How to Adapt to a New Life of Disability
“No, that will never happen to me.”
I carried this thought with me for 23 years. It was an expectation of invincibility, a belief that I was immune to everything except the common cold. Just two weeks after my 23rd birthday, that invincibility shield was shattered into a million pieces. A high speed motor vehicle collision will do that.
The flames that ensued damaged my body to a point that was, to me, unimaginable. Severe burns laid claim to three of my limbs. Months of pain, agony and 39 surgeries would await. I woke up from the medically induced coma as a new man — a disabled man. It all happened in an instant.
I never planned for a life in which I would be unable to walk. I didn’t expect to use a wheelchair or need assistance in completing everyday tasks. I had an oversized, and now damaged, ego. The accident, and my new disability, laid waste to my perception of self. For a time, I was ashamed to be myself, to be disabled. Was I still me?
It became clear that I had two choices: harbor the feelings of hopelessness and depression, or adapt and rise to new life. I decided to take the latter. It was not easy. It was a process of trial and error. But it was the way forward.
Allow me to share the lessons I have learned while transitioning to a new life of disability.
Embrace your disability.
I had to cast aside my feelings of embarrassment and shame. I could no longer ignore the reality of my situation. My right hand and legs had been amputated. They really were gone. It wasn’t a dream. Even as a person who had always been guided by a sense of realism, accepting what I could plainly see was more difficult than it sounds. I was traumatized. Ultimately, though, acceptance was the most important (and first) step.
Even more difficult was embracing the new label that society had placed on me: disabled.
“Yes, I am disabled. I have a disability.” Those were difficult words for me to speak. I forced myself to say them. Even at a whisper, they were deafening, but vocalizing the truth was healing. I could only move forward if I became confident in my new reality.
Humor (and laughter) is medicine for the soul.
The people who love you will struggle to accept your accident, disease or sickness. They will be cuffed by their emotions — sorrow and pity. They won’t know how to react, or what to say. Your disability will often hit them harder than it hits you. I decided to medicate them (and myself) with humor.
Some years ago, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) ran a television commercial for their boneless wings. The memorable line was, “I think I ate the bones!” It was funny, perhaps a tad corny. After I awoke from the surgery in which my hand was amputated, I sent a Snapchat video to my friends. In the video, I held up my bandaged arm, exclaiming, “Somebody ate the bones!” More than a few were upset with me for making light of the situation, but the majority were impressed by my ability to do so. Looking back on that video today, I am glad that I made it. In one of the most painful times of my life, humor was an antidote.
If you can laugh about your limitations, those around you will feel more comfortable. Recently, I went out to a bar for drinks with a few of my friends. A drunkard, upset with the bartender who had cut him off, pointed at me and said, “You’ll serve that crippled f**k!” I laughed about it, but it remained in my thoughts. “Is that what people think of me?” I wondered. That night, I registered the .com web address for the term, deciding to own it. If that’s how drunk people refer to me, why not get a few more hits out of it? The link now forwards to my blog at WheelchairTravel.org.
Humor gives you power. Embrace it, even if it is at times self-deprecating. I believe you’ll be stronger for it.
Relationships come and go.
In the course of life, we discover that most friends are just acquaintances, and true friends are more like family. Our relationship cache is shaken up at each of life’s milestones: graduating from high school, completing college, starting a new job, getting married and moving to a new city. Developing a disability is one such event.
In the days, weeks and months following my car accident, my friends were all around. They visited me in the hospital, sent prayers and messages. Their love was felt. It was important and healing. Now three years removed from the accident, I can count on one hand (good thing, right??) the number of “true friends” I had and still have. Many of my acquaintances slipped away, consumed by the events of their own lives.
Your disability might distance you from others, at least for a time. Developing a disability is not unlike any other major life milestone — it is transformative not just to your physical life, but also your social one. Don’t fault those whose friendship you lose. Instead, look toward the future and the chance to make new friends, just as you did when you started college or a new job. The world is ripe with opportunities for new relationships! Today, I have more friends than I did the day before the accident — a result of my travels, but also the disability community of which I am now a part.
Know the key to happiness.
As I adjusted to my new identity as a triple amputee in a wheelchair, I was often burdened by the thought that “things will never be the same as before.” It makes sense, but it’s not true.
I was sitting in an airport bar. The bartender was a lady I remembered from before the accident. I traveled often, so we knew each other well. She hadn’t seen me in nearly 18 months. Our conversation was “normal,” and just as it had always been. As I sat there, sipping a Budweiser, the wheelchair and disability faded from my mind. For a moment, I could no longer perceive those realities, and things were the way they used to be. Life was good. I was happy.
Those moments come more frequently now. They come when I am out in the world, with people I know. At the ballpark. In a bar. At a restaurant. Watching my favorite movie for the 1,000th time.
I don’t say this to suggest that the reality of disability leads to unhappiness. Unless we allow it, our disabilities cannot prevent us from being happy. Life is the most precious gift, and it is up to us to make it a fulfilling one. I don’t need to walk to be happy. The ability to walk would make life easier, but it is not the key to happiness. That key, I have discovered, is to find the joy in every moment. It’s there — I promise.
Live in hope.
It took me awhile to realize, but life does not end with disability. Getting through everyday life is more difficult, but it is just as beautiful. Surviving a near-fatal accident, fighting through the pain and hardships — these were all aspects of my struggle. My ability to overcome these challenges was supported by my hope in the future.
Look forward to both the small and big things. Anticipating the good — whether it be tonight’s dinner, a new episode of my favorite TV show, or my next trip — encourages me to carry on in spite of it all. Find the things that make you happy, follow them, and embrace your new life. With the right attitude and filled with hope, our human spirit can overcome anything.
John Morris is the globe-trotting founder of WheelchairTravel.org. He holds a B.S. in history and political science and a M.S. in history from Florida State University. Following a serious car accident in 2012, he became a triple amputee. His blog helps to open the world of travel for others with disabilities. Having flown more than 300,000 miles since January 2014, he is among the world’s most traveled wheelchair users.