First off, Happy New Year to you!
Coming into the New Year I thought it only fitting to discuss the concept of perspective. I was asked by a fellow reader if I could touch upon the topic of how my mental perspective has changed over the last eight years since breaking my neck as opposed to just how my physical life has changed with being paralyzed. I will start off by saying my life perspective has changed drastically and I can’t be entirely sure if this is due to my accident or the fact that I’m also getting older. I suspect it is probably a little bit of both.
In general a change in perspective in life is quite gradual in my opinion, takes many years, and is usually preceded by many hardships along the way, which affect one’s opinions on many topics. When I broke my neck my world got turned upside down, which violently shifted my perspective on a lot of things in life very quickly, but more from a physical standpoint. I was so engulfed in trying to figure out how to live a life with a body 80% paralyzed that I didn’t have the presence of mind to think about how my mental health was going to change.
For the most part my perspective change has been for the positive, but there have definitely been some dark changes that I would be amiss not to dive into as well in light of always being open with my writing, and my life even though I run the risk of exposing myself further 😉
The old saying “we only have one life to live,” no matter how cliché it may be, means more to me now than it did prior to my accident merely due to the fact that I suffered a life altering event. I see so many folks who live simple (and I don’t mean that in a bad way), but happy lives, and go about their business not realizing how easily life can change on a dime. While it is easy to say that we will change our lives when something drastic happens – it is a lot easier said than done to take actionable steps each day to change. However, these small steps are not only key, but they can take very long time to see the effects of as they require determination, and will over a long period of time.
For example, take those who have suffered from a heart attack. Many of these folks take drastic actionable steps to change their lives because they have teetered near the brink of death, which made them realize they need to change something. However, there are also equally those folks who have every intention of changing their life after such a traumatic event, but end up going back to eating hamburgers several years later. Physical change and mental change not only take time, but a persistent effort to keep them going.
In ancient Stoic philosophy the following little reminder sums up the three essential parts of this philosophy worth carrying with you every day into every decision:
Control your perceptions
Direct your actions properly
Willingly accept what’s outside your control
Before you can take any action, accept what is and what is not in your control, you need to control your perceptions. Let me give you an example. Take people with a terminal disease. Many of them have the most incredible outlooks on life and are extremely positive despite the fact that they know they are going to die. They’ve taken a very long and arduous journey within themselves to change their perception and perspectives on life, which I know cannot be easy.
On the flip-side take a very high powered professional who has a very demanding job, high stress levels, eats horribly, is unable to make time for important things in life such as family, etc. Someone in this situation has trouble seeing the trees beyond the forest. Many of them only see day-to-day, making money, providing for the family, but lose perspective on the fact that they are not going to be able to take their work with them when they die. I hate to say it, but it usually takes some sort of disaster, trauma, or life crisis to shock many of us into realizing that something needs to change in our lives to reduce stress levels, increase our happiness, and appreciate the little things in life.
Don’t get me wrong, I know plenty of folks who have not had any traumatic incidents in their life and they are very appreciative of everything they have every day. However, many of them still suffer from extreme levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. All of these mental states of distress are just as serious as a physical injury as they can cause physical ailments down the road, destroy relationships, and so much more.
Before I get into how my perspective has changed over the last 8 years I want to tell you about Dr. Frederick Cook. Dr. Frederick Cook was an American explorer who was famous for having reached the North Pole in 1908. To make a long story short his ship and his crew became stuck in the Arctic facing 68 days of consecutive darkness and freezing cold temperatures. They were stuck at the beginning of winter in the Arctic and faced the most likely circumstance of death. However, Dr. Cook, in his journal, noted that he never lost hope about surviving in the harsh physical environment. He did not know the emotional challenge awaiting him and his men. His men started to lose hope and gradually grew more apathetic, and pessimistic, but Dr. Cook held his men together.
How did he do this? He appealed to their internal mental sense of survival, hope, perseverance, and camaraderie. He actually resorted to direct exposure to an open fire as his primary method of treatment, not for the warmth, but for the spirit of his crew as sunlight directly influences the control of our emotional brains. The point of the story is that Dr. Cook changed his perspective on survival. If you merely tried to keep the crew alive and warm, but did not appeal to their mental will to survive I don’t think any of them would have made it out of there alive.
