Everything Happens for a Reason…Or Does It?

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four months before the accident

I only have faint memories of my time in the hospital and rehab, but one thing that stands out in my mind was receiving dozens cards from my friends and family that read, “ Everything will be O.K., because everything happens for a reason.”

My ten year old brain was having an extremely difficult time grasping this concept. Were these people telling me that it was good that I lost the ability to walk because someday it would have a greater purpose? Were they telling me that some God purposefully made this awful accident happen? That ten year old me was supposed to not be able to run on the mulch at recess, or feel the sand between my toes at the beach, or reach for the sky on the swing set with my best friends? At the time I just couldn’t comprehend why people kept saying that to me, and I would always just brush it off and move on. It’s probably important to note that I was not raised in a very religious family (surprise, surprise). Even years after the accident I still often hear that phrase repeated to me, and it always makes my stomach clench and I fight to keep my big, mouth shut.

There’s the age old argument that if everything happens for a reason, then why…? Why are people across the world starving on the streets while others spend $500 on a purse? Why are kids with different sexual orientations bullied to the point of suicide? Why do innocent people die? Ultimately, why do bad things happen to good people?

I, of course, am not trying to answer any of these questions, just hoping to provide a small insight to my personal point of view.

About a week ago my team and I were driving home from an awesome week of road races and track meets in Georgia. For those who don’t know, I’m a student at the University of Illinois, and a member of the wheelchair track team. The program is better than anything I could have ever imagined, and our coach is amazing beyond words. Joining the team has definitely been one of the best decisions I have made to date. The twenty or so of us are all in wheelchairs, but everyone’s injury is unique. Some were born with Spina bifida, some are veterans, some were in sporting accidents, my injury is from a car crash back in 2003. I would say we’re a pretty tightly knit group, but I’m never quite sure who’s okay to talk about their injury, and who is not, so it’s not really a popular topic of discussion.

My team!

My team!

I was sitting in the back seat of our team’s suburban with two of my teammates, both incredible girls who hopefully someday I’ll be as talented as, and somehow the topic of our injuries came up. I won’t go into specifics, but one thing was exactly the same in all three of our stories, none of us were wearing a seat belt with a shoulder strap. We all had on the lap belt that is equipped in the middle back seat of most oldish cars, but nothing went across our shoulders. If you take a look at any new car now, it is absolutely mandatory that every seat in the car has a lap and shoulder belt, but that law wasn’t put into full effect until 2008! I was ten at the time of my injury, and I knew not having a shoulder strap was one of the many factors that went into the cause of my injury, but when I realized these two other girls had very similar injuries to me, and also weren’t wearing a full seat belt, I was a little shocked.

Is there some greater reason that the two girls on my team and I are paralyzed, or was it just the lack of understanding and knowledge, that hey, maybe it would be a good idea to put a proper seat belt in every seat of a car? Maybe just maybe it would be smart to make it illegal to not wear a seat belt in most states? I always thought my injury was as unique as the car crash, that there were so many independent variables that the exact cause of my injury was unknown. But after talking to others in very similar circumstances with very similar injuries, it really makes you think.

What if someone in the nineties was really ahead of the times and decided to make it mandatory to have shoulder straps in all vehicles, how completely different would the three of our lives be? How completely different would just my life be? For one thing, I sure as hell wouldn’t be running marathons at 19, I can tell you that! Haha I definitely wouldn’t be going to school in Illinois, trying to get used to these cold cold winters either! I wouldn’t have to worry about the accessibility of the world when I travel, or deal with flat tires and broken castors, or have to take medication daily so I don’t pee my pants in public all the time…. Let’s just say things would be very different. On that note, I also wouldn’t have met many of my best friends in high school that I ran track with, or the three amazing teachers and coaches who have guided me through the good times and the bad, or get to travel across the country with a group of people I adore, pushing my body to its furthest physical and psychological limit! The state of Florida probably wouldn’t have a program for high schoolers with disabilities to compete in track and field either, which is something I’m very thankful exists today.

Obviously many great things have been a result of my injury, but I’m still not so sure I would like to accredit them to a higher power or completely set in stone destiny. I would like to think that everything that has happened since the accident is a result of incredible support from my family, a strong group of friends always by my side, teachers and guides who have continually pushed me and believed in me, and then my own stubborn perseverance to not let my wheelchair stop me from doing anything I want to do.

