71 years old: the good news and the bad news

Posted by Dr. Dan Gottlieb in Life After Paralysis on June 19, 2017 # Health

My 71st birthday was a few days ago. Last year we had a big party for my 70th. The calendar tells me it was a year ago but it feels like a couple of months ago. When I got my Medicare card six years ago, I told an audience that I don’t know how I got to this place so fast. When I looked back on the year before I got my driver’s license, that one year felt like a decade. And yet, the clock goes at the same speed no matter what. It doesn’t matter whether we are feeling joy which seems like it goes lightning fast or whether we are suffering which seems to go on much too long. The clock is the same.

After my accident 37 years ago, one of my doctors said that on average quadriplegics live 14 years. My first reaction was “oh no, I have to live with this for another 14 years!” And today if someone looked at crystal ball and said I had 14 years to live now, I would throw myself a party!

When I look back over my history, I see my school failure, sexual abuse, quadriplegia, death of my sister, my wife and much more.

But I am also able to say that after each trauma, I came back and resumed my life. Trust me, I am not unique here. I’ve treated hundreds of people over the years who have experienced terrible trauma or disability and I’ve had the good fortune to see firsthand the resilience of the human spirit. With few exceptions, people healed.

Not only are we likely to heal after trauma, we can also experience what’s called Posttraumatic Growth.

Laying in my hospital bed one night about a week after my accident, a nurse confided that she was having family difficulties. That night when I felt compassion for another suffering human, I knew I could live with this disability. Because of what happened that night, I knew that I could have a satisfying life even with this disability.

Nevertheless, for a very long time I felt alone and isolated because nobody could understand what it was like to be me. The pain of that loneliness was excruciating. And one day, I just gave up. I gave up trying to be like everyone else. I gave up trying to have quadriplegia understood. I gave up that battle to be like I used to be or to be like I thought I should be. In the process, I grew comfortable knowing that I was different and always would be. Giving up all of those battles left me no choice but to be who I am, who I always was.

In one of my books, I wrote a chapter entitled: “I Broke My Neck and My Soul Began to Breathe”

So on my 71st birthday living against the odds with a body that has been battered for all these years and is now tired, I become even more aware of how much I love this life. And even when life is difficult, I love having a life and having love in my life and watching the breathtaking beauty that is nature.

Back to that sense of time I talked about. Over 20 years ago when I took my first meditation course, I met a woman who had stage III metastatic cancer and her prognosis was quite poor. I spoke with her at length during a break one night and I asked her why she was doing this. After all, it can take many years to get a sense of mastery. So when I asked her, she said: “all my life, where ever I was I was always somewhere else. In the time I have left, I want to be where I am.

Me too. And I wish the same for you.