Take Off Your Mask

Posted by Kristin Beale in Life After Paralysis on April 29, 2022 # Lifestyle

I’ve been in a wheelchair for 16 years, thanks to a Jet Ski collision when I was 14 years old. My 16 years have been full of adaptations, considerable struggle, a lot of beautiful outcomes, and a marathon of emotions that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

Most notably on that list, for these purposes, the “considerable struggle.” My accident left me with a neurological disorder and the loss of my functional mobility and sensation below my mid-torso, but oh goodness, losing those things is the least of my concerns; the handful of complications to accompany my disability are the real hurdles I have to jump.

Whether you know my story personally or you can grasp the trauma of an accident that flipped my life on its head, you can probably empathize with the fact: I’ve been through some hard stuff. I’d like to think that I’ve maintained a lens of overall optimism and “I’m just happy to be alive” throughout my struggle, but I’m also human. That kind of perspective takes effort that I’m not able to give all the time. But I sure tried to.

Or, what I thought they wanted.In the first years after my accident, I became proficient at not only popping wheelies and uneven transfers – I was an expert at burying my pain with humor; bottling up my emotions so I could deal with them on my own, and later, pretending to be very easygoing and non-affected when someone hurt my feelings; and doing whatever I could to fly under the radar when upset. It felt like people were looking for a happy, healthy, and coping version of me instead of an offended, put-off, or the real one. Back then, it was important to me to give them what they wanted.

It took until my junior year of college – about 4 years after my accident – to realize that, nope, people don’t care about how I’m showing up as much as I thought. In fact, my peers were dealing with their own problems; very likely, no one was even looking at me. My over-concern about how I was dealing with my stuff, and how I was coming across to them? For nothing. In fact, I was probably doing more harm to myself, causing more emotional stress, and enduring more tear-filled moments than was even remotely necessary. Hiding behind my smile might have helped me avoid some confrontation and having to face my true feelings, but is that really what I wanted?

Yes. In the short term, my answer was a hard yes. In the bigger picture, though, I was running out of room on my shelf of bottled-up feelings. Eventually, all those bottles were going to come crashing down, and I wouldn’t be ready for them. Then one day, the bottles did come crashing, and I wasn’t ready.

What if we allow ourselves to feel the feelings, stop holding back from expressing ourselves, and fully experience the pains of our hardships? And what if we didn’t feel like we needed to put on a smiling mask while we did it? Our culture is wrapped up in the image of a “strong” person who “doesn’t let the hard stuff get them down,” but how realistic can that be? The answer: not very. That shelf fills up quickly.

Sometimes, life sucks. It’s okay to admit it. It’s uncomfortable, it’s sad, and it’s not fair, but putting a mask over those feelings to push them aside will actually put you one step farther from moving on. Life sucks sometimes, but it can also be fun, we can learn lessons from our hard times, and there is beauty to be found – so long as you look for it. Allowing yourself the freedom to feel your discomfort is a step toward moving on, putting the crummy stuff behind you, and making room on your shelf for things that actually matter.

Let’s start being real with ourselves, and with others. It’s okay to hurt, and it’s okay to not be happy, but there needs to be a plan to move on from it. Stay present for your feelings so you can process them, then move on. Life is so short. You, more than anyone else, deserve the authenticity of your own feelings. Give yourself a break – we’re not here for a show.

Kristin Beale is a native of Richmond, Virginia. She is the author of two books, Greater Things and A Million Suns, and a comic book, Date Me. Check them out and read an excerpt at https://kristinbeale.com/. Her comics can be found on Instagram @Greater.Things.Comics.

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.