So although I do not exclusive believe that everything in life happens for a reason, I do believe that it is possible, and in your favor, to make light of every situation and as my favorite drama teacher would say, “Keep turning those negatives into positives!”

Our car after the accident and me racing in high school

Our car after the accident and me racing in high school

Do I Inspire You?

post marathon

Inspiration.
Thrown around loosely, this term can not only be offensive but hurtful in ways unknown to most strangers. Before I go into this mini rant (quite a topic for my first post!), I would like to include that the majority of people who use this term genuinely mean it out of the kindness in their hearts. But what they don’t realize is that their naivety to the connotations of that specific word sometimes does more bad than good. An example that immediately comes to mind happened only a few weeks ago when my team and I were in Peoria for a marathon. One of my awesome teammates, Josh (you can find his blog here…http://joshgeorgeracing.com/blog/), was being recognized by a great group of people who run to raise money so a group of kids with disabilities can attend therapy. Everyone at this event was extremely friendly, but when one young woman stood at the podium and said these words, my heart dropped.

“I just want to say that these kids are my inspiration, and I’m running this race for them, because they’ll never be able to.”

teambelieve

Hold up.

This is probably not something you should say to a room full of athletes with disabilities…

I felt a very strong urge to inform this woman that just because someone has a disability, doesn’t  mean shit.  Was she seriously going to victimize these children right in front of us? Not too long ago those kids were us, and if someone told me when I was little that they were going to run a race because I couldn’t, where would I be today? Probably not completing marathons and training with world class athletes, that’s for sure.
I was furious! I wanted to grab this woman by the shoulders and shake this awful idea out of her.  Of course, I kept my mouth shut, but it really got me thinking. How can I change the stigma that is placed on so many people with disabilities? I mean it’s practically engraved in the word itself that we are not good enough, not sufficient. “Dis” is a Latin root meaning “apart”, so literally it translates to “apart from the abled”. This is something I now realize I’ve been trying to deconstruct ever since my accident ten years ago.  Everybody wants to fit in, everybody wants to be loved, so why does society make it so difficult to accomplish these things just because you’re different, because you’re “apart” from the rest.

What I believe to be one of the most effective efforts to slowly adjust the public’s eye of those with disabilities is wheelchair athletics or adaptive sports in general.  Through sports I was able to change my identity from, “that one chick in the wheelchair” to, “that one chick in the wheelchair that runs marathons!” which sounds a hell of a lot better to me. Does the wheelchair go away? No, physically it is a big part of me and kind of essential to my mobility. But mentally, the wheelchair is NO part of me, and I wish that’s how the world would see it too.

Whenever someone comes up and tells me I’m an inspiration, a part of me is sometimes irked because are you, like that young woman, completely categorizing and labeling me initially as someone who is disabled and therefore not as good… Then “inspired” because I broke this stereotype and accomplished something you thought I couldn’t?  Or are you just impressed by my dedication and fortitude NOT as someone in a wheelchair, but as a human being? Inspiration is a tricky thing my friend.

I would like to hope that most people see me for my own achievements and not for my disability, but when you hear comments at least once a week like, “Wow! It’s great to see you out!” at places like the park or movie theater… it can really bog you down. My latest response is now to just reply “It’s great to see you out too, sir!”, and give ‘em a big ole grin. Maybe that will get them thinking. Last week I was literally hugged at the grocery store. I was in the frozen food aisle at my favorite health store, just minding my own business looking for my favorite Ezekiel bread, when this lady just freakin’ hugged me out of nowhere and said thank you for inspiring her.
I. Was. Looking. For. Bread.

This is not to say that it is bad to find people in wheelchairs or people with any type of disability inspiring, this is just me saying I really hope you’re inspired by what they can do, rather than how they look, or what they have “overcome”. Despite my disability, I wake up every morning just like you, ready to face the day (well except for a few extra cups of coffee than is probably recommended). I genuinely have a positive outlook on life, and even though I have no idea what the future holds, I’m not going to sit inside all day and wait for something to happen. I do, in fact, have a life outside not being able to walk. I have hopes and dreams and goals just like everybody else out there, and THAT is what I want to define me, not a piece of metal with some upholstery and wheels.

I really hope that this post doesn’t discourage anyone from seeing somebody as an inspiration (that’s not what I’m trying to do at all!!), but just maybe opens their eyes to a new perspective. A perspective of someone a little different from themselves, but essentially equal. Equal in heart, equal in strength, and equal in ability, because I am and always will be a firm believer of anything is possible.

beach chair