It’s incredible what we as human beings can achieve with a simple change in mental perspective in our lives.
My Personal Perspective Changes
My metamorphosis and how I think now as to how I approach life today certainly did not happen overnight. When I was first injured it felt like I was always trying to push wet string. I think I was trying to fight being paralyzed, not so much in that I was trying to walk again, but rather that I was always trying to be the best at being paralyzed. I would wake up at 4:30 in the morning every day exercise like a crazy person, try and push my professional life to the brink of sheer exhaustion, fight my nerve pain I suffer from every day that feels like pins and needles burning through every cell of my body at every moment of the day, be stronger and faster than fellow quadriplegics, and try to get over the trauma of my accident as quickly as possible, so I could get on with living my life.
What I didn’t realize was that I was looking towards the future every single day and completely forgetting about the present. I literally felt like I woke up five years later with nothing to show other than being completely physically and mentally exhausted on a daily basis. I was never negative, but I was dead inside. I had not achieved what I wanted to in my professional life as I thought if I could just make enough money or ensure that I could beat every medical challenge I came in contact with I would find happiness. I did not find happiness nor could I change certain aspects of my life such as having super sensitive skin that prevents me from going on wild adventures that so many other quadriplegics I would read about got to participate in.
The Pursuit of Happiness is a double edge sword in my opinion. We spend so much time trying to be happy that we never consider are we happy enough? This brings me back to one of the Stoic principles of accepting what is out of our control and creating a world of contentment within the boundaries of what our lives have to offer. I could not accept what I could not control … I kept trying to control everything that was out of my control, and I did not focus on the absolutely essential part of finding that balance in life — My mental health.
All of the photos below are people who have contributed to the improvement of my mental health… So for that, thank you!
Gradually over the years I started to realize that I simply could not control everything despite my best efforts. I’m not saying I’ve reached a Zen level of happiness in life, but I certainly have taken gradual steps each and every day to realize what is actually important to me. When I push so hard all the time I find myself slipping back into periods of darkness.
I’ve come to realize, again even though it may be cliché, it is the small things in life that make the biggest difference. When I was stuck in bed for almost a year with a pressure sore and all I could look at was my four walls I never realized how important little things like going out to dinner with my loved ones was, taking a stroll in the park, appreciating conversations that make me laugh, etc.
Certain things in life are just not as important to me as they used to be, which makes me so much happier. For example, physical things. I simply just don’t care about material objects like I use to. I certainly can’t take them with me when I die and I find that getting back to the concept of simplicity in life other than things that I need that are necessary such as my wheelchair, my computer, my voice dictating program :-), is essential for my mental well-being.
Another perspective change for me that has helped me leaps and bounds is how I approach chronic pain. Despite living in intense chronic pain complaining about it certainly doesn’t make it better, it actually makes it worse, and I’ve learned to create a separate persona for my pain where sometimes she gets the day and sometimes I get the day. When she wants to scream and cry like a little girl because the pain is too intense I humbly accept that she needs the day more than I do. So, I’ll down tools so to speak, get in bed early, relax, meditate or watch a TV show, and simply let her have her moment. I used to fight my pain and try and push through it, but a simple change in the way I approach pain from a mental standpoint has allowed me to live more comfortably, and without pain meds. I used to try everything from acupuncture to massage to medication, but to no avail. It wasn’t until I decided to change the way I look at my own pain that things started to change for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still live in chronic pain every day, but keeping myself distracted and really listening to what I need on a particular day has helped tremendously.
Change, whether that be physical or mental, is a choice based on one’s perception of reality. Many people think they are stuck with this ailment or that ailment, in this situation of that situation, which may be physically true, but the way in which they approach it from a metaphysical, emotional, spiritual, and mental standpoint is a choice. You can choose to be miserable or you can choose to take small steps to change the way you approach this misery. Now, I’m not speaking of those who have physical chemical imbalances that very well may need professional help, but I’m speaking more to those who constantly think their life is out of their control.
