSING” TO ADAPT AND OVERCOME
Life is what YOU make of it; so I decided that I wasn’t going to allow my limitations to control my emotions or my life anymore. I wasn’t going to view myself as “disabled” or “handicapped”. I was a fighter, just like I had always been, but with a different challenge in front of me. Instead of pushing the people I cared about away, I decided to push away the negative thoughts plaguing my soul and me. Instead of letting my injury define me, I embraced my new purpose in life to reach out and inspire. Instead of going out in public wearing oversized clothes and hats to cover up what I saw as the bare bones of a previous life I once had, I looked each and every person in the eye offering a smile, regardless if they chose to smile back. A reciprocated smile let me know I made an impact for that moment in time. I “chose” to express the deeper part of me; the part of me that lies beyond the limitations of the body, beyond the self-imposed constraints of the ego. I wanted to shine.
Just because doctors wouldn’t allow me to coach collegiate softball, didn’t mean I couldn’t be a mentor/coach of some sort to those going through similar situations. I always told my players to “Adapt and Overcome” so I had chosen to do just that! In order to accomplish anything, even just a shower, I had to “adapt” and do things a little differently than I was used to.
Initially, I saw these adaptations as embarrassing and I was ashamed. Haggling with my former partner brought me to the realization that one of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome was my ego; a big fat one! I surely wasn’t “too good” to be riding around in a Drive wheelchair, and the universe most certainly didn’t “owe” me anything! Accepting this was the hardest part of my recovery, aside from the partial paralysis. Additionally, learning to “overcome” the limitations of my own body has been an adventure in and of itself. In doing so, I’ve embraced the hell out of it! I’ve always loved a good challenge.
TAKING CONTROL…Changing the Plan, not the Goal
I decided just a few months ago that I wasn’t going to let insurance companies and doctors dictate my life anymore. I was going to partake in what I have deemed, “Adventure PT;” hiking/exploring my way to recovery, even if it meant a short trek up the street and back. I’ve taught myself how to walk with trekking poles, and although I can only go short distances, I have already become stronger physically. Most importantly, I have become MENTALLY resilient. Yes, I still have paralysis in some muscles; yes, I still struggle with pain every single day; yes, I am still trying to mend broken friendships. YES, I will ALWAYS be recovering; but NO, I will never give up on myself again.
We have the ability to do so much with this short life we are given. I consider myself lucky; not only had I met all of my goals in life up until 2015, I have been given the opportunity to start over with a life more impactful than I could’ve ever dreamed. I took my health for granted, like so many of us do. Hell, I took my friends, family, and significant others for granted entirely too long. I believe the universe saw this and it put me in my place. I believe everything that I am going through right now is just preparing me for what I have always dreamt of doing; teaching others. And my message? It’s very similar to the admonition that Timothy Robbins gave in the movie Shawshank Redemption, when he said, “You either get busy living or you get busy dying.” My message is, “You choose to cower or you choose to live.” My fellow humans, I am LIVING!
We are not defined by our struggles, battles, illnesses, etc. What defines us is not how we instinctively “react” to these situations, but rather how we “choose” to “respond” to a seemingly losing fight, how we treat others when we aren’t at our best. We ARE human, we ARE fragile, we ARE susceptible to all things good and bad; but that’s also what makes being human so wonderful and SO worthwhile!
Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or cannot, either way you’re right!” If we tell ourselves we can’t, we won’t. If we tell ourselves we aren’t good enough, we stop trying; if we go on a diet and it doesn’t work in two days, on to the next! You get my point. We plan, we make goals; when those plans don’t work, you can’t give up on the goal. Choose to make the conscious decision to change the plan…not the intended goal or outcome.
My plan was to wait on everyone else to do “their” job so I could get what I needed in order to recover. However, it was within ME all along. Finding peace when the “struggle is real”, has been the most satisfying and freeing moment of my life. Realizing I am so much more than this body I temporarily reside in, I have a new vision for my life! I am not alone, as others have struggles far worse than I could imagine, so who was I to single myself out and self-deprecate when “things could always be worse”?
Love yourself or no one else can. Accept who you are. Test your limits and go beyond what you feel your boundaries are. Keep your friends close and tell them how much you appreciate everything they do for you. Let others help you when you’re in need…BE vulnerable! See every day for what it is…A gift!!! Allow yourself to take each day and make it worthwhile…for you never know when it can be taken away.
Story submitted by Becky