My own little island

Let my absence from my blog end! I’ll explain later why I haven’t kept up for a while but for now, it’s time for another update.

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that to continue my effective recovery from Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), I have to remain isolated on my own little island.

I’ve probably mentioned in the past that recovery from SCI is all over the place, to say the least. Depending on a variety of factors (many of which are not well understood, no matter what the medical community says) one’s ability to regain function, get stronger and recover is largely unpredictable. I’ve also explained how one’s initial functional capabilities following the injury is largely dependent on where the injury occurred on the spinal cord (higher up towards your neck and head or lower down towards your tailbone). But here’s where the ambiguity of this injury (and its recovery) becomes prominent.

People who are injured in the same exact location on their spinal cord can have drastically different capabilities and recoveries. For example, I’ve met a few dozen other people who broke the exact same vertebra in their neck as I did, C5 and C6 in the lower neck. Each and every one of these people’s situations is different, as is their respective recovery.

Unlike more common and less severe injuries (i.e. a torn ACL, broken bone, strained muscle), there is no standard protocol for how to pursue recovery following a SCI, even for each specific level of injury. Some are left with little function in their hands while others have an iron grip; some with zero core control, others with boxer’s abs; some can wiggle a toe or lift up a leg and some can’t even feel where their lower body is in space (proprioception). As a result, the timetable for recovery is all over the place.

I bring this all up now because the desire to compare one’s injury to others’ progress and recovery is, I think, inevitable and only natural. I hear of another person with a C5/C6 injury who was able to move something or regain function at a certain time after their injury and I immediately start to compare to myself.

“Can I do that yet? What does it mean if I can or can’t?”

“I wasn’t able to do this certain thing that someone else did at a specific point after the injury, so am I doomed?”

“Well, if I wasn’t able to do this function at this time then I may never be able to.” 

“If this one specific aspect of recovery was going to happen (like it did for someone else) then it should have happened by now.” 

These are the thoughts that run through my head when I talk to anyone else with a SCI. While it’s inspiring and motivating to hear that someone was able to perform a specific task or function, it also messes with my head and threatens to endanger my confidence and resolve. That’s why I believe that comparing one’s SCI to someone else, no matter how similar they may seem, is a zero sum game.

I don’t want to stop these conversations with others about their recoveries, so what I’ve had to do is place myself on my own little island of recovery, and force myself to remain there, all by myself. It’s difficult because I want solidarity with others. I want to hear someone tell me that it’s going to happen to me because it happened to them. I want to think that my recovery is linked to others, that I can use their timetables to structure my own and manage my expectations, but that’s just not the way it’s going to be.

This recovery is a solitary one. Comparing doesn’t get me anywhere, which is why I’ll stay on my own little island, and keep working towards my goal.

***

I’ve been away from the blog for a bit because I’ve had my hands full following up on my survey and garnering momentum for a petition I started to change the way SCI is approached and dealt with. My goal is to get the word out, get as many signatures as possible to my petition so that I can get it out to multiple forms of media. If you’re interested in signing my petition, check it out below. If you have any connections to media (journalists, websites, news sources….anything at all) and you want to share them with me, I’m grateful in advance.

http://www.change.org/petitions/healthcare-providers-medical-insurance-companies-provide-the-minimum-care-to-paralyzed-individuals

Olympic Observations

Seven one-hundredths of a second. That’s what separated the gold and silver medal finishers in the Women’s Giant Slalom downhill skiing event in the Sochi Olympics last week. As I was watching, I was struck by the tiny margins of difference that would determine the order of finishers in this event.  To put it another way, the top 9 finishers in the event completed the course within 1.77 seconds of each other! So less than 2 seconds decided the best in the world from the mediocre skiers.

This got me thinking of the athletes and what they do in the three years and 50ish weeks when they’re not in the olympics. Obviously, there’s a tremendous amount of training involved. For some of the more popular sports, the athletes may have the luxury of training nearly full-time while for some of the other olympic sports (i.e. curling, luge), I learned that most of the athletes have full-time jobs and careers and train for their sport on the side. Either way, the amount of hours and time that each of these people puts into practice and training is admirable and remarkable.

So going back to the ski race, I couldn’t help but feel astounded that for these skiers, who are the absolute best in the world, four years of intense and daily training and thousands upon thousands of repetitions of the same movements all lead to a day where their fates are decided in mere milliseconds.

