Self-Talk

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on February 28, 2022 # Lifestyle

Allen Rucker If you are paralyzed or otherwise disabled, many people, even in Western countries like the US, see you at first blush as wounded, broken, or an object of pity. This is commonplace rhetoric by now, but many of us live in a privileged sphere, surrounded by the best of health care and a degree of social mobility, that it is easy to forget this fundamental bias. In sustained one-to-one contact, this bias gets buried or dissipates. But it is still deeply and systematically imbedded in the society at large.

This of course colors how people with disabilities see themselves. Like other marginalized groups, many probably give up before they start. Where are their role models? With rare exceptions, they are not the people they encounter daily: teachers, nurses, shopkeepers, or Amazon drivers. And despite recent improvements. they are woefully scarce on mainstream media.

People with disabilities have to turn to themselves, and perhaps people like them, to determine their identity and outlook. When I began my paralyzed life 25 years ago, I didn’t have a support group. Maybe it could’ve helped. I had two great books by John Callahan and John Hockenberry* (though when I ran into Hockenberry in the Houston airport, he was rude and arrogant). And one public model: Christopher Reeve. But mostly, I had to figure it out on my own. I had to talk to myself.

First, I forgot or suppressed most of my previous self-hating thought patterns. Paralysis is a great way to focus your mind and as they try to do in the spooky, post-plague HBO series, “Station Eleven,” eliminate the “before.” Of course, I had some new self-hating thoughts in the wake of the injury – the main one being, “Why and how did I do this to myself?…” – but the need to learn the most rudimentary skills of functioning as a paralyzed person trumped all other considerations. At that point, I clearly saw myself as the architect of my own demise, in the same way, I used to flagellate myself for painting my sorry ass into a career corner with no apparent way out. I still sometimes still see myself as partially at fault, but now I know it’s just a thought in my head and not, for the lack of a better word, me.

That ability to recognize thoughts as just that, separate and apart and eradicable, even those laden with strong feelings and certainly negative ones that won’t go away, is the goal of constructive self-talk. Perhaps a more useful term might be self-listening. Early on in my life, I developed a keen sense of impending catastrophe, or catastrophizing. By focusing on the worst possible outcome of an event, I would often undermine its success, or my drive to make it succeed, before I started. Then, out of nowhere, a real catastrophe occurred and it quickly replaced all those useless mind worms. If I was going to get through this, I had to be forward-thinking and bent on improving. And I did.

This is a subject worth many more than 800 words, but you got to start somewhere. In a more in-depth piece on self-talk, the Mayo Clinic suggests starting with a simple rule: don't say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to anyone else. So, if you are telling yourself “I’m a loser” or “I know I will screw this up,” say it out loud to someone who cares. If it is hard or impossible to do so, don’t say it to yourself. Know that it is just a thought and not “reality.”

Self-talk is cognitive/behavioral therapy lite. It’s a beginning point to reorder your thoughts about yourself. It may not handle problems like clinical depression or a host of other mental disorders. But it may lead you to a bit of self-discovery and maybe some form of outside help. For some people, myself included, it’s another, often effective tool in the arsenal of living well after paralysis.

  • Callahan, John, “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot,” William Morrow, first edition, 1989
  • Hockenberry, John, “Moving Violations,” Hachette, reprint, 1996

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.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.