Meet Troy. I have known Troy since I was ten years old. Troy shaped my life in a way few humans ever will. At a very young age, he allowed me to internalize the power of accepting others–no matter the difference (big or small). Because he showed me not to fear “different,” my life is far more rich and beautiful. He showed me that a disability is more of a word than a limitation or a reason to judge. He challenged my thinking/perspectives in order to expand my horizons. Troy is brilliant beyond articulation and has a sarcasm and humor that will keep you laughing for days. He loves me and my sisters unconditionally and continues to check in and support us in our lives. He is, in every sense of the word, RESILIENT. Everyone needs Troy in their lives.
Here is why:
I had, what I think, was the all American upbringing. Two parents that loved each other, and especially loved their six children – we wanted for nothing. My childhood is dotted with fond memories of me and my brothers tagging along with my father going from one rodeo to another, literally growing up behind the bucking chutes. Watching the perfect model of what it was to be a “man.” As time went on, these memories fade into participation in sporting events of my own….first, basketball, and then baseball. As I grew into adolescence, I found I needed more contact, more physicality so I gravitated towards football, wrestling, and rugby. I fed off my physical attributes and the adulation they brought. It wasn’t the competition that drove me; it was conditioning my body into a finely tuned instrument. It all came so naturally to me. Pair the physical with a fun loving, outgoing, self-assured personality – and I used them all to get everything I wanted. It is a bit of a cliché to say it, but I had the world at my fingertips. Nothing was out of reach.
As I entered the 10th grade, a subtle shift in my priorities began to take hold. Since it was never really the competition or the challenge of organized sports that drew me in, I found my desire to continue in any meaningful way lacking. Combine this lack of desire for organized sports with a severe disinterest with anything to be gleaned from a classroom, and I found myself searching for something, anything really, that would hold my attention or interest. I soon found it.
We humans scurry across the surface of this planet mostly unaware of the tectonic plates shifting in the ground beneath us. We look to the physical manifestations of those plates in the places they come together: mountains. Mountains provide inspiring views, and challenge us to ascend to their lofty peaks for breathtaking views. High school is much the same. I was able to rely upon my fun loving, outgoing, and self-assured nature, meshed with the physical gifts I continued to nurture, and set my sights on climbing Mount Social. I spent a great majority of the next year navigating the winding foot paths of the high school social hierarchy. Before long, I often found myself in the company of the older classes – juniors and seniors – and they introduced me to the wonderful world of “A-list” parties. Growing up in a Mormon household, the closest I had ever come to alcohol was a beer commercial on TV so this was a whole new world. And I liked this new world.
The party, or more specifically, drinking, and everything that went with it, became my life. The subtle shift in my priorities quickly escalated into a race to the top of the mountain. I loved being the life of the party, the one everyone wanted to be around. I feared nothing, and being a bit of an adrenaline junky also played quite nicely into this scene. I loved answering the call when someone would suggest something wilder and crazier than the last stunt couldn’t be done. I loved the attention. I especially loved the attention from the opposite sex. Oh did I ever love that attention. I thought I was handling it all so well. But sometimes, when you think you’re climbing a mountain, it turns out to be a volcano. And because you aren’t looking for it, you ignore the rumblings stirring underneath your feet.
Over the next two years, it was as though I was trying, through an alcohol induced haze, to destroy everything of substance or value I had in my life. I became such a toxic influence to my younger brothers, egging them on to join me in my race to the bottom. The loving, nurturing relationship I had with my parents devolved into one of anger, deceit and acrimony. I had become a cancer to my family unit, threatening to forever fracture what had been a perfectly harmonious existence in our home. Since the pursuit of knowledge meant little to me, school became a tool only to further my physical (weight room) and social pursuits and before long, I was unceremoniously asked to leave. My closest friends began to distance themselves as they could no longer ignore my self destructive tailspin. Being arrested and having to appear in front of a judge became a regular occurrence. The rumblings beneath my feet continued to build, and yet I climbed on, in mad pursuit of some imagined social peak.
With my eighteenth year rapidly approaching, I was out of control as I continued to push the envelope further and further. My daily alcohol intake was staggering. My need to push my body past the next impossible, life threatening stunt was insatiable. I was living in an Ahab-like state, chasing some mad beast that was bound to destroy me. All regard for life, mine or anyone else’s, ceased to exist. I could not see a future past the age of twenty one. Something had to give.
“So this is where I die, huh? So be it, I had a good run.”
