Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on March 22, 2022
as posted in Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation
I woke up the other morning hating myself. The best word to describe this state is worthless. Don’t ask why. I have absolutely nothing, long or short-term, to hate myself for or to condemn myself as worthless. I’m not the Hillside Strangler. This is simply a diffuse, underlying mental impulse that is always there, I think, but only pops up from time to time. For decades I thought the source was the loss and self-blame attendant to the accidental death of my father when I was only two. Maybe a therapist told me this. “Childhood trauma.” When I became paralyzed, I thought I had replaced that trauma with a new trauma, which of course, invites its own form of self-denigration. After all, you are permanently crippled and seen as lesser-than, in the eyes of many, and since there is no one else to blame, you blame yourself.
I had, at least initially, the exact opposite reaction. I felt a rush of confidence in how I dealt with the paralysis and consequently renewed confidence in other abilities, from personal resilience to home finances. This self-affirming phenomenon has a name and theory behind it, first noted by two professors at the University of North Carolina. They called it “post-traumatic growth syndrome.” You don’t just spring back, you spring forward. The idea has plenty of naysayers, but from personal experience and that of thousands of other trauma survivors, it’s real.
Which, of course, doesn’t preclude other consequences of trauma to coexist with whatever possible benefit is occurring. My own neurologist summed it up this way: “If you were a drunk before you became paralyzed, you’d still be a drunk afterward.” You may announce you are now getting sober, but you will no doubt be fighting the urge forever. Otherwise, paralysis is a miracle cure, which it isn’t.
I think my sense of worthlessness is set off by a specifically debilitating thought or image and being paralyzed only amplifies it. Every morning I wake up and say, “Oh, f**k, I’m still paralyzed!” Sensing your profound limitations only reinforces that no-good feeling. It’s irrational, but that doesn’t make it less real.
I don’t really care about the origin of this menacing impulse. I just want to cage it, deball it, and send it on its way. After all, it’s only a thought or thought-feeling, so if I bombard it with other thoughts or actions, I can at least nip away at its potency.
The first thing to do is do something. “Get up, get out,” as the disabled actor, Chill Mitchell, likes to say. Or as my good friend, John Lynn, a longtime veteran of AA, wrote me: “Get the hell out of yourself.” Don’t wallow in the state, like mental quicksand, trying to find more ways to chastise yourself. Find a focus. My best focus is writing. I’m not the first dufus to hit upon writing as therapeutic. Go online, and you’ll find plenty of writing-to-heal endorsements. I figured this out early on in my paralysis. It’s not so much what you write but the act of writing, literally, that can dislodge you from recurring mental traps. Maybe bowling has the same effect, I don’t know, but, hey, give it a try.
As far as counter-thinking, it’s always good to remember the famous three P’s immortalized by psychologist Martin Seligman. Don’t personalize – see it as “a” problem, not the problem you brought on yourself. Don’t think of it as pervasive. It is not a mental spell that affects every aspect of your life. That’s a hole we create ourselves. And finally, it’s not permanent. Don’t feel worthless for feeling worthless. A, you aren’t worthless and B, you will not always feel that way.
While you’re at it, try to cure yourself of the useless habit of saying “I’m sorry” when anything bad happens to you or someone close. I’m still working on this one. I continue to apologize for my paralysis ten times a day. “I’m sorry for being in this wheelchair and needing your help…” Don’t apologize for who you are. Let yourself off the hook. After all, the hardest person to forgive is you.
Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.