39 year anniversary

Posted by Dr. Dan Gottlieb in Life After Paralysis on December 28, 2018 # Health, Team Reeve

December 20 was the 39th anniversary of my accident. I was 33 and my life was terrific. I had a wife and 2 beautiful little girls. I landed a great job in 1973 that had great annual pay ($12,000!), which gave me enough money to buy a small house in a nice neighborhood.

Although I had only been a psychologist for 4 years, my career was going well also. I had been running two drug treatment clinics at the time. And I loved it! That was on December 19.

Then on the morning of December 20, I gave my wife and daughters a kiss goodbye and drove to Harrisburg on the westbound Pennsylvania Turnpike. And then… a tractor-trailer going eastbound lost a wheel that bounced across the road and crushed my car. The only thing I remember from the accident was saying “call everyone I know to get here right away” and then I don’t remember a thing for the next 48 hours.

Somehow my brain/body knew I couldn’t survive without a support of others. We need people to get through any adversity in life. We are social animals and we cannot thrive emotionally or physically without supportive people care for us. That’s true for almost all mammals. Research shows, for example, that sustained loneliness is as lethal as cigarette smoking. I’ll talk more about loneliness in my next post.

Everyone I’ve spoken to who has ever survived trauma or severe adversity told me that there was someone there when they needed them. The Beatles were not quite right when they sang “Love Is All You Need”. We need more than love to survive and thrive. But we must give the Beatles a break because it was the 60's!

But Andrew Lloyd Webber got it right with his song “Love Changes Everything”. At the beginning of the song, the lyrics continue: “love changes everything, how you live and how you die.”

Now, I know, loving and being loved can be more difficult and complicated for many of us. Many have faced rejection simply because of who we are or how we look. And as much as we may try, we cannot control who loves us no matter how much we try. But we can have control over who we love, how we love and how many we love.

For the first 40 years my life I carried shame inside. I was a school failure and then I was sexually abused when I was 12 years old. Like most trauma survivors, I told no one for fear I would be humiliated and lose important friendships. So, I carried this secret shame which made me feel different, less than others. As I got older I couldn’t absorb people’s love because I said to myself “but if they knew my secret they wouldn’t love me.”

And then I broke my neck. I no longer thought I was unlovable, now I knew I was unlovable. And I felt that way for many years. I always had lots of friends and that continued through my accident. Many people said they loved me. When they did I smiled and said I love them back (which is true), but I couldn’t feel their love. My heart was closed because was so filled with shame.

Most humans are afraid of revealing their own vulnerability. That makes us feel emotionally naked.

But then it happened. My catheter came off in a public venue and my pants were wet. I couldn’t hide that. Nor could I hide a bowel accident I had many years ago while traveling. I couldn’t hide the fact that someone had to put my coat on for me and cut my food. But here is what happens when our vulnerability is exposed:

Years ago, I saw a 17-year-old girl because she was criticizing herself so much that she didn’t want to go to school because she felt so much shame. I knew better than to tell her none of that is true. So, I sat and listened for a while. It was hard to listen to her self-loathing, so I looked down towards the floor. And when I did, I saw that my pants were soaked.

I was so ashamed that this adult man wet his pants in front of a 17-year-old. that I didn’t want to lift my head. And when I did, there were tears in my eyes. Then she got up and hugged me. These 2 vulnerable humans holding each other. You see, my vulnerability opened her heart. It works that way for everyone.

And that has been happening over the last 25 years. When I show my vulnerability, people’s hearts open. And the more I showed my vulnerability, the more my shame began to diminish. And when I felt more comfortable in my life, I was finally able to feel other people’s love. That’s because they knew all of my vulnerabilities now and they still loved me! And now I find myself loving more people more deeply than ever before.

And that brings us to the best part of this story about love. Dr. Karl Menninger said: "love cures people-both the one to give it and the ones who received it"

So love who you love, but love them more deeply and tenderly. And then tomorrow add one more person to that list and so on. The more people you love, the more you will feel love. And that changes everything.