It’s funny, the thoughts that flow through your mind right before your life is extinguished.
On a hot August day, shortly after my eighteenth birthday, floating face down in a back yard swimming pool, unable to move….I was going to die. The explosion in my neck was the first indication that something was terribly wrong. The second: I could not understand why suddenly my body would fail to obey the commands from my brain. It had never failed me before, why now?
At the final moment, as the blackness enveloped me, I felt what I was sure was the hand of God on my shoulder, reaching out to take me home. And honestly, I was okay with that. As it turned out, it was the hand of my friend, pulling my head out of the water. I was then air-lifted to the hospital.
A few days later, after having surgery to stabilize my damaged neck, I still could not move. I still didn’t really understand what I had done to myself or why I could not move any part of my body. It was in that state of mind when a doctor walked into my hospital room. I was prepared for him to tell me this was all just a minor setback and I’d be back to my same old self in no time. He looked at me with a cold expression and speaking as if he were reading a dictionary said: This is it. This is the rest of your life. Don’t ever plan on anything more because this is as good as it gets. He then turned and walked out.
When the volcano erupts with you standing on the mountainside, it takes some time to regain your bearings, to get your head together enough to get clear of the blast zone. But as violent as the eruption is, what follows can be worse. The ash continues to spew and the lava continues to flow. Yup, if the explosion doesn’t kill you, the aftermath just might if you can’t get clear of it.
I don’t think I was fully able to comprehend the doctor’s words. How do you reconcile, at such a young age, someone with such authority telling you in no uncertain terms, that your life as you have known it….is over? How could this be? I had always relied upon my physical body to save the day, to get me out of anything – now would be no different. I spent the next three and a half months in a rehab hospital doing everything I could to prove them all wrong. I was determined to walk out of that hospital, right into that doctor’s office, and exact a little bit of physical revenge. “They don’t know me or what I’m capable of. I’ll show them all”…
Sometimes, things just don’t go as planned no matter how determined you are. My time in rehab had come to an end and there was nothing more they could do to prepare me for the world beyond their walls. I was excited. Excited to get home and back to as normal a life as I could remember. That excitement came crashing down around me almost from the moment I returned home. As I sat in my new wheelchair in my parent’s kitchen, I looked around at an environment I once dominated without thought, and the cold hand of reality slapped me across the face: I can do Nothing. I was thirsty. I looked at my hands – they failed to obey. I looked at the cupboard – it might as well have been ten feet above my head. So I asked my younger brother if he would get me a glass of water. He said if I would just try harder, I could do it myself. All I heard was: This is it. This is the rest of your life….as good as it gets.
I should have died in the pool that day. If this is what the rest of my life is going to look like, I don’t want it. If I could not be the physical presence I had been, I’m done. There was just one problem. As I was little more than just a side of beef, unable to perform the simplest of tasks such as feeding myself or even scratching my own head, how was I going to carry out my final solution? I used to scream and curse at my younger brothers to smother me with a pillow. I begged and pleaded with my parents to let me go arguing it would be better for everyone. No one would listen. No one understood my despair.
Day after day, as I lay in my bed, refusing to get up, before I had a remote control that allowed me to easily change the TV channel, I was stuck watching reruns of Leave it to Beaver all day. This was a local channel whose advertisements consisted of shady used car salesmen and Sally Struthers spots begging for 15 cents a day for Ethiopian famine relief. The first time I saw one of those “starving children” commercials, it was as though I’d been struck by a lightning bolt. This was it. This was something I could control. I was going to starve myself to death. I had no idea I could have been so delighted while wallowing in such darkness.
Three months later, and 50 pounds lighter, I had what some might refer to as a “Come to Jesus” discussion with my older sister. Discussion may be too kind a word. She tore me to shreds. In the simplest of terms, she let it be known that I had another thing coming if I thought my family was just going to stand idly by and watch me die. Yeah, this new life stinks but I had better start to figure it out. While it was a harsh and painful discussion, it was also transformative. With the darkness and ash beginning to recede, I was able to look out onto a landscape that was forever altered. There was no sense in wishing for the mountain views from before, they were gone forever. I needed to survey the landscape as it was now and figure out how to appreciate the new.
