I’m often asked what keeps me going during those dark times, seemingly insurmountable challenges I constantly face with spinal cord injury, and how I remain determined to try and live a life that does not consume me with anger for everything I have been through. I must admit there are times when I do feel like giving up, but there’s something inside me that keeps telling me to push forward just a little bit more each day. I’m sure everyone who has dealt with tragedy in their life have their own coping techniques, but I attribute much of what I’ve accomplished to who I was before the accident.
You must remember I had 27 years of my life before I broke my neck and only 7 ½ years of being paralyzed. My parents raised me to always be curious, challenge the unknown, explore life beyond your comfort zone, and above all be kind to others. I was an extremely mischievous teenager, to say the least, but somehow I always managed to get myself out of uniquely perplexing situations before things went south. I like to think that I was “Responsibly Irresponsible.” I would plan out an adventure, write down all of the things that could possibly go wrong, how I would fix them, and then hope for the best.
To understand a little bit more about my nature I’d like to tell you a tale of one of my many adventures that would always bring me back to a path of serenity and focus when things were not going my way in life. I’ve always traveled around the world, much of it on my own, and I would find myself getting bogged down in life’s drama, people, the stresses of self-expectations I would constantly put on myself with respect to what I was hoping to accomplish by what age, etc. With this in mind, I started embarking on wilderness survival adventures around the world as a young teenager. As the years progressed I would find different wilderness adventure companies that challenged me physically, mentally, and really tested my strength of will in the wilderness for months on end.
At 23 years old I had just graduated from the University of Miami, could not find a job because, frankly, I was much too cocky for my own good, I started to get into drugs, and I just could not see a way out of life. Eventually, I made a decision to sign up for a very intense several month wilderness survival course in Western Australia, specifically the Kimberly Mountains.
On this trip I would be accompanied by 10 to 12 fellow hikers and one instructor. On these trips you learn to navigate the rough terrains of the Australian outback in degrees sweltering over 100° per day, carrying a 60-80lb pack on your back, hiking from water source to water source, sometimes killing your own food, navigating topographical maps with only a compass and no GPS, building leadership skills, and running into whatever dangers might be headed your way that day. I had already been on several wilderness adventures, but this was going to be by far the most challenging for me mentally and physically.
I purchased all of my necessary gear, did my research, and flew over 25 hours to reach my destination in Boone, Australia, which was located on the West Coast of the continent. I didn’t know what I was in for at that time, but I was eager to get my head on straight so I could find some clarity in life at 23 years old. I might’ve been having a midlife crisis of 23… Who knows 🙂 I arrived at a hostile the night before I was set to meet my team, and wrote in my journal about how I was feeling at that moment. I was feeling like a failure, low, curious as to how I was going to get my life going, I just broken up with a very serious boyfriend, and I had no idea where life was about to lead me.
Our Group on Day 1 before the Adventures Begin
I woke up bright and early at the crack of dawn the next morning, and met my team at the designated location at 6 AM in the morning. We went through a several hour orientation, were ordered to get rid of most of the things we had prepared to bring, and instructed to only pack what we were comfortable to carry for over eight hours a day. The packs normally ranged between 60 to 80lbs. There were, of course, a few items I stuck in my pack because I simply could not do without them. I was wearing contact lenses at the time, so I clearly needed to bring my contact solution, a little mirror, and antibacterial solution for my fingers. I refused to wear glasses … I don’t know why. I also snuck in a couple extra pairs of clean socks and underwear, and biodegradable baby wipes. We were supposed to dig holes in the wilderness when we had to use the bathroom and wipe our bums with leaves. I had done this on one of my prior wilderness survival trips, and let me tell you the amount of poison ivy I got in places where the sun does not shine was no joke! So, I stuck these little babies in when no one was looking 🙂
We set out the next day to start hiking several hundred miles across the Western Kimberly Mountains where there would be no one for hundreds of miles. We had one emergency Eperb system where if somebody was dying a helicopter lift would come and get us, but it would usually take between 24 to 48 hours. This was not a wilderness survival trip for the faint of heart … It was hard core and you had to sign a very large stack of liability forms, all of which started with “In case of accidental death …” I knew what this meant and I was willing to go the distance.
