The era of helplessness

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on July 10, 2018 # Health, Mobility

The other day my wife, Ann, waited at home for the delivery of a new backyard grill. The man showed up and it was immediately clear to Ann that he had brought the wrong unit – wrong shape, wrong color, wrong brand. When she protested, he showed her the delivery number and insisted she had to take the crappy grill he was foisting on her. He bullied her into signing for it and took off. She was furious.

The grill problem finally got straightened out, but the sense of momentary helplessness lingered. It reminded both of us of the prevailing helplessness we and millions of Americans feel in general these days. The whole country is veering into this crazy, mean-spirited, callous, tribal mind-set and we seem helpless to alter it.

Half of the country is fearful of their economic future and direct their inexhaustible rage toward “the ruling class” and the media and Hollywood and Silicon Valley and all those other forces creating cultural upheaval. And there is an overall sense of helplessness from all cultures.

The other half, at least those who have profited from the new tech economy, see a government out of control but getting stronger by the day and they in turn feel helpless to assert any counter influence. The question is, how do you cope with this psychological impotence, no matter where you think it is coming from?

I see helplessness, like most things, through the prism of paralysis. The day I went from non-disabled to T-10 paraplegia was easily the most profoundly helpless day on my life. Not only could I not feel or do anything with half my body, I couldn’t pay the mortgage or a mountain of bills as my career was sliding sideways. I was reeling in a state of helplessness before transverse myelitis inflamed my spine and permanently scarred it.

What then happened seems simple and straightforward in hindsight but completely unpremeditated as it was occurring. I had to stop thinking about all those other woes and focus on dealing with this immediate mortal crisis of paralysis. I had to learn new, rudimentary skills like using a catheter, sitting up on the side of the bed without flopping over, and the then-fearful practice of making a nine-inch transfer from bed to chair.

The effect of mastering these simple tasks was profound and long-lasting. I started to see all those other problems I felt helpless to solve in a new light. Small step by small step, I felt I could fix them. They no longer flooded my brain as one large existential tsunami. I put the financial problems in one box, the career problems in another, pressing family issues in a third, and so on. As I left the hospital seven weeks later in a permanently altered state of mobility, I had no idea how to solve any of them but I had a subliminal feeling that I could. And that made all the difference.

Over the next four or five years, in gradual increments, our life came back into balance. My career changed radically, from writing TV shows to writing books and articles, something that in time became more satisfying work. Financially, we downsized and cut back in every way possible and it turned out to be much less painful than we imagined. In the end, the paralysis, as awful as it was, helped me to grow up at a very late age. That, in itself, was liberating.

How does this apply to dealing with daily life in this age of high anxiety? I’ll let you decide that, but in my mind, it means focusing on those immediate things you can affect and change right now – your education, your health, your out-of-control spending habits, and your closest relationships. If you want to influence national politics, begin by exercising the most immediate lever of power – vote. Next small step – get others to vote. See if that doesn’t help you feel more engaged and more hopeful.

A feeling of helplessness is a poisonous state of mind. It took this terrible ordeal of paralysis for me to realize this. It’s a choice. As the song says, “You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.”

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.