How does one begin to deal with the devastating changes in lifestyle brought on by a catastrophic event? One of the techniques which can help is to look back over your life and find skills you already have that can be helpful. This is why, I believe, adapting is so very difficult for young people who have fewer life experiences to draw from. At 68 years old my life certainly seems to have gone quickly. I wonder how much longer I’ll live. Not only have I looked forward, but lately I’ve spent more time looking back. The pivotal point looking back was my accident in 1999 which left me a quadriplegic at the age of 55. In the past 12 and half years I have forgotten what it was like to walk, run, and bike or make love. Hard for me to believe, but true. What I do see when looking back are experiences which at the time seemed isolated and unrelated but today look like part of a much larger plan that was preparing me to deal with my quadriplegia and its impact on my life.
I grew up in a family where hard work and inner strength were admirable qualities. Before my accident, I believe the major influence on my life was my marriage to my wife Marge. Up until that point, my life lacked stability and purpose. As a teenager I was unruly, probably drank too much and had little or no sense of direction in my life. My love for my wife and growing family gave me a sense of pride and was the cornerstone of my new life. After a college basketball injury I had become sedentary, and with the addition of my wife’s good cooking and baking, I became overweight in a few short years. As a result of a scolding from my family doctor, I began working out again. By the mid-70’s I was running up to 30 miles a week, and shortly before my 40th birthday I ran a marathon. In addition to jogging I also, kayaked, biked, skied, camped and mountain climbed. As a result I became quite disciplined and health conscious.
During this same period I was teaching Social Studies and Health in a high school in central New York. I became interested in the teachings of Buddha and especially the Four Noble Truths. Basically Buddhism taught me you can live a much happier life by being satisfied with what you have, and that being materialistic can easily lead to much unhappiness. Also a friend’s wife, who happened to be an instructor in Transcendental Meditation, taught me how to meditate. It has been a tool which I have used ever since to help me deal with stress and anxiety.In an effort to make education more meaningful for my students, my instruction became more experiential in nature. I became involved with Project Adventure (PA) as an experiential teaching tool. PA is made up of a series of challenges, some on the ground (low elements) and some at a much higher elevation (high elements). The high elements require individuals to be harnessed to a rope safety system. The low elements are grouped-based challenges that encourage problem-solving skills, group interaction and
teamwork. Participants are given the time necessary to collectively figure out a solution to a particularly challenging obstacle. PA taught me that failure should not be looked at as an end in itself but rather as an experience to be learned from and to grow. Also it made me aware that there are many different ways to solve a particular problem and it’s almost always possible to come up with solution if you are willing to commit time, energy and persistence. For a number of years prior to my quadriplegia I studied the martial arts. During this endeavor I learned more about the mind-body connection, the strength of focusing one’s mental energy, looking on events not as problems that need to be dealt with but rather as challenges that need to be met head on and solved. I came to understand imaging, a mental process used to imagine yourself performing a particular activity prior to its occurrence in order to prepare psychologically. This is a technique used by many athletes today to improve performance.
For ten years I worked on the summer staff of a local college teaching outdoor skills and then taking small groups of students on six day wilderness trips. One year one of the members of my trip group was a young coed who was legally blind. It was a wonderful and unique experience and gave me insight into a wealth of information which has proved very useful in my own situation.
As I look back over these life experiences from the vantage point of today, it is difficult for me not to believe that these happenings were part of a process that was helping prepare me for the new life I have experienced since my accident. It took me a while to put the lessons learned prior to my accident into my “toolbox”, but once I did, they became useful skills that have made dealing with the challenges presented by my quadriplegia a lot easier. So what life skills are hiding in your background that may be helpful for you to use in dealing with your own adversities?