How do you navigate a world that was not created for you? I spent the first couple of years trying to answer that very question. I had never known anyone in a wheelchair, and those that I had seen had severe mental handicaps. Still equating my whole identity with my physical presence, I did not want to be known or seen as the “retarded” guy. It was a rare occasion if I left the friendly confines of my parents basement to venture out into the public realm. I had to reconcile the person I once was with the person I am now: Macho, physical dominance vs. physical insignificance. I had to get beyond the idea of perception – how the world sees me vs. how I think the world sees me vs. how I see myself. It took some time before I was able to be comfortable in my own skin….comfortable enough to shed the four walls of my basement and dip a toe in the societal pool. But my perception of self had taken a beating. Gone was the outgoing, self-assured person I had known.
Something I had paid very little attention to up to this point had been my mental or intellectual capacity. Now they were all I had left. Mentally, I began to focus on all of the things I could no longer do – now or in the future. I’ll never be a Navy SEAL, my lifelong dream. I’ll never drive a car again. I’ll never live on my own. I’ll never own my own home. I’ll never be married, never have children. Shoot, I’ll never work even a normal job again. The list of never’s was piling up fast. This is a very small sampling of some very thick and deep lava flows I continued to have to dodge before I could turn my focus to what I still could do.
With my previous academic life going down in flames the way it did, I had never really seen college as an option before. But I needed to find something that would feed my mind. I needed some sort of intellectual stimulation. I read every book I could find, no matter the subject. I taught myself how to use a computer (something I had neither the time nor the patience for previously.) I found my hunger for knowledge outpacing my ability to consume it while tucked away in my basement. And then it dawned on me. Why not college?
Scared to death does not even begin to explain the feeling I had entering the world of higher education. There were so many unknowns. Could I handle the academic and intellectual rigors? Could I handle the emotional toll? Could I handle being seen as “the guy in the wheelchair,” letting my mind run wild with how I think others perceive me? If there is one thing I loathe more than just about anything, it is asking for help. Would I be able to swallow my pride to ask someone to open a door to a classroom or to take notes for me?
Fear is a funny thing. It can stop you in your tracks at the base of your own personal lava flow, leaving you franticly searching for a way beyond before you are swallowed up, if you let it. But if you face it and are able to push through and find a way around it, the potential payoffs are monumental. You leave behind the scorched earth you’ve been plodding over and are met by fertile fields of green. Starting out, not a day went by that I didn’t want to come straight home, lock myself in my room, and never go back. I wished that I was invisible. As time wore on, though, and I continued to face my fears, I found that not only was college surprisingly easy, but I began to find my long since dormant confidence. It was a welcome revelation. I thrived. Before I knew it, however, college was over and I was graduating with honors.
Like many recent college graduates, I ran directly into the buzz saw that is the job market. I was called on surprisingly few interviews for the field I had chosen. Was I not qualified? Did my wheelchair or the fact I could not use my hands make them uncomfortable? I didn’t know, but I was discouraged. Two years of continually applying for positions only to see them evaporate before my eyes went by. Until one day, I received a call from an acquaintance letting me know about an internship far removed from anything I had been trained for. He thought I would be perfect for it and encouraged me to apply.
Now gainfully employed, I had to prove my worth. I had to be twice as smart and work twice as hard just to be on an equal footing with everyone else. My work ethic became one of my greatest assets. The internship soon became a permanent position. With things going well, work-wise, I decided to revisit a few more of those “nevers” that I had come to terms with years before. I bought a car that was adapted for me to drive. I cannot begin to describe the freedom something so simple can bring. After years of being chauffeured, I could now come and go as I pleased. I bought a house. It doesn’t have a white picket fence, but it’s as close to my “American dream” as you can get without one. I’ve been with my company for twelve years and am respected not only for my broad knowledge within our industry, but also as someone who just gets it done. Life….is sweet, indeed. I may still be regularly dodging lava flows from the aftermath of my eruption, I’ve just learned to anticipate which way they are coming so I can head them off.
A few things I have learned with my second chance at life are:
- Life does not always turn out how you think it is supposed to. What you do with your circumstances is up to no one but you.
- There is nothing that can be put in front of me that can beat me. The daily routine of being a C5 quadriplegic is not something I would wish upon my worst enemy. But it will not beat me.
- No longer is my body the finely tuned instrument – it is my mind. My mental and emotional stability are, and will continue to be, razor sharp.
- Fear is not something to run away from. I meet my fears head on.
- While there will always be a list of “I nevers,” the list of “I can’s” continues to outpace them. There isn’t anything I won’t try, at least once.
- No matter how dark the present seems, you will always make it to the other side if you just keep working
- I am happy with who I am. I don’t need to be surrounded by a hundred friends. I am just fine by myself.
- I would be nowhere without the unconditional love and support of my family