What 'The Hunger Games' Taught Me About Life After Spinal Cord Injury
Books can open windows and reflect our own lives, emotions, values, desires. Sometimes as we read books, we find some interesting connections to our own lives.
I am a psychologist in the disability world and a researcher. Considering the type of work I do and the fact that I am always reading something for work, I seldom read for pleasure. Yet when my good friend Sophie offered me “The Hunger Games” series, I devoured them in about 10 days, all while going to work full time, taking care of my son and teaching on Thursday nights.
After reading the trilogy, I wondered why this story meant so much to me. After all, the “Hunger Games” books are about a society divided into 13 different districts and where to maintain “peace,” teenagers were being selected each year to fight in an arena filled with dangers and death traps. The last man standing would become the winner of the Hunger Games and would receive food for his or her district.
A story about teenagers, in a made-up society – how could a 40-year-old paraplegic woman relate to this?
This is when I realized these teenagers had “become my friends” and I felt compelled to know what was happening to all of them. It had become a real story. Upon reading the conclusion, I surprised myself by crying. Katniss Everdeen’s words made me ponder:
“What I need is the promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again.”
Katniss had gone through a series of events – traumatic events, uncontrollable events. She had been “chosen” (or her sister was, but she offered to take her place) to go to the Hunger Games. And she had been trying to stay human through it all. To me, this was a very familiar feeling triggered by my own uncontrollable traumatic event: my car accident and subsequent paraplegia. A situation in which I felt I had no control over; with an outcome I had not chosen. I too needed to know that life would go on, that it would be good again.
As I pondered, why me? I started reflecting on what had happened to me and what it truly meant. I was going to work on a beautiful winter day when it happened. I was feeling happy after spending a wonderful week with my family. I was seeing life open up again: after my cousin’s death, my son’s heart surgery… finally, I could breathe! Life was smiling back at me. A beautiful man was cooking for me that evening and life was full of opportunities again. And then that day my name got picked in the lottery. I was put into the Arena and I had to fight for my survival.
The accident was meant to happen to me… possibly. But I often wondered… what if I had stayed longer for breakfast? What if I had said goodbye properly to my mom? What if I had stopped for gas? What if I had just decided to stay with my family and not go to work for those two days? But I wanted to go back in town, to spend a nice evening with a wonderful friend of mine. If only…
And then I ask myself… what if I hadn’t been in that accident, on that road? My brother and his family were on that same road, a few minutes behind me… would it have been them instead of me? My aunt and uncle were also meant to travel on that road that morning? If I had been given a choice and the name of one of my family members had been chosen for that accident, I would have volunteered to be the candidate. I would never have accepted someone else going into the Arena.
Just like Katniss volunteered to take her sister’s place, I felt solace in the fact that it had happened to me and not any other person I love.
Surviving the Hunger Games makes you the only witness of the events that occurred in the Arena and the impact it has on others. Katniss saw how the Arena destroyed lives, just like I was a witness to the heartaches spinal cord injury meant for many of the families I got to meet in rehab: the broken hearts, the shattered dreams, the insecurity, the despair… I knew we had to fight, but I didn’t always know what I was fighting for or against. But I can tell you the anger I felt for being chosen felt real, and at times took over.
The anger was studded with peaceful moments, though — kind moments, with friends and families. In those moments, I almost felt “normal” again. Like being picked for the “games” had not happened to me. Just like Katniss felt normal at times in the times she spent with Rue or Peeta.
In the Arena, you have no choice but to fight. Katniss fought in her own way, according to her values. Without ever forgetting who she truly was. I fought hard too! I threw myself into my physical rehab and my work -– I made sure I was as strong as I could be to parent my son. Using my work ethic and my values, I fought in my own way -– as there was no turning back!
But fighting the big fight does not take away the despair that comes with it. Fighting the big fight changes you.
“I’ll tell them how I survived it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I am afraid it could all be taken away.”
Even when Katniss came out of the Arena, the Arena had not left her. Just like my accident is ingrained in me. Participating in the Hunger Games changed Katniss, just like my accident changed everything for me. I do not see the world the same way. Even if I wanted to, after seeing what I saw, there is actually no way I could ever go back to my old self. Having to climb up and rebuild myself doesn’t ever get to be erased. How could it? This has changed every single cell in my body. My eyes, my thoughts, what I do have been impacted by this accident in a way that can’t ever be ignored. Katniss could also never take those images and times in the Arena away. When she says “on bad mornings, it is impossible to take pleasure in anything” – I would say that for the first few years post-accident, it was impossible for me to see the pleasure in anything and I often wished I had stayed in that car — permanently. Some days, Katniss probably wished she had not survived.
But Katniss learns to live with it, one day at a time, by doing the things she is meant to be doing, like hunting. She does things that resemble what she was doing before, to stay true to who she really is. I try not to think of it too much. Not to dwell on it. I have searched my soul and stripped my being in search of who I truly am and what is essentially me. With those key basic elements, I try to keep the things I do as similar and true to what they would have been before my accident. If “hunting” is what Katniss does to feel like she is Katniss, “helping others,” “working to make a difference,” and “raising a beautiful son” are the things I do to feel like I am me.
By getting up every morning, even when I don’t really want to face the world, I show my son Thomas how true love moves mountains and chases away the feelings of despair. And so this also made me think of something DeVon Franklin said:
“The truth is, you and I are in control of only two things: how we prepare for what might happen and how we respond to what just happened.” — DeVon Franklin, as reported on Oprah.com.
Preparing for any eventuality is a topic all on its own. But responding to “what just happened” had to be done rapidly as I had a son to raise.
Katniss survived and so did I. She found a “new normal” and so did I. Recognizing the sentiments Katniss was experiencing in the parallel world Suzanne Collins had created gave me a sense of legitimacy. I could feel what I was feeling because another had felt those feelings. Another had overcome their adversities, so I knew I could do it too. Stories we tell one another are great that way: they reflect and legitimize our feelings, guide us through the hard times and teach us lessons we didn’t think we needed to learn.
So thank you, Katniss. Thank you Suzanne Collins. Merci Sophie!
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Image via Hunger Games Facebook page.