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The Gift Diana Nyad Gave Me as a Young Woman With Cerebral Palsy

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February 22, 2017. It was a Wednesday. I was at my lowest. I was sure it couldn’t get any worse.

Back home at my family’s. Deep in my thoughts. Deep in despair. Too sad to even cry. Wrapped in my blankets, in my teenage brother’s game room, blinds drawn, while the loop of “Gabby is physically just too slow to make it in this industry,” and flashbacks of my leg braces play over and over and over in my head. Not even the music of my favorite singer, Bonnie Raitt, could fix it.

In four years time, two jobs I had given my heart, my soul to, came to a very unexpected and abrupt end. I was so broken, and yet so fiercely grateful. Funny how life pans out like that, huh? In the crux of trying to process that pain, I suffered two profound deaths within eight months of each other.

Both jobs were relatively high-profile in the entertainment industry. I had so many irreplaceable experiences. I did it. I really did it. I was so incredibly proud of myself, but never cocky. Due to being born so severely premature, and my 1 pound 5 ounce self cheating death nearly three times, I know how beautiful this life is. Every single fiber of my being made a conscious effort to remain humble. I reveled in the joy of what it meant to wake up every day and report to a job that was so much more than just a job.

They say all good things come to an end. I wish I could say this was one of the wives’ tale myths… sadly, it bares truth that, hard as I tried, is undeniable.

It’s hard to put into words the defeat I felt. I was empty. Completely and utterly empty. I  thought maybe “they’re” right. Maybe all I will ever be good for in this life is the “first glance.” Maybe all I am is “little Gabriella who defied the odds 28 years ago with cerebral palsy.”

Then it happened. My mother called me into the living room that February night, and asked me to watch Diana Nyad’s episode of “Super Soul Sunday.”

“Oh, great. Absolutely, freaking fantastic,” I sarcastically thought to myself. “Just leave me the hell alone and let me sulk in my misery.” Another “something” or “someone” that will remind me of the passion, will, and spirit I was so sure I had lost.

I was dead wrong. As I listened to Diana recount her harrowing experience of swimming 111 miles from Cuba to Florida (at 64 years, folks!) the four failed attempts, her unshakable belief in a 35 year dream that by all accounts was deemed impossible, shook me to my core. The next night I watched her riveting documentary “The Other Shore.” I was rendered speechless, my soul on fire, with tears pouring from my eyes.

The very next day, I decided to write Diana. I had to. My heart needed it. I didn’t realize how intensely fueled my personal recounting was until I had already hit send. I was certain she was going to think that I was completely off and not respond. But respond she did, and not in the way I anticipated, either.

She hosted a Facebook Live session on March 1st, with the topic discussion being civic duty. I shocked myself when I realized I had typed a question. Not only did she notice, she briefly shared my experience. She shared my experience with her public. She validated me, saying things like, “monstrously courageous,” “Gabriella has a fine mind,” and “My hat is off to you, Gabriella.” She never met me, but she “got it.” She noticed me beyond the “first glance” that I have been met with time and time again throughout my life. She saw the fingernail length of hope and will I didn’t even know was still inside me and brought it out into the open, giving it no other option but to shine.

It’s hard to put into words the gift Diana gave me. She reminded me that I belong, we belong just as much as the “normal” guy next to us. She reminded me in that it isn’t about who is the most famous. It isn’t about how many accolades, how many red carpets, etc… it’s about humanity. It is about human spirit. Connecting. Looking deep into another’s eyes. Engaging.

Yes, I may not walk as smoothly as the “average.” I may seem “different” and/or “unique.” That’s because I am. I can say that proudly. What I am not is my cerebral palsy. I know it may be scary to approach someone, especially when it has to do with something you’re not “up on.” Guess, what? That’s OK. Ask me. I want to teach you. Let’s start with… Hi. My name is Gabriella.

To any of my fellow CP’ers reading this, I am here to tell you in the wise words of Diana Nyad, never, ever give up because you can and will “Find a Way.”

And to Diana… thank you. I look forward to the day I can give you a big ole hug.

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Photo via Diana Nyad’s Facebook page.

Originally published: April 10, 2017
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