This got me thinking about my own regimen and my own olympics (of sorts) that I’m training for. Despite my lifelong athleticism and passion for an active lifestyle, I know that before my accident, it was hard for me to fathom the life of an olympic athlete, spending THAT many hours of everyday training for an event in which you may not even be selected to compete. How could you justify waking up early, staying up late, sacrificing sleep and time for other aspects of life to train for an activity while knowing that you MAY have a chance to possibly go up against the best in the world and then and only then, maybe you will be seven one-hundredths of a second fast enough to win gold??!

Since the day I got out of surgery to repair my badly broken neck, since the day when I knew that my body was damaged yet my spirit was more resilient than ever, and since I knew that the road back to my feet would be a long and arduous one, I decided that I would do everything in my power and spend as many hours a day and as many days as necessary working towards my goal.

In this regard, I share something with those olympic athletes. Our commitments to our respective goals are unquestionably similar – I would even argue that I want to walk more than any athlete wants to win gold but I guess that’s gonna be hard to prove.

And so I understand now why someone would train so much for so long despite such slim chances of reaching their goals and winning the race, and being better than everyone else out there. If you want it badly enough, then no amount of practice or training or repetitions will be too daunting to prevent you from getting there, just seven one-hundredths of a second fast enough.

Never satisfied

I’m never satisfied. It’s as simple as that, specifically in regards to my recovery.

As I write that, and I imagine as you may read it at first glance, it may seem extreme. In fact, many friends, family and readers of this blog have told me that I need to be better about acknowledging and appreciating the accomplishments that I make. As a result, I have put a lot of effort into recognizing my milestones and achievements, as small or seemingly insignificant as they may be. While this continues to be a huge challenge for me, I try to improve upon it everyday, as I know that my recovery is a long process and it’s impossible to reach the light at the end of the tunnel without appreciating those moments in between. All of that said, there’s something I really love about not being satisfied and I feel compelled to acknowledge the benefits of this stubborn, hard-headed approach that I embody.

I would attribute a great deal of my improvements and physical gains to this inherent characteristic of mine. You see, I LOVE to push myself. I always have. So when I accomplish anything, it’s natural for me to think to myself, “Well, that was good, but what’s next? How do I get even better?” When it comes to accomplishments and achievements, I can’t help but think of a cheesy yet very salient quote from some old martial arts movie where the sensei warns the student not to get overconfident because, “there is always someone better than you.” (If you know what this movie is, feel free to educate me)

It’s the same reason why I can’t stand arrogance or conceit in people. Why tell the world you’re really good at something when you always have a chance of getting better?

Ok so I realize this last bit may be misleading so let me clarify. I’m not saying that recognizing one’s accomplishments automatically equals arrogance. And I don’t think that we should all just wallow in mediocrity and never celebrate positive things. (As I’ve written about many times, I almost unwaveringly tend to see the positive in everything). But what I am saying is that by leaning to the side of under-acknowledging and downplaying my achievements, and by never feeling fully satisfied, I avoid complacency and I maintain my intense motivation and commitment to my recovery.

As I continue on this wild journey, I maintain the promise I’ve made to many people to stop and appreciate those small victories but by adhering to my stubbornness, competitiveness and will, I’ll keep my laser focus and I’ll keep going strong, always looking for the next challenge to conquer.

A few thoughts on independence

What does it mean to be independent? What kinds of actions or activities are essential to do ourselves in order to feel satisfied with our own abilities and without having to rely on others? What would be the functions you would have to do in order to feel like you have the most minimal sense of independence?

Often times, when strangers look at me, they see the wheelchair, they see me unwillingly sitting down amidst a sea of standing humans and they may think, “well that guy can’t walk at this moment, but otherwise he seems to be doing ok.” My friends often tell me something similar, that I don’t look like I’ve suffered a major trauma anymore, that I’ve gotten strong enough to the point where I simply look like a normal dude, who just happens to be sitting in a wheelchair.

One of the more unnoticed aspects of Spinal Cord Injury is the loss of independence. To go from being able to do nearly everything for yourself to suddenly have to rely on others for practically everything is an awful reality of this situation. Many times I’ve heard the belief that there is no such thing as full independence, that we are all dependent on others in some way. This may be true, but to have any of your independence taken away from you is incredibly humiliating, frustrating and devastating.

