10 things I learned from 10 weeks in a wheelchair:
1. Be grateful for where you are, wherever you are Without the physical means to transport myself to another locale — or another continent, for that matter — I have started to make amends with my Ohio Love Affair. Despite its temperamental seasons, its cloudy coverage, and its ambivalent occupation in U.S. geography (Ohio? Is that next to Iowa?), Ohio is my home. Ohio will always hold a part of my ‘home’ — which I like to think of now as not one coordinate position but a feeling, a conglomeration of compass points and people that make it matter. The ‘stage’ at UC Berkeley-Unit 1, the hills in the Ohio River Valley, Gahanna’s Creekside trails — those places are all my home. Laughing with friends, taking pictures in nature, biking along the Athens-Hocking bike trail, those feelings are all my home.
2. We fail to accommodate people with physical disabilities in our ‘able’ bodied world I awkwardly pulled myself through one bathroom door too many this semester to learn this lesson. I figured out the round-about ways to go straight, so I wouldn’t have to go ‘up.’ I avoided crowds so I wouldn’t be pushed or take up too much space. Our world — and a college world, no less — is not built for those with less than 2 working legs. And yet, we’re all one fall away from abled to disabled. How is it that we refuse to design spaces without this ever-present chance in mind?
3. Breathe… slow I had to sit deep in time, uncertainly, for what seemed like weeks without end. I still may not be a zen master (my patience is still far too short), but I no longer feel like a whipping tornado. I have finally found perspective.
4. Say thank you I, an independent woman, found myself immensely dependent upon the goodwill of strangers to offer rides, push me up a tricky slope, and hold open doors. I waited on numerous shuttles to pick me up and drop me off everywhere; I had the generous help of my friends and family to pick up groceries, laundry, and my spirit off the floor in this emotionally difficult time. I am incredibly grateful and thankful for everyone who reached out, latched on, and pushed me forward this semester.
5. Have a back-up plan for stress-relievers Over the last 2 years, I have created a rather destructive self-image attached to physical exertion. Not only did I look athletic, I felt it. Worse still, I craved the sweat and glory in every moment of possible panic. Without my go-to outlet for release, I suddenly had crippling anxiety building up in my shoulders, my chest, and clogging the channels of my mind. If I had a back-up for my back-door flight response, I wouldn’t have stressed so much there in the middle of the ‘dark night.’
6. Stare back at people — refuse to become invisible There’s something about being in a wheelchair that attracts attention. I can’t even count the number of times I was sitting in a public place, minding my own business, to glance up and meet lingering looks. Curious, perhaps, but I don’t think it’s ‘curious’ to stare at another person like they’re an aberration. Abnormal. Out-of-place. Uncanny. Unnerving. It made me feel unwelcome to occupy any public space at all. I’m committed to remain mindful of my own curiosity of other people.
7. Say ‘no’ for your own sake I had to utter ‘no’ a lot this semester. For a ‘yes’ girl, this was an especially challenging — but liberating, in the end — lesson. People had to accommodate their schedules for me this season, something as an eager overachiever I never had to worry about before. It felt good to honor my own personal integrity, for once, and get ‘back to basics’ with self-care and self-love.
8. Put your own health first It was only on the eve before I was to make arrangements to finish the semester remotely, at my parent’s home, that I had the bone-breakthrough. I was finally ready to put aside the student-first persona and address my lingering health issues head-on — a sentiment I have never fully embodied in all my 16 years of schooling. But I think it was only because I was willing the universe to put myself — my bones, my health, my body — first that I had the revelation that I did. Listen to your body: When it’s screaming at you, do something.
9. Your body is resilient, if you believe it I was scared to walk, shift, bend, or stand for 4 months, for fear that I would ‘mess up’ my body even more. As someone diagnosed with osteopenia, I’ve been told to be careful of my bones, to be mindful of my motions, living with the ever-present and overly likely occurrence of a stress-fracture. And while my calcium and vitamin D deficiency is still real, this really wasn’t the problem this time, or that time. In fact, it was something entirely different — but I was so blinded by my past that I couldn’t see a different future: a future that looks a whole lot more loving and less like losing hope, confidence, or bone. My body was overly resilient, in fighting off an infection for a lot longer than it should’ve. How can I thank my body for believing in me, when my mind was close to giving up?
10. Never give up Ever. Even in those bleak moments when all you can do is sit next to the windowsill and sob at the sunset, wishing for some kind of sign that all will be well, eventually. I was nearly there, pushed far too close to the edge of despair. I felt like I had nothing left to live for, not when there were no clear answers and no signal of relief. But it was the people in my life, the people who want to be in my life, that meant the most in these long, long months: The voice of my mother on my answering machine. The smile from my brother on a long weekend getaway. My dad’s out-of-the-blue texts. My friends checking in, checking up, choking me up with their surprises. I adamantly believe: There are always people to live for.