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The problem with trauma.

May 26th 1999. I was a junior in high school. We had been let out of school early and I decided to take a ride with a classmate. An hour later, I was hanging upside down from my seat belt just trying to stay alive. The months ahead were uncertain, scary, and painful. I had to relearn how to live life sitting down. The things that were once easy for me, like brushing my teeth, were things I had to psych myself up for, just to get the energy to do. My legs no longer worked. My fine motor movement was completely gone. At first, I didn’t even know how I would make it to the next day.

 After awhile, my body healed the best that it could. I gained the stamina to be able to get up in the morning, brush my own teeth and hair, do my own makeup, and go to school. I taught myself how to grab onto things between my palms, in lieu of my non-existent ability to grip. I tried my best to move on with my life in this unwanted and different, but new way. 

 Fast forward 22 years. I have adapted to life in a wheelchair and I do many things independently. I run a household, I raise children, I work, I go to school, and I engage in my community. But one thing will always be staring over my shoulder, reminding me of the fact that I haven’t overcome everything. My trauma.

 Every time I get into my car and pull onto to the road, the intrusive thoughts hit me like a Mack truck. “What if someone doesn’t see me and T-bones me?” “What if my brake lines don’t work when I try to stop?” “What if the hand controls fall off the steering wheel and I can’t control the car?” I am completely aware that these things are extremely unlikely, but they will pop into my head at the most random times. I don’t think I have had a drive without worrying that I could die since my car accident 22 years ago. 

And it doesn’t just end with me. My trauma reminds me often that this could happen to any of the people I love. If I know my mom has to work, I worry that she’ll go off the road into a ditch and nobody will see her. Or that she will get robbed walking to her car in the dark. If my husband is even 5 minutes late from work, I’m calling him to make sure he didn’t get into an accident. If my kids ride the bus to a sporting event, I’m a nervous wreck until they’re back with me. 

For the longest time, I didn’t understand why I did this. It took my therapist explaining everything to me before it all clicked. Trauma is one of the few things the human body doesn’t heal from. So, even though I get in my car every day and get to the places I need to go, my brain will always have that memory of the time I didn’t return home safely. And of the thousands of times the driving was uneventful, that one time will always continue to come back up.

This is so common with people who obtained their disabilities in traumatic ways. We may seem like we have moved forward and gotten on with life, which for the most part we have, but that trauma will always be a part of us. The intrusive thoughts are a normal thing for people with disabilities because we have seen the worst and felt the worst… And every day, we try to get through it without going back there. In my case, exposure therapy has been scary but also helpful. At my last session, I was told to start doing things while driving that I generally attempt to avoid. For example, instead of pulling left on to a busy road, I will turn right and go out of my way until I get to a light where I can safely turn. Sometimes, it makes me late to where I’m going, but I have avoided being uncomfortable, so it’s just something that I do now. As of this week, I have officially started to try doing those things that make me nervous. I assess whether or not doing these things are safe, then I do them, even if I am scared. I had a small victory yesterday when I pulled left out of the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot instead of going right like I always do. There were no cars in sight, which usually does not deter me from avoiding anyway, but I knew I would be OK, so I went ahead and I made myself a little uncomfortable. I think eventually this will help me to confront my trauma and overcome some of the things that scare me about what has happened to me in the past.

If you are a trauma survivor and you constantly find yourself worrying in otherwise safe situations about all the bad things that can happen, this is completely normal. Our brains and bodies do not forget this type of thing. I urge you to talk to someone about what you’re feeling because there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We live with the disabilities our trauma has left behind, but that does not mean that we need to be subconsciously reminded of it every day. We can take control. 

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My anxiety has anxiety.

I was born without a care in the world. I mean, technically, we all were…but I brought that with me throughout my childhood and adolescence. At least until my injury. That’s when anxiety hit me like a Mack truck. I’ll never forget it.

Picture it. (If you don’t get this Golden Girls reference, please stop reading immediately and head to your nearest streaming service.) 12th grade. I was about 4 months post injury. I was still figuring out how to deal with the whispering and staring I got from strangers when they saw me in my wheelchair. I had always been an athlete, so in lieu of soccer in the fall, I decided to join the cheerleading squad. It was our first home game and we were playing our rival. As I was sitting on the sideline, I overheard some of the opposing players talking to the boy who was driving the car in the crash that paralyzed me. “Look at what you did to her.” I don’t know if they meant for me to hear them…and I know they were just trying to get into our teams’ head, but something about being that…noticed…just took all the breath from my body. I began to hyperventilate. I actually thought I was dying. My mom saw all the cheerleaders surrounding me and rushed over to remove me from the situation. I didn’t return for that game. 

Why am I telling you this? Not because I enjoy reliving my first panic attack. But because this is far from where it ended. Anxiety is something that went from a feeling I didn’t recognize enough to be able to decipher it from actual imminent death, to something I prepare for almost every time I leave my house. I’m not alone here. Many people with disabilities are very familiar with the things I feel when I’m getting ready for a concert, or a football game, or even a trip to the grocery store. We have to run down our checklists of what could go wrong and what we can do to try to prevent it. “Will there be parking?” “Does the building have stairs? Uneven doorways? Are entrances wide enough? What happens if someone doesn’t see me and falls on me? Are shelving units too high to reach? What if the handicapped bathroom stalls aren’t big enough?” I could go on forever, but I’ll spare you the hours and hours of yapping I can do about what makes me not want to leave the comfort off my weighted blanket. 

This shouldn’t be a thing. It is 2021. We just sent Jeff Bezos and a bunch of randos into outer effing space. But here I am, peeing in the alleyway outside the bar on a Saturday night because I had 3 beers and just have to break seal; but the bar doesn’t have accessible bathrooms. (I wish I was making that up…that’s a true story.) There are buildings that are exempt from being ADA compliant because they are considered “historical buildings”. Anyone who runs a business out of these buildings is not legally required to be accessible to people with disabilities in any way. I dunno, you guys….seems suspish. And super discriminatory. But it’s completely legal. This is a just another reason people with disabilities are anxious any time they’re planning on going somewhere new. Everything that could go wrong is always at the forefront of our minds.

This may see like something that’s bigger than us. And it kind of is. But there are ways you can help. First off all, write to your local, state and federal officials. We elected these people to make changes in our communities. Hold them to it. Second, if you are in an establishment that isn’t accessible, say something. Eventually, the right people will realize the importance of being available to everyone. And finally, don’t be a dingleberry when you’re out. If you see someone’s struggling, ask if they need help. (If they’re minding their own business and doing fine with their tasks, for the love of Harry Styles please do not bother them.) Watch where you’re going when you’re walking. We’re short, but if you stay at least a teeny bit aware of your surroundings, you won’t walk into our chairs or trip on us. Don’t whisper or point. If you have kids, let them ask us questions. If you’re just a nosey adult, remember that it costs $0 to mind your own business about how total strangers ended up with disabilities. You can be a part of creating a more comfortable world for us to live in so we can be as independent as possible.

If you’re living with anxiety due to your disability, you aren’t alone. Reach out and ask for help. Don’t suffer in silence just because you feel like a burden.  You are worthy and we’ll get through this.