I absolutely hate the fact that I have to ask for help of any kind from other people, and that it happens so frequently. Before my accident, I was thrilled to be as independent as I was, to the point that one of the main reasons I chose to ride a bike as my primary form of transportation was so I wouldn’t have to rely on the potential complications of a car or the improbable and unreliable nature of public transportation. I wanted to be as self-reliant as possible. If there was anything about my life that I wasn’t satisfied with, it didn’t take me long to take initiative, come up with a plan and make a change. (Granted, I was – and still am – fortunate enough to live in a society and country where so much was available to me and I actually had the opportunities to make significant life changes…I don’t take this for granted).

Nowadays, I find myself frequently prioritizing the actions and situations that I most greatly wish I could do independently. To say that the loss of independence that has come with this injury is a blow to my pride is a massive understatement. It’s one of the things that bothers me multiple times a day, everyday. But at the same time, I’ve been able to appreciate the massive gains I’ve made while remaining focused and motivated to continue to improve.

So I want to end by acknowledging what made me write this post now. A friend, and fellow SCI survivor, recently made a short video emphasizing the next step in her quest for independence and watching it made me think about all of these questions and about how my own thoughts on independence have changed since my injury. So I’d like to encourage you to think about what it would be like if you instantly lost the ability to do most things for yourself, if you had to rely on others for those things that you used to do without any thought or consideration, and what things are most important to you, for your independence.

If you’re interested, here’s the link to the video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LTDZ7pZYqbg&feature=youtu.be

If you build it, will it come? And when? And how? And….

One of the most memorable movie quotes of my childhood was from “Field of Dreams” where Kevin Costner is told, “if you build it, he will come” in reference to building a baseball diamond in his cornfield which will summon his beloved baseball players from the past to come and play ball. A pretty straightforward cause and effect statement. Do this, and that will ensue.

I find myself thinking of this quote a lot recently, in the context of my recovery and dealing with all of the questions and doubt that arise and try to throw me off track. I’ve been “building it” for over a year now. This time last year is when I felt strong enough to ignore the lifestyle of adaptation and flat out laziness that the medical establishment was providing me, and took the initiative to start an aggressive routine of rehab, exercise and physical and mental hard work.

Up until my accident, I had always understood that the causal relationship between hard work and reward was reliable and relatively short-term, particularly with physical improvements (I wrote an entire post about this subject). Now, after a year of working so hard everyday, of literally channeling so much of my energy towards recovery and healing, I’m often left wondering…ok, can someone throw me a bone here? I need something to happen already!

Yes I’ve had improvements, yes my health and overall strength has improved, yes I can still wiggle my toe, yes I can sit taller, push further and continue to challenge my capabilities and improve upon them, but all of that said, I have to put this out there: I need a breakthrough.

I’m reminded of the conversations I’ve had with friends so many times about being single and wanting to find a girlfriend. Or of changing job paths and furiously job hunting and the advice we would always give each other when frustrations would hit new highs. “You’re looking too hard for it. Sometimes these things happen when we ease up on searching or expecting them, and then all of a sudden, boom! it happens.”

I have no doubt that this applies to my current situation. I want improvement badly. I want validation for all of this hard work I’ve done and I want it to be more than a toe I started wiggling nine months ago or gradual strength that I’ve built up over time. But I’m looking so hard for it! I wake up every morning and wonder if this will be the day that I’ll have that breakthrough. I’m trying not to expect it, but I expect it. And then I try to rid myself of the expecting of not expecting. And so it goes….

I wish this injury was more forgiving in this way. I wish there was a formula and even if I knew it would take a long time, I could find peace in knowing that the next breakthrough would indeed arrive. But that’s not the way this injury is. It rips you apart and takes away everything and leaves you with more doubt, uncertainty and ambiguity than you could ever imagine.

I can hear the advice from everyone already: Get rid of the expectations. Cultivate patience. Find peace with the situation. Make the most of the present moment without any consideration of the future and what it will bring. Life is too short so enjoy what you have right now and relish every moment.  I say, easier said than done. 

The funny thing is, I’ve actually been able to do all of these things but only to a certain extent. Much of my efforts recently have revolved around patience and letting go of expectations, and I’ve certainly gotten better at this. I have no choice but to continue doing these things and physically continuing to work as hard as possible but I still can’t help thinking that because I’m building it, it will come…

Sharing what inspires me

I’ve had the great fortune of being told that my blog is inspiring to people. I started this blog simply as a means of communicating the challenges and triumphs of my recovery from this devastating injury in an efficient and interesting way. So whenever someone tells me that my words are inspiring, I’m honored, flattered and overwhelmed with gratitude. In that same spirit, I want to take a moment and share some of the resources, stories, and people out there who have inspired me throughout my journey of recovery.

