Before I entered my spinal cord injury doctor’s office for my check-up last week, I stopped by the men’s room near the elevator where I had my first sobbing fit two years ago.
I was calmer now than I was on Dec. 22, 2017, when I had just been told it was a miracle I was walking. Merely sitting in the waiting room of a spinal cord injury doctor will make you instantly grateful for what you have. There is always – always – someone worse off than you to bring you a dose of reality. And then to realize how narrowly you escaped being a paraplegic – that’s a recipe for grateful terror. That’s why I had retreated to the men’s room after the initial visit and sobbed heaving cries that must have echoed down the hallway.
“So many of us carry unseen-to-others injuries that are life-defining.”
Truth be told, I’m at the point now where being thankful is small consolation. I’ve spent two years looking on the sunny side, mainly thinking of how much worse it all could have been from whatever it was that happened during a routine surgery that bruised my spinal cord. How it happened hasn’t mattered to me for a long time. But the why and wherefore still get me.
Now I’m just angry. And being a good Christian, I feel guilty for being angry.
The most helpful thing my doctor told me this week was that I’m not crazy for being angry, and I’m not alone. She told me about another patient who presents with very similar deficits to mine who recently asked her: “Am I a bad person for still wanting to get better?” Indeed.
Seems the problem with humbly thinking there’s always someone worse off than you is that it makes recovery a zero-sum game. If I get better (and I’m not sure I deserve to), will someone else not get better? Will my drive for 95 percent recovery keep someone else at 50 percent recovery?
Of course not. My brain knows that, but my emotions seem not to. And so I feel guilty for being angry that I’m not fully recovered. Boy, do I feel messed up. (And side note here: I used more colorful language than that to describe my dilemma to my doctor.)
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this is not a feel-good, Tiny-Tim-walks-again kind of Christmas column.
Here’s the bottom line: I miss how my life used to be. And I don’t think it’s coming all the way back.
Which is not to say that my life now is bad; it’s just different and more difficult at times. Perhaps you can identify with that for any number of reasons: injury, illness, estrangement, divorce, death, unemployment. All these things make life different than it used to be, and that change can make us simmer with sadness while overcome with nostalgia for the way we were. Welcome to the club.
“I’m at the point now where being thankful is small consolation.”
So many of us carry unseen-to-others injuries that are life-defining. We don’t want your pity, but we may need your grace.
Here are some things to understand about the walking wounded:
We feel vulnerable. Experiencing a life-changing trauma of any kind makes you always wonder when the next shoe is going to drop. Whether rational or not, we live with the fear that we will not be able to take care of ourselves anymore, that we are one unexpected event from being worse off than we already are. I live with a kind of irrational fear of messing up that I never had known before.
We feel like failures. Even if most people can’t see the deficits we carry, we’re still comparing ourselves to others who appear to be fully functional. And it’s a short trip to the assumption that everyone else in the world is able to do or feel the things we can’t. Deficits get magnified into failures in the mind’s eye.
We suspect we’re mentally ill. This is not said to make light of diagnosable mental illness; quite the contrary. The kind of turmoil that goes on in your head when you feel vulnerable and fear you’re a failure makes you imagine your own psychiatric diagnosis.
We are exhausted but we can’t admit it. Keeping up appearances is hard work. Powering through the daily tasks of life drains massive amounts of energy – but we’re not going to show that because of the three reasons given above.
We need each other. There aren’t many support groups for the walking wounded, and we probably wouldn’t attend if there were. See items one through four above. However, in those rare moments of candor with others who are walking similar paths, we may find redemption.
Recently I had lunch with a dear friend who is among the walking wounded for different reasons than mine. Increasingly, we are able to speak honestly with each other and explain how things really are going. What a blessed relief that is. We talked about adapting to life changes, about sudden-onset depression and how short a trip it is from there to suspecting the world would be a better place without your struggle in it.
A few days later, I received a letter from him thanking me for the lunch conversation and expressing the ways he identifies with me. And he made one request of me: When I feel like I’m sliding over the cliff into a dark place, call him. He will listen and knows I would do the same for him.
That’s a letter suitable for framing. But for now, I think I’ll wrap it up and place it under the Christmas tree because that’s the kind of gift money can’t buy and a doctor can’t prescribe.