The first few days we learned how to navigate the mountains with a topographical map and a compass, how to hike to freshwater sources, how to kill food if we ran out for any reason, how to not fall off mountains when hiking near deep crevices, and so much more. One of the more challenging aspects was actually the group dynamics. When you are with a handful of folks 24/7 with very different personality’s confrontations are inevitable. We actually spent quite a lot of time working on group dynamics, conflict management, and we were each assigned to be leaders of the day for the group. At the end of the day we would sit in a circle with the leader in the middle, and basically give constructive criticism, not always so pleasantly, about what that leader did well, and what they did not do well that day. I learned that I sometimes glossed over the quietly spoken one in the group, was too perky at times, and tried to micromanage everything. I learned a tremendous amount about how to work on these specific flaws in myself.
A Well Deserved View from a Long Day Hiking
We would wake up around 5 in the morning when the sun wasn’t too hot, boil some water for a cup of tea, eat a very small breakfast, pack up camp in a hurry, and be on our way for the first part of our day. We would usually hike for four or five hours straight before stopping in the middle of the day under a tree to rest, take a nap, and formulate a game plan for the second half of the hike that day. In the middle of the day the temperatures rose over 100° and with a 60 to 80lb packs on your back it could quickly cause heatstroke. So, we would take a break and then continue on in the afternoon. As we were hiking there was often times no shade around to be seen as you hiked up mountains, tried not to stumble over the boulder right in front of you as you were trying to find a path down the mountain, and sometimes had to stop for 20 to 30 minutes to wait for the slowest member in your group.
By the end of the day we were knackered, cranky at times, but left with a feeling of such accomplishment of what we had achieved that day, and, quite frankly, that we had not died! What was completely magical was that every day you had to hike to a new water source. Sometimes you wouldn’t find a waterfall or a lake, which naturally caused extreme panic, so you would have to dig deep in the earth to find little pockets of water to survive until the next day. However, 60% of the time after a day of being beat up, falling down, having cuts and bruises all over your body, we would turn the corner and find, what I can only describe as, a mystically surreal waterfall in the middle of nowhere. The trees would be lush, the flowers would be blooming, you could hear the roaring water of the waterfall, and all you could do was fall to your knees, and sometimes cry from enjoyment.
Usually we would all strip down to our underwear and sports bras, throw off our sweat filled boots, drop our dirt filled backpacks, and just catapult into this gorgeous pool of water. We would climb up to the top of the waterfalls and bath in the warm sun -soaked pools while recounting what we had just survived that day. Occasionally we would run into an aggressive water snake, but we paid it no mind as we were the ones there first, and were not going to give up our luxurious mini-waterpark we had laid claim to!
Sunbathing on the Top of a Waterfall
At the end of each day we would set up our tents, light up our little stoves, cook our rationed amount of food for that day whether that be dehydrated vegetables, meats, oat cakes, cheese, etc. We would then all sit around in a circle with our headlamps as fires in the outback were not permitted because it was so dry and the chance of a wildfire too great. We reminisce about our day’s adventures & mishaps, what we could improve upon the next day, laugh at terrible jokes, and sometimes cry from the struggles we had been faced with that day. We literally became a family within the first 7 days.
One of my single-handed greatest challenges, if you can believe it, was my boots! I had purchased these gorgeous new Gore-Tex boots for the trip, but I completely forgotten to break them in. I was no rookie, but I certainly acted like one! About two weeks into the trip I started to develop these huge blisters, then the blisters turned to massive holes about quarter of an inch thick behind my heels. For days on end I was limping, crying under my sunglasses, and every 40 minutes to an hour I would have to stop and pour my boots out from the blood that had pooled in them. I’m not joking when I tell you it was one of the most excruciating feelings I had to endure for three straight weeks … Honestly, more than breaking my neck. We had minimal first-aid supplies, but I did what I could with what I had. Nothing worked and it’s not like we could just stop hiking because we were in the middle of nowhere, on a schedule, and people depended on me to keep going.