One of the initial (and perpetual) challenges of Spinal Cord Injury is the lack of information and resources. In the hospital, they gave me a book that probably every person with a SCI receives upon leaving their inpatient rehab facility. The front cover has a smiling guy sitting in his wheelchair with an almost sadistically grinning child in his lap and alongside him is an attractive woman and a creepily friendly-looking German Shepherd, with the title: “Yes, you can! A guide to self-care for persons with Spinal Cord Injury.”

Instead of sharing the inspirational stories of others with SCI who have recovered, of those who have challenged their condition and come out victorious, they want you to accept your fate as a “disabled” person and start getting used to your “new” life. Complete with a smiling child and a menacing dog.

That’s exactly why I decided to create a new page on my blog entitled, “Inspiration & SCI Resources.” After over a year of living with this injury and countless hours of research, reading and internet searches, I have collected quite a bit of information on SCI and the people it has affected.

Now I want to share those stories that have most inspired me, those people who I’ve learned about who motivate me to keep fighting and to keep working hard towards my goal. We live in a society that emphasizes individuality and independence, but the reality is that none of us can achieve our objectives without the help or presence of others. I feel like it’s essential for me to recognize the inspirational stories that have most helped me through my recovery thus far, and hopefully serve as a resource for anyone looking for either an inspirational story or more information on SCI.

On a final and slightly unrelated note, my friends recently organized a fundraising event in which I gave a speech about the importance of words and why specific words matter so much to my recovery, and thanks to a generous friend who photographed and recorded the whole event, we have a video of the talk which I’d like to share here. It’s more than a couple minutes long so I don’t expect everyone to watch, but if you do and want to share your thoughts, you know how to find me.

http://steinbergimagery.info/arash-bayatmakou-words-matter/

Defining myself

How do we define ourselves? By our occupations and interests? By our fundamental qualities and instincts? By the people around us and the communities that we build? Or by the events and occurrences that happen to us whether they’re in our control or not? Why am I even asking this question?

I think about this often. How I define myself is crucial to my overall attitude, outlook, and potential for recovery. As I move forward with my rehab, through various achievements and struggles, and as I encounter the many others who are somehow associated with this injury, the question I think about most often is this:

Am I defined by my injury or am I defining my injury?

One of the first posts I wrote on this blog had to do with the semantics and terminology used for those with Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), specifically the use of words like “quadriplegic  or paraplegic.” I explained how much I hated these terms and now I have a better understanding of why I still get frustrated whenever I hear them. It has to do with how I want to define myself after this injury.

When someone has cancer or HIV or Multiple Sclerosis or a stroke or a hip replacement or a number of other medical issues, they don’t start calling themselves something related to that affliction. There is no “hi I’m a cancerplegic or stroke-a-plegic” equivalent with these other situations. People instead say, I have cancer or I’ve had a stroke or I have a bad hip or whatever it may be. They are stating their medical condition as something that they have, instead of something that they are. As challenging as their respective struggles may be, they are not defining themselves by their injury.

A person may choose to define themselves in whatever way they want, as a teacher or construction worker or engineer, as a father or uncle or a Stanford alum or a tennis player or musician…. but I don’t believe that a medical condition has to be a part of that. Which brings me back to my continued frustration with SCI semantics. Why do people immediately want to define those with SCI as a quadriplegic or paraplegic? Why do most people so quickly accept this terminology and start using it?

There is a difference between saying that you suffer from quadriplegia instead of saying you are a quadriplegic. I take less issue with the former term but I refuse to use the latter. I know it may seem stubborn and trivial for me to be harping on these small differences in the way we talk, but I think it makes a world of difference.

Words matter. I truly believe that how we talk about something, specifically what words we use, has a huge impact on what we expect from it. If you repeatedly tell yourself that you’re going to have fun on your weekend trip, it means that’s what you expect, and I think it’s more likely that you will actually have fun. Conversely, if you tell yourself that something is negative and bad and you keep using those words to describe a situation (even if you’re using those words privately and not out loud), chances are that situation will prove to be negative. This relates to what is commonly known as the law of attraction. What you put out  to the world, is closely related to what you get from it.

