1 year

It’s officially past my one year anniversary since I was an able-bodied, fully-functioning, fully-walking human being.

For whatever reason, the universe has chosen the oddest date of my accident. It happened on the first day of September, a month that has always prepared me for Fall and fresh beginnings. I was about to teach English in a brand new school year in Vietnam. Of all days in the calendar, it had to be 9/1, just one-less-one from 9/11.

I remembered the exact number of months that passed every 1st, like turning pages of a book. As the pages turned faster and faster, the reality of my situation further sank in and became the “new normal” to me, my family and friends.

I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about this one year that are difficult and too complex to sum up in one post. All these flash-backs of everything that happened chronologically, from falling 150 feet in the sky and being held hostage for hours by a major creep to then going into an MRI on gallons of morphine in a dream-like state before getting my entire back cut open in Thailand and then flying 24 hours home with a 3-foot tube coming my pee-hole (at least this was with Emirates), and stopping in Dubai to get my diaper changed, and being trapped in a crappy hospital for 2 months being served chicken every day when I’m vegan before finally moving back home all feels like it just happened yesterday, despite the long, jam-packed year my family and I had endured.

Throughout the year, I’ve experimented with my body in ways that would never have been recommended by anyone. I’ve driven a car with paralyzed feet instead of using handbreaks and have ridden a regular bike instead of the “special” ones they make for people with disabities. I’ve kept my physical restrictions at a low to avoid rejection from pilates classes and hiking excursions. I’ve worn leg warmers to hide my braces and have walked with sticks that look like combat weapons instead of crutches. I’ve been coddled by friends, family and aquaintances who have told me to be careful thousands of times this year (they have pretty much given up on me this point). I spent the year getting annoyed with strangers who run to hold doors for me and insist I take their seats on trains even when I feel like standing, despite them just trying to help.

I’ve learned not to blame people who don’t know my story or understand my goal, which is getting back on my feet as soon as possible with the bare minimum of help required. Most immediately assume I’m recovering from temporary leg injuries as their eyes gaze directly toward my leg braces, rather than understanding the complexities of a spinal cord injury (I previously didn’t). I’ve been told several times by cab drivers to “feel better” before leaving their vehicles. Imagine someone telling you to feel better every day of your life, as if you’re sick 24/7.

I’ve seen videos and read blogs of people who have defied the norm of what it means to be disabled, such as this girl born without legs surfing and skateboarding (Click Here to watch) and a guy swimming without arms and legs. Seeing them perform miraculous things with their bodies has inspired me to explore the magic in mine.

Yet having a spinal cord injury and not knowing if I will ever recover 100% has created a lot of uncertainty over the year. I’ve struggled deciding if I should work around the disability and cope like the other Youtube people or fight against whatever the doctors are saying or not saying, seeking to find answers to solve paralysis they’re not giving me by doing alternative therapies like acupuncture, cupping and reiki.

It’s been a whole year for me and I’ve only had two neurological breakthroughs. The first was on January 5th when I was sitting in the sauna and noticed both my ankles moving upward for the first time. Recently my right ankle regressed and stopped lifting as high, while my left one is now lifting 5x higher. “We’ll give you one ankle” my PT joked.

The second breakthrough happened on March 9th when I noticed that I was able to wiggle my left pinkie toe. This was such a big deal to me, because it took me 6 months to finally be able to move 1 out of 10 toes.

I don’t want to lose hope, but I probably caused some serious permanent damage for the rest of my life. That’s not to say that I won’t have future breakthroughs even in 10 years from now, but I can’t depend on them. I need to make the most out of what I have going on right now.

Despite the lack of nerve regeneration, I sense my body becoming stronger and more able every day that passes. My walking speed is getting more consistent with the paces of other people walking past me down the street or exiting a subway car. It used to take me over a minute to cross the street, but now I’m jaywalking again.

People ask me all the time “Do the doctors say you’re going to make a full recovery?” To answer this question, they don’t know and I don’t care. Whatever happens down the road, either way, my abilities will continue to flourish as I continue living my life to every extreme and challenge I come across.

Me vs. the World

About a month after my accident, I was sitting in the gym of my in-patient rehab in Mount Sinai when an older man next to me in a wheel chair asked what happened. After I told him “I fell off a cliff,” his jaw nearly dropped to the ground.

As I began taking trips outside the hospital, the questions about my condition were becoming more and more inevitable. At the time, I didn’t mind telling people. I wanted the pity and grief of others while going through something so life-changing and traumatic.

I always got the “How” after giving that same I fell off a cliff response. I wanted to be raw and real, so I gave brutally honest answers: “A man was chasing after me” or “A man was trying to rape me…”

I started noticing all the awkwardness stirring up in conversations. People had no idea how to react, and I wasn’t getting the empathy I wanted. It felt more painful for them to process the facts than for me to tell them.

I was getting thousands of endearing messages on Facebook, meanwhile, this was a conversation nearly everyone wanted to avoid in person. While I appreciated reading all the thoughtful messages and prayers online, I personally think we are lacking in our verbal interactions due to the rise of social media and iPhone use.

So I began lying about my experience, pretending it was a car accident or that I fell while hiking. But it was uncomfortable for me to talk about scenarios that never existed.

I asked my psychologist of the hospital what she thought I should do in those situations. She said that telling people I fell off a cliff would stimulate their curiosity and increase their likelihood of asking follow-up questions, like “How? Were you hiking?” (I would always say “Umm…yeah sortof”). She said saying “I had a fall” is a lot more modest and safe.

It’s almost been a year since my accident, and I’m still being asked the same question every day as if I broke my back yesterday. A lot of people ask what happened to my legs without considering that I injured my spine. Some people assume I was born this way.

Every time someone brings it up, it’s like they’re asking me to relive the entire event all over again, while I’m making it my best interest to deviate from it. I don’t know why so many strangers and Uber drivers feel so entitled to know what happened. Sometimes I just give them all the gory details as revenge for even asking. My thoughts: *You really want to know? Well you got your answer.*

Other times, I tell people to just Google it. Or read my blog. If I feel very close and connected with someone, I’ll give them a brief summary of what happened, but it has to be the right time and place. For example, if I’m at a bar laughing with people I just met, I’m not going to tell them that I almost got murdered in Thailand.

I do think it’s important for people I see on an ongoing basis to hear my story and acknowledge what happened. Last week, I graduated from a 10-week teacher training at Yoga to the People with 33 other TT’s. I have flashbacks today of all the looks and stares back in Weekend 1 as I climbed up 4 flights of stairs. “You know there’s an elevator, right?” “Can we get you a chair to sit down?”

No one knew what to make of a physically disabled person training to become a yoga teacher. While the facade of my disability completely overshadowed my personality for the first couple of weeks, it slowly started to disintegrate as the other TT’s and teachers began getting to know my body and me as a person.

During Weekend 4, we all sat in a circle with one person at a time in the middle beginning the sentence with “One thing most people don’t know about me is…”

After hearing so many traumatic stories of others, it gave me the perspective that I’m not the only person experiencing a kind of suffering. It was the perfect opportunity for me to tell my story to the people I’m sharing my yoga journey with. I no longer had to give any explanation for the remaining 7 weeks. I felt so much more connected with those around me throughout the rest of the program.

Sometimes I tell people I fell off a cliff with a huge smile on my face and a little giggle. This always invites a little confused giggle back. Because sometimes you have to look at the shittiest situations with a little humor. How else are you going to get on with it?

I’ve come to accept that my injury has taken over my identity for a long period of time. If this is the way the world sees me, then I proudly take ownership of what happened and firmly grip my wooden sticks like a f**king survivor.