I’m not perfect and there are still certain mental aspects that still throw me into fits of anxiety and cause me to feel wildly overwhelmed at times. For example, caregivers is such a topic for me. I have been through so many and have had so many traumatic experiences over the years that my mind has just not yet wrapped itself around the concept of letting life happen because I’m currently trying to control other people. When a caregiver does something traumatic to me I have learned to not get as upset, but it definitely has dampened my view on human kindness to some extent.
I still get bewildered at the fact that some of these folks who take care of me can treat human beings in such a manner like leaving a quadriplegic without notice. I want to say it baffles me, but, again, it speaks back to one of the Stoic principles of accepting what you cannot control. I have to accept that there are some horribly inconsiderate people in life. I do very much appreciate that I also have people in my life that love me and will not let anything bad happen, which so many people do not have in my situation. Therefore, I’m constantly working on trying to go with the flow and accept what is not in my control.
Another aspect of a change in perspective I have experienced has been what I am physically capable of. For so many years and to this day I always feel like I am missing out on being able to travel, explore the world, and go on adventures. However, due to many of my physical limitations I can no longer go zip lining in the rain forest even though I know there are certain handicap accessible places in the world you can do this.
Why? Well, I am one of those quadriplegics who suffer from extreme skin sensitivity meaning that I get a pressure sore at the drop of a hat. So, I’ve had to learn to accept that I need to change my definition of the concept of adventure. An adventure can be as simple as going out to dinner with my fiancé, meeting a stranger who might affect my life in some unknown way, going on a cruise instead of taking a wild adventure in the rain forest, etc. Every day I remind myself that it is important to learn to go with the flow, albeit this is much easier said than done 🙂
The list of things that I have changed my perspective on over the years could go on and on. The last one I’ll mention here is death. Prior to my accident, and I think this is probably normal for many folks in their 20’s, I never thought about death. After my accident and multiple episodes of coding in the hospital I eventually became more comfortable with the idea of death. After all there’s only one thing that is certain in life and that is that we have a terminal disease called death. Perhaps it is due to my pursuit of studying ancient philosophy and learning to accept the unknown, but I am no longer terrified of it.
It’s hard to explain how I am comfortable with the concept especially for those folks who are not, but it’s a feeling deep down in my soul that starts with relinquishing control. Control of what you might ask? Everything! While I’m not an expert at giving up control of how I plan my day, but I’ve found a kind of peace with this short life that we have to live.
What Do I Want Now in Life?
The ultimate question! I want peace, simplicity, and small joys. I want to want nothing and graciously accept everything that comes my way. Life is a precious gift and I’ve spent periods of my life where I didn’t want to live my life because the pain was too much, I couldn’t handle what was presented in front of me at the time, and I am intimately familiar with the feeling of wanting to end it all. Upon reflection, I realize during these times of my life I had made no attempt to change my mental perspective on the way I saw anything. I was a doer and a pusher, and while I still work hard every day I work just as hard on my mental happiness as I do to physically pushing myself.
There are many folks who have a spinal cord injury who push to be involved in say clinical trials to improve bladder function, bowel function, walking, etc. I definitely respect their choice as I used to be one of those folks, but I’ve changed my tune over the years. I simply want to spend time with those around me, find mental peace, and I don’t want to wake up in 10 years realizing that I’ve spent a decade of my life trying to get back a small amount of finger movement for example. I respect those that want to push to improve their physical motor function, but my perspective has changed in that if I can find mental peace and happiness or at least being happy enough I’ll be able to live my life with contentment.
On a final amusing note, my tolerance for so many things in life has also changed dramatically. For example, I tolerate ignorant people quite well 🙂 Since my patience has increased over the years because I am constantly around so many people in life it has allowed me to learn to handle complete a diverse group of challenging people with grace and elegance. I simply smile, remove myself from situations that I find untenable as it usually increases my pain, roll away, and move on to whatever life has to offer me in the next moment of that day. It really does take quite an incredible amount to get under my skin in any way shape or form these days!
Here’s to a mental perspective change in the New Year of 2019!