A friend reached out to me recently when a young man she knows was injured in a car accident. He’s an athlete, about to head to college on a full athletic scholarship. Except the accident crushed his leg, forcing amputation.
My first reaction to the news was pure emptiness. Not a word of the requested hope or insight… Just the weight of what’s happened and the sickening knowledge that he can’t go back.
But as the days went by, the fact of this young man’s loss began to move in a larger context. And there is where the hope is.
Here is what I eventually had to say. It’s for him, yes, when/if the time is right, but it’s also for those close to him. Turns out, when something like this happens, everyone involved enters a cocoon.
It’s also for you, who are living in the shadow of any great loss or change.
I was 33 years old when I fell 25 feet out of a tree I was climbing for fun. Impact left me instantly, completely, and permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Up until that moment, I had been a lifelong dancer.
Dance wasn’t just my great joy. It was my therapy, my church… And it was a big part of my work as a stage actress. To dance was to be perfectly myself. And paralysis was my greatest conscious fear.
I fully expected the injury to destroy me. Whether we voiced it or not, we all wondered the same things: How would I manage the huge challenges of living with this disability? What would happen to my career, my ability to earn a living in any capacity? Would I be able to find a life partner? Or ever have a family? And how would I recover from the staggering losses?
To everyone’s surprise – none more than mine – becoming paralyzed turned my life to gold. I went from being a well-respected but virtually unknown local actor to a nationally touring, critically acclaimed theater artist. My one-woman show launched a speaking career I never saw coming. Then I became a successful coach, helping people turn their own lives to gold. I also found love (right under my nose, as it turned out) and have been married now for 10 years. Seven years ago, I gave birth to our fabulous baby boy. I am 100% independent in my wheelchair, driving, traveling, working, playing, caring for my son. Even my mental health improved post-injury. Before becoming paralyzed, I’d suffered a lot of depression and anxiety. But after, I felt far less.
It’s hard to believe this is all true. Honestly, it still surprises me 15 years post-injury. But what’s really worth understanding is that it happened not despite paralysis but, rather, because of it.
There is nothing like getting hit where we live. It cracks us open in the most brutal ways, takes from us what we value most. But it can also be an extraordinary catalyst. It propel us forward, beyond even the best we’ve dared imagine for ourselves.
That is what happened to me. And it can happen to you.
It will take time to explain exactly how this is done, but it comes down to the relationship we are having with the challenges we face. We can’t change what has happened, but we can choose what we do with it. How we approach it. It’s those choices that dictate whether loss makes us shrink or, instead, grows us into shiny new versions of ourselves.
One thing you should know: It’s still going to hurt, no matter what choices we make. The truth is, nothing diminishes what we’ve lost.
But there is something golden that can emerge alongside the loss, a life remarkable and glorious, with purpose and joy. The truth, I hope you too will soon find, is a very big place.
There’s one mistake I hope you won’t make:
When people hear my story, they often think, wow, that’s amazing… but I could never do that. If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s a mistake. Here’s how I know:
If you had asked me, the day before I fell, if I could survive being paralyzed, if I could make from that circumstance a life bigger, bolder, and brighter than any I’d had before, I would have choked in your face. I would have said, “No way.” And I would have been absolutely sure.
But I also would have been wrong.
We are, every one of us, underestimating what we can do. With enough of the right support, even the unimaginable becomes possible.
I know you can’t see it right now. From inside the cocoon, it’s only easy to see what’s being lost and almost impossible to see what might be gained. But that’s ok. You don’t need to see it. Until you can, I’ll hold the vision of your beautiful wings.