My instructor told me an old trick she used to try when this would happen to some of her other students. She told me to submerge my entire foot, boot, sock, and all into water each day before hiking, and hike in soaking wet boots. Normally this is frowned upon as it causes blisters, but because the blood just kept pouring out of my heels I was completely and utterly desperate. While it did not make things much better, it eased the pain about 20%. I pretty much had to grin and bear it for 14 straight days until those holes closed up on their own and became rock hard calluses. I had never been so happy to develop a callous in my life! Those two weeks tested my strength of will more than anything had in a great many years.
There was another day when I was chosen to be leader and I mapped out a course. We were split up into small groups, and we were all told to meet at a certain location at the end of the day. I thought I had charted out a pretty great course, but somewhere along the way I took a wrong turn. I was so embarrassed to tell my team, but I kept a good sense of humor about it, and told them that we were generally headed in the right direction. It was very hot, dry, and for some reason there must’ve been a lot of water underground where we were hiking because every step we took we would sink in mud up to our knees … Try hiking every step in mud up to your knees with a very heavy pack in 100°! I can only imagine the amount of cursing under their breaths that must’ve been directed my way.
Making the Best of a Intensely Challenging Hike 🙂
Well, I think I made up for in spades because when we turned a corner we came across this waterfall (I found this picture online, it’s not the waterfall, but it literally looks identical to this) everyone cheered out in joy … Probably more cheerfully than Philadelphia did when they won the Super Bowl! And probably two minutes flat everyone’s clothes were off and we literally dove about 20 feet off the waterfall cliff into the crisp blue waters below. In hindsight, not the smartest ideas since we were not precisely sure how deep the water was, but at that moment I think pure exhaustion overcame common sense!
Toward the end of our trip we had one final test. We had to hike to a specific location and stay there alone for a “solo” experience for several days on end. We were given very minimal food and we were to make sure we were near a running water source. We were also not allowed to leave this location more than several hundred feet one way or another for several days. I set up my little campsite near running water on the top of this boulder. Since I was all alone I decided to walk around naked for many days. I frolicked naked in the water, observed insects that I had never seen before crawl on the ground, I braided palm leaves to make baskets and headbands (a skill I learned growing up in the Bahamas), tried to make a little fort in order to keep the possums that kept nibbling my toes out at night, and wrote ferociously in my journal about what I was hoping to accomplish upon my return. The complete solitude in the wilderness with not a soul around can bring such clarity to one’s perspective in life. The only grave mistake I made when walking around naked was burning my behind so intensely that I had to sleep on my stomach for days on end 🙂 I think my bum peeled like a reptile for a week!
Upon completion of the trip I felt like I had made a new family and keep in touch with many of the folks to this day!
After the trip we returned to Boone Australia, which is home to a 10 mile white sand beach
… A well deserved beach day before heading home
When I’m faced with challenging times in my life now I clearly cannot go hike in the wilderness, but I found a way to enter the deepest parts of my mind to find a type of inner peace through meditation and imagery. While I am medically stable now and starting to venture off on many vacations that are handicap accessible there were many years I was stuck in bed from surgeries, and pressure sores that prevented me from leaving the four walls of my room. In those moments I had to dig deep, probably deeper than I ever have, to enter a world I created in my mind that kept my sanity intact. I would use my mind to research, read, and explore poetry, philosophy, science, business, economics, etc. to stay engaged and not lose hope.
Sure, there are moments when being a quadriplegic paralyzed from the chest down and completely dependent on folks for my survival just seems too daunting to wake up the next morning, but somehow I just keep going. I think I can attribute much of that to my ironclad discipline from before my accident of always finding creative ways to get back to enjoying the simplicity in life. Life is messy, complicated, and completely overwhelming at times, but if you can find that special little place inside yourself to escape to it can literally be lifesaving! I am certainly no expert and constantly stumble along the way, sometimes on a daily basis, but my all-time favorite quote by Winston Churchill comes to mind:
“Success is Moving from Failure to Failure without Lack of Enthusiasm.”