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The odd thing about that day was that it began with a unique and unexpected exclamation. I danced around my room with a rush, gleefully jumping on my bed saying, “Today is going to be the best day of my life!”
The irony of that statement certainly doesn’t escape me.
Over twelve hours later, after a delightful snow day away from school with my mom, we went to our church to practice a duet we were planning to perform together that Sunday. As we sang our rendition of “You Lift Me Up”, a song that could moisten the eye of the strongest of listeners, I felt the strangest pang of premonition and started inconsolably crying into the microphone. My mom peppered me with questions about what was wrong, but I couldn’t explain the deep and mystifying feeling that something truly bad was about to happen.
For a ten-year-old, I sure had an interesting mix of conflicting and prophetic moments, both happening to be simultaneously true on this most life-changing day.
My final twinge of destiny that day came as I was standing outside of our Honda Civic in the cold February air. I normally sat on one of the side seats in the back of the car, but for some reason NEVER sat in the middle. When I say never, I mean not once in my conscious, non-carseat decision-making young life. So, you can imagine my own surprise when I said to myself, “Why don’t we mix it up today and sit in the middle seat?”
This double-edged sword of a decision ended up saving my life – but as with almost all exchanges in this world, there was certainly a price to pay.
That moment is the last thing I remember before my world turned black - only minutes later our car was violently hit by a truck in an intersection and the top of the car collapsed on the top of my head. According to the fire station chief who arrived at the scene, “there was without doubt no one alive in that twisted pile of metal we found on the side of the road.” It wasn’t until a mother crawled out screaming for her child that he seriously considered they might both have a chance.
The challenge, however, came in the fact that I was no longer breathing, and they had to manually breathe for me as they laboriously cut away pieces of the car in order to drag me out. The assumption was that I wouldn’t make it to the hospital alive, but I like to think I was still fighting for that “best-day-ever” I had imagined that morning. (Certainly it would be better described by a miraculous story of a girl coming back to life, instead of a dramatic death in the back of an ambulance.)
Over the next several weeks, I laid in a coma as my mother heard horror after horror of the things that were supposedly going on in my body. “She has internal bleeding throughout her intestines and will need intensive surgery.” “Her jaw is broken, and she will need to be flown to a university hospital in the state capital.” “She has had a severe traumatic brain injury and will never speak or function normally again.”
When the day came that I was able to peer out of my blurry comatose, I quickly found out the sneaky devil of an injury that was truly going on in my body. Apparently, when our car spun out of control after being T-boned at 60 miles per hour, I was thrown aggressively forward and the middle-seat seat belt cut deeply against my spine, putting so much pressure on my spinal cord that it would never function the same again.
Having not remembered any of this however, I woke up to white walls, unfamiliar faces and tubes inserted all around me – all of which inspiring me to lunge forward in an effort to run away. Processing the cruelest of surprises, I quickly realized that my legs didn’t work. Shock, terror, and denial shot through me as I began to pass out, with the definitive words leaving my lips, “I’m paralyzed!”
The following three months in a rehabilitation hospital included a daily panic attack and learning the cruel reality of what it meant to be a wheelchair user. When my mom and I finally packed up our bags and headed back to our little suburban house in North Carolina, it was like entering a world you knew extremely well as an extraterrestrial that no one around you knew at all. I understood during the months prior that running and jumping would be off the table - and that a soccer career was probably not in my future - but I didn’t anticipate the deep societal-wide discrimination that would permeate every action I undertook simply because I now had a disability.
We lived in a house that was two stories, so every night I would scoot backwards up the stairs to get to my bedroom. I would have to crawl or drag myself around upstairs in order to get to the bathroom, take a shower and get in bed. We didn’t have much help, so my mom had to take on full-time caretaker duties, meaning she was only able to work a few hours a week and barely had enough money to keep a roof over our heads.
Meanwhile, many people in my family treated me like I was a pariah. One uncle said he felt too uncomfortable around me and wouldn’t attend family functions if I was there. This led members of my family to have their celebrations specifically in homes with too many stairs, leaving my mom and I to have more than a few solo Christmases.
Then I tried to go back to school...
This ended up being a logistical nightmare: the school decided to assign most of my classes upstairs (with no elevator) even though my mom pleaded with the staff to put them downstairs. They quickly came to the decision that having me at the school was too much of a "challenge" and it would be better if I found somewhere else to go, stating they were not required to be disability friendly since they were a private Christian school. (So much for showing Christian love…)
The church debacle, however, was the last straw. On the first morning we returned for Sunday service, I was gifted with a flashback that stabbed me in the gut. The duet, the microphone, that awful premonition that ended up so quickly coming to fruition. It all swirled in my mind as I sat there in a trance, barely noticing the preacher calling me up toward the pulpit. After I slowly pushed my way to the front, he announced to the congregation that "today was the day that God was going to heal me". A roar of excitement cheered me on while the preacher took my hands and commanded me in the name of the Lord to stand.
My mind yelled, screamed, and clawed toward my spinal cord to send the message to my legs to help me stand, but the task felt no different than attempting to telepathically flip over a car with my mind. People can only cheer you on for so long until an excitable roar turns into an unbearably pitiful silence. They began to leave one by one, and the time came for my mom and I to follow suit and leave with aching hearts. It was then that I heard a statement that would change the way I saw myself for almost a decade to come:
“It seems the girl is being punished by God because she’s done something wrong. She obviously doesn’t have enough faith or else she would be healed.”
For over ten years, I felt the consistent pressure of shame and judgment around me. This affected the beliefs I had about myself on such a deep level that I truly didn't think I was worthy or strong enough to pursue the life I was dreaming of.
Until the day came when I jumped in full force, decided to chase my fears like I had nothing to lose and never looked back...
"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'
YOU MUST DO THE THING YOU THINK YOU CANNOT DO."
No matter where you are in your journey right now, I want to encourage you that you have the potential to transform into the bolder, more confident person you have always dreamt of becoming. The secret is beginning with small steps outside of your comfort zone, and then challenging yourself to make the steps bigger and bigger as you go along!
WHAT WOULD YOUR FIRST FEAR-CHASER BE?
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