A Quick Look Back

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on July 06, 2021 # Lifestyle
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I am working on an anthology of my writings about living with paralysis over the last ten years – many of them written for this site – which, of course, has me looking back. I think it’s a useful exercise for anyone trying to assess the effects of major trauma or any other life-changing event. I just have the good fortune of writing it down.

side of wheelchairThe best news I can tell myself: I’m still alive. When I first was injured, I immediately went online to find actuarial data about the life expectancy of someone paralyzed in midlife. The answer was, statistically, 69-1/2 years. My first reaction was, “Jeez, l better get off my keister and write a novel.” As I entered my sixties, I realized this number didn’t apply to me or any other para I know. I figured their sample must have included people paralyzed before the introduction of antibiotics. Someone should look into this.

In any case, after decades of health crises and mad dashes to the ER and enough time at Cedars-Sinai Hospital that I should demand a discount, I’m still standing, as it were. Right now, I’m about as healthy as an aging crip could be. It took me all these years to figure out that, short of something more deadly like cancer or heart disease, my post-para heath runs in cycles. I go through periods of one infection or pressure sore after another, followed by periods where I’m as problem-free as the next bloke. Something untoward will certainly happen again, and I will probably weather it as well, I now assume. I have outlived not only my parents but also all my siblings. My guess is that I will be around for a good while longer. Paralysis or not, I have no reason to think otherwise.

There’s more good news. It could be age, it could be getting my life straightened out, or it could be the effects of something called “post-traumatic growth syndrome,” but the chronic stress I’ve grappled with most of my adult life is much more muted than ever before. Post-traumatic growth, if you are unfamiliar with the term, is a recognized phenomenon where a traumatic episode triggers -- alongside the anticipated negative emotions like sadness, despair, and anxiety -- a surge of positive change, such as an increase in personal resilience, more risk-taking, greater empathy toward others, and seeing new possibilities in your life. Psychologists have found that many, but not all, who suffer a loss of a child, say, or sexual assault or serious illness or injury have the ability not just to bounce back but to bounce forward. Despite the heartbreak, they manage to turn the page and try things they’ve never tried.

To quote the eminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Looking back, I am pretty sure that this growth thing, in fits and starts, happened to me and the internal shift, over a long period, resulted in less emotional turmoil.

The third piece of good news, comparing past to present, is that the US has made real progress, over the last half-century or so, toward including people with disabilities in everyday life. If you are young and disabled today, you see and raise your fist against the still-current obstacles and thick-headedness, which are much in evidence. But the difference between the time I tried to return to work as a TV writer in the late 1990s to the legions of young disabled writers today trying to break in and actually succeeding, it’s a sea change.

I’m reminded of a college professor that I met who was paralyzed by polio in the 1950s and had to sneak onto campus early in the morning and lift herself upstairs one step at a time to avoid pity and/or condemnation. I was around in those days. I saw how disabled people were openly mocked and shamed to their faces.

Life with paralysis is no walk in the park. You can’t walk, and most parks are inaccessible to wheelchairs. But all those things you can’t do, and it’s a long list, and places you can’t go, and experiences you will never have to begin to fade in importance as you get old and cranky. Maybe you simply can’t remember what they were. As best you can, you just try to enjoy life and hope that your limitations and the accumulated sadness of losing both your youthful capabilities and your friends and loved ones don’t prevent you from doing so.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.