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  • Writer's pictureClaire Freeman


I remember attending a dinner fundraiser for a charity in New Zealand that raises funds for ‘paralysis cure’. I had been their designer and had fully supported their cause, but as I sat there at the table with my partner and listened to the guest speaker talk to the crowd of potential donors towards ‘the cause’, something didn’t feel right. The speaker was a young guy, had a diving accident where his neck had been broken and as a result, had sustained a spinal cord injury. He talked about his life, how hard it was, how he wanted to walk, make love to his beautiful new wife. Then he went into how life for ‘people like him’ was terrible, sometimes, it wasn’t even worth living… and he was believable. He used a wheelchair, looked kind of sad, I think everyone’s heart was breaking for him… but I knew something they didn’t about him. As one of my good friends, I knew he actually had a great life, he loved his new wife, loved his new house, in fact, he was one of the most content people I knew. He told me that his injury had made him re-evaluate his life; it had given him a new life in some respects and he was ‘surprisingly’ happier now than he had been before his accident.

And then there was me, and the people at the table where I was sitting. We all had severe spinal injuries and used wheelchairs for mobility, and we were all a pretty happy bunch of people. I adored my partner at the time, had a great job, good friends, and the people I was sitting with all had families, careers or a sense of purpose and were an amazing bunch of people. Yes we had been through hell by having such a life threatening injury, but it hadn’t stopped us living, in fact, in some ways, being at rock bottom - as we had all been after our injuries - had given us this amazing perspective. Suffering can often give you that sort of epiphany.

Then I looked around the room at the other people. Some were looking our way with looks of pity, some were playing with their food, and I couldn’t help but feel annoyed that I had to ‘pretend’ my life wasn’t as great as theirs because of my injury, when in fact, it had given me so many new skills. I had learnt compassion, patience, I’d learnt to be adaptable, I’d learnt to appreciate the little things. A few years later, my injury would eventually lead me down a new path of self-discovery, a path that might even change the world for the better… yet I was the one to be pitied? It didn’t make sense.

I won't lie, I do miss a lot of things I could do before my accident, and if I could wake up tomorrow and be able to walk and give someone the fingers (peace sign of course) it would be incredible… but I’d also want to keep all these wonderful new skills I have too. I no longer feel my life is not worth living. I also believe with great suffering comes great strength and I certainly can’t say life is ever boring.

For nearly eight years I hated my new paralysed life. I hated my body, I hated the jealousy I felt when I saw others without this injury. I dreamed of a cure, it was my obsession. I believed I no longer belonged to society and I felt totally alone. I didn’t even feel human anymore. Everything that went wrong in my life could be blamed on my injury, I had a knack of twisting things to arrive at that end point. Even if I burnt some biscuits I had baked, I’d rationalise if I didn’t have a broken neck, I might have been less preoccupied with thinking about it, and not burnt the biscuits; because the great thing about this injury is that it is so easy to lay blame and make the injury the problem, when the problem wasn’t located in my neck - it was in my mind.

I see a lot of people working hard to walk again, and I know that feeling. I did it all too, the physio, the intensive training, the experimental drug trials, and exercise trials. And it’s part of the grieving process so I’m at peace with it. But it no longer consumes me like it did, and in a way I hadn't anticipated, it is a huge weight off my mind.

I was told to accept my injury from the moment it happened, and I said I never would. I hated anyone who challenged me to accept it, because accepting it was giving in, and giving in was giving up on my dream of being ‘normal’ again.

Looking back on my thought processes makes me a little sad I spent so long in such a dark place. I wish I could tell myself that perhaps paralysis isn’t the worst thing that can happen to someone - to me; and being normal shouldn’t be the goal, and it isn’t my goal anymore. I want to be the change I want to see in the world. I want to teach people that this injury isn’t all bad. I want to give people hope that sometimes our darkest nightmares can be our greatest triumphs - because we survived, we grieved, we tried… and then we thrived.

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