by: Vik Shivdasani
There are many things after a spinal cord injury that you have to get used to. One thing most of us have to get used to is the fact that we roll around in a wheelchair to get around. It's the most obvious characteristic about us, and there is absolutely no hiding from it no matter how much you try.
I was just 22 years old when I got injured and people let me know it. Very often when I met people for the first time I was received with pity as people would say, "Oh no! What happened to you? You're so young and in a wheelchair." I experienced many instances where strangers approached me in public to find out why I was using a wheelchair. And if they didn't approach me, they probably stared at me. I hated the attention I received because of my injury.
I didn't want people to notice me because of my wheelchair, but it was happening all the time. I felt like my identity had completely changed and there was nothing I could do about it.
Over the next few years I got used to the reception I got from people. I also realized that people in wheelchairs make a very small percentage of our population, so most people I encounter with probably have never met someone in a wheelchair before. I never knew anybody in a wheelchair before my accident, and I understood that that was probably the case for most people. Understanding this made me think that if I was going to be a person's first "wheelchair encounter", then I'm going to give them the best "wheelchair encounter" that I can give. And because I was usually met with people feeling sorry for me, I was going to meet their pity with wheelchair jokes.
I've always loved to laugh and joke around, and being in a wheelchair made me even funnier. In social situations I would always say things like, "That's how I roll!" or "Let's roll out!", and people loved it. As time went on I got really good at catching certain things people said to me in conversation, and correcting them to be more "wheelchair friendly." For example, one time this person told me that I really "stand out", and I replied, "don't you mean sit out?" I felt that by me joking about my situation people changed from feeling sorry for me to thinking I was a bad ass because I could joke about such a thing. And I really got a kick out of the shocking and surprising reactions I would get from them. This was fun for a while until I truly realized why I was doing this.
In recent years, I've realized that constantly joking about my situation was a defense mechanism I used to avoid people from feeling sorry for me. It was like