How do I expect myself to get better and recover if I define myself by my injury? Why is Spinal Cord Injury unique from other medical problems in this regard? Is the common thinking that this injury is so debilitating and insurmountable that from day one, we need to start defining people with these funny sounding words?

I am perfectly comfortable stating that I have a Spinal Cord Injury. This is honest and accurate. But the moment I start using silly words to define myself, I do an injustice to my recovery. If you have a similar injury and are motivated and serious about getting back on your feet, I would suggest you avoid using those words and think about how you want to define yourself. I think we can all benefit from taking a moment to think about what defines us, what doesn’t, and why it matters.

One year ago…

Today marks one year since I badly broke my neck, since my life turned upside down, and since everything I ever knew about my body, my health, my accomplishments, my ambitions and my future were all thrown out and it all hit the restart button. I have to admit, I’ve been dreading this day for quite some time now and I could feel in recent weeks that my stress was building about what this day means to me and what I should do moving forward.

On the one hand it devastates and frightens me to think that an entire year has gone by since I last willingly moved my legs. I used to get antsy and grumpy if I went a few days without running, biking or exercising my entire body somehow. For the last year I’ve had to settle for rebuilding my body piece by piece, and slowly accepting that I could (and would) still regularly push myself to my physical limits, even if I didn’t have function of my entire body. It’s scary and depressing and horrifying to realize how much has changed in me physically since before my accident. To think of the physical accomplishments that I had, to think of how much respect I had for my body and how that translated to what I ate, how I behaved, and how I approached life in general, and to think that all of that has transformed now…words can’t describe it.

I remember waking up in the hospital, under heavy medication, staring at the ceiling because I was unable to move my head and not being able to see my legs but knowing that something just didn’t feel right. I remember every conversation I’ve had with every single doctor and how each of them wanted to show that they “had the answer” by telling me how soon my body’s rehabilitative abilities would stop. Some told me six months, others said one year or more but they all had a firm belief that after a spinal cord injury, the healing would reach this magical point in time and just come to a halt.

Never mind that this sounds bogus and arbitrary. Never mind that case after case of people with this injury have had changes and improvements in their body two, five, eight, ten, twenty years after their injuries! Never mind that by saying these things, they were placing a limit on my potential and possibly devastating my spirit. Never mind that their “medical knowledge” was supposed to trump the power of will, of hope, of dedication, of faith, of perseverance, and of love.

And I don’t just mean the love that comes from family, friends, community and others, but of the love that comes from within. The love I had for everything that I was capable of before my accident. The love for enjoying life on my own terms, the love of being able to stand and walk and jump and kneel and lean and kick and tumble and tumble and tumble…and RISE. When do we fall and NOT want to get back up? Does it ever happen that a baby that’s learning to walk stumbles and falls and doesn’t try to do it all over again, albeit after a few tears? So why should this be any different? If a baby can do it, why can’t a grown man, let alone a grown man who has so much still to live for?

I remember leaving the hospital seven weeks after my injury and my doctor (who I’d seen and spoken to every single day during my time at inpatient rehab) telling me not to engage in too much activity or put too much hope or effort into my recovery. “All of this acupuncture, exercise therapy, alternative interventions and these other things out there…all of this is just experimental and there’s no proof of its potential efficacy in healing after a spinal cord injury. The body will heal as it will, there’s not much you can do so you might as well just wait for it to come.”

Oh really? Well just watch me…

I’m not naive. I’m not expecting everything to just go back to the way it was. I know that recovery is slow and the last year has proven that to me over and over. Nothing about this process is going to be easy or quick and I’ve accepted that. But I also know that my body desperately wants to get better. I know that it makes no sense for the body to heal for 365 days and then on the 366th day just suddenly stop and say, “ahhhh ok, I think we’re done here.” I know that I’ve made extraordinary gains in the last year and I see no justification for the belief that things are just going to slow down or stop now. My attitude isn’t scientifically or medically proven but I think that my recovery is one of the many things out there that cannot, and maybe will not, ever be explained by medical reasoning.

Despite the overwhelming challenges that come with my current situation, I’m extremely grateful for some of the lessons that I’ve learned in this last year, many of which I’ve written about on this blog. I’ve learned of the resilience of the human condition and how strong we can be in the face of overwhelming adversity coming from so many different angles. I’ve learned about the meaning of faith and how I’ve been able to interpret my own understanding of what I believe in, and why. I’ve learned about the surprises that can come from waking up one morning and discovering that a body part has suddenly regained its functionality. I’ve learned about the importance of perspective again, and again and again and how I will always be grateful for what I have. I’ve learned that positive thinking can be a conscious practice taking place underneath the surface of willful actions or it can come in the form of dreams, reminding the mind and body and soul of how great it feels to be able to walk.

More than anything though, I’ve learned about the intensity and magnitude of the power of intention and will. I’ve learned that hope is always alive as long as the intention for it is active and strong. I’ve learned that as difficult as it may be, it’s possible to listen to the “experts” and actively work to prove them wrong; to show an entire industry that’s based on suppressing my expectations and accepting the unacceptable, that there is another way. But it can only come if I truly believe in it and am willing to spend every last of drop of tears and energy and blood into pursuing it.

I spoke with someone recently who has had a lot of experience healing people who have suffered spinal cord injuries. She believes that the first year is purely a matter of dealing with the massive trauma that has occurred, that true healing doesn’t really begin until that trauma has died down and that happens in the second year and beyond.

I too accept this belief and I feel renewed and reenergized about my recovery. I know I will never forget this day again, that it’s an anniversary of sorts. I acknowledge this day now, and am ready to move forward, to keep my intention and will focused on my ultimate goals and to stay on my path to a full recovery.

Sacred places and the case against being a couch potato

Sometimes I wonder why this injury had to happen to me, why not some couch potato who could just as easily sit on a sofa (or now, a wheelchair), and spend hours watching TV or playing video games, and having little to no concern about the weather outside or their natural surroundings. My situation would probably be easier if I were like this. Being a sedentary, physically unmotivated person who wanted nothing more than to be passively entertained would translate quite well to the common prognosis of life post-Spinal Cord Injury: sit on your ass, get around in a wheelchair, abandon hope of regaining who you were prior to injury, gain weight, and do your best to deal with your “new” life. But as I’ve stated many times, I am the furthest thing from this type of person and so I have to accept that while the path of NOT being a couch potato may be extraordinarily harder for my recovery (I would think a couch potato may not even bother to try to recover), the potential reward of rediscovering any of the active things that I used to do is monumental and motivating to me to continue my fight.

I believe we all have places that are sacred to us, and many of my sacred places are  associated with nature, the outdoors and the absolute sense of serenity, joy and fulfillment I get from visiting these places again and again. Over the last two weekends I had the pleasure of going to two of my sacred places: Yosemite National Park and the coastal areas of Marin County, north of San Francisco. On both occasions, generous friends opened up their homes and I was fortunate enough to share these experiences with incredible friends who treated me as I always had been, and recognized and respected how important these places were to me.

My earliest memories of Yosemite are as a child, grumblingly pitching a tent during a pouring thunderstorm, hiking underneath craggy peaks and swimming in its cold yet refreshing rivers, streams and lakes. I have explored many different corners of the park, which in more recent years has come in the form of finding solace from the large crowds by backpacking through its less-traveled trails and finding its more hidden treasures. I was nervous about coming back to this sacred place without the ability to hike and move as I used to. Honestly, I had avoided a trip to Yosemite since my accident specifically because I didn’t want my memories and nostalgia to overwhelm and upset me.

By contrast, I had spent a bit of time in the gorgeous coastal areas of Marin County as a teenager, but my deep appreciation for this sacred place developed in the last few years through my frequent road bike rides through this area. Living in San Francisco meant that I would often hop on my bike, cross the majestic Golden Gate Bridge and escape from the city to surround myself with coastal redwoods, rocky beaches and winding hilltop roads.

To be honest, it was excruciating at times to be in these sacred places in a wheelchair, unable to stand up or walk or go anywhere with uneven terrain. It pained me to conjure cherished memories of past experiences and to wonder if and when I would ever do those things again on my feet. I would be lying if I didn’t admit this, but to my surprise, I discovered that despite my physical limitations, it was fantastic to be in these places again. Those ethereal granite cliffs of Yosemite Valley haven’t changed much in hundreds of thousands of years, and there’s no reason for me not to continue to appreciate their beauty now. Sitting in the sun with friends, eating freshly shucked oysters and enjoying a beautiful afternoon was a bit more tedious because I was stuck in a wheelchair, but it wasn’t enough to take away from savoring that moment. I even figured out a way to lean my knees against a picnic table and stand up with the help of a couple friends.

The mixture of emotions that comes with going back to my sacred places, albeit in a very different physical state, is a difficult challenge, but at least now I’ve reopened the door to enjoying them and can use fresher memories of these places to fuel my continued recovery.

Getting towed by two black labs

Getting towed by two black labs

Standing up!

Standing up!

Another dose of perspective: handling my hands

Hand diagramWe all take our hands for granted. There. I said it, and I really mean it.

I have written about a lot of my different physical and mental challenges here, but I have yet to dedicate an entire post (or more) to one of the most devastating aspects of my Spinal Cord Injury: my hands. Take a moment and just think of the small, fine movements you use your hands for throughout the day. Examples:

Unscrewing a cap of toothpaste; splashing water on your face, squeezing shampoo into your hands, buttoning your shirt, zipping a jacket, tying your shoelaces, fastening your belt,  unscrewing a jar, peeling open that annoying thin aluminum wrapper that always rips on a small container of yogurt, pouring milk into your coffee, eating with utensils in both hands, grabbing your keys, locking the door, turning on the ignition in your car, pulling a credit card out of your wallet, handling cash, signing a receipt, and on and on and on… 

Every single one of the functions and movements I described above are significantly impaired for me because of weakness in my hands and fingers. Some of the things I listed are still nearly impossible for me (squeezing shampoo), a few have become easier and more routine (signing a receipt, unscrewing toothpaste), and some I can do decently, just more slowly and weakly than normal (tying my shoelaces, buttoning my shirt).

I have become entirely accustomed to not trusting my hands. I am constantly dropping things on the ground. I still can’t hold my laptop or a heavy book with one hand. I am patiently waiting for the day that I can hold a plate of food comfortably without feeling like I’m lifting a 100 pound dumbbell. Opening packaging or a wrapper on everything from a pack of gum to an envelope is still a massive challenge and I’m stuck asking for someone’s help much more frequently than I would ideally like. I have to sleep with a bulky splint on my hand to help my fingers extend and open and feel more limber the next day.

Now I’ve only discussed basic yet necessary tasks and movements for everyday function without even mentioning maybe the most disturbing and frustrating aspect of my injury and its effect on my hands. Put aside for a moment the obvious challenges of someone outdoorsy and active like me who cannot walk or run or hike or do any of the active things I love to do. Let’s accept how excruciating it is for me to be cooped up inside on a nice day when I’d normally be riding my bike or playing soccer in the park. The two “indoor” activities that I enjoy the most, activities that are just as important in defining who I am and what I love to with my time – playing guitar and cooking – have been taken away from me. When I tell people that this is the most humiliating and debilitating injury I can think of because of the number of ways it affects me, THIS is what I mean. Cooking a big dinner for friends or having a lively jam session were fundamental elements of my personality, and now I can’t even do these. This is why it feels like almost my entire identity has been crushed by my Spinal Cord Injury.

I have zero intention of turning my blog into a whinefest to complain to the world about my problems, so I’ll express the entire motivation and reason I’m writing this rant: I am extraordinarily lucky to have the function I have. Even I, in this state of constant frustration and recovery, feel incredibly fortunate for the strength and abilities I DO have in my hands.

Breaking my C5 and C6 vertebrae in my neck would typically mean that I have limited range of movement in my shoulders, weak biceps, floppy wrists with almost no strength to bend or extend them, little to no function in my fingers and hands, and significantly weakened triceps. Nerves to handsMost of the other people I’ve met with my injury have had a much bigger struggle with their hand function. It’s one of the first things other SCI patients quickly recognize when they see me. “Dude, you’re a C5?? Your hands look pretty good…” No one knows exactly why my hands were spared some of the damage and it just continues to prove how mysterious and misunderstood this injury is.

Now if this isn’t amazing perspective, I don’t know what is. Every time I want to complain about not being able to strum my guitar, write music or chop onions as quickly and ably as I used to, I think of how much worse it could be and how lucky I am to at least have the function that I do have in my hands. I admit, I work extremely hard on my hands, at least 2-3 hours a day doing various stretches and exercises (like typing) that have helped me tremendously. To finish on a positive note, I want to recognize a few of the small accomplishments with my hands in the last few months: I can type at almost the same speed I used to, flossing is effortless, I can hold my chef knife and chop much better than before, and I’m trying to fulfill my musical desire by learning the piano. Here’s to continued improvement with my hands, to us all recognizing how amazing our hands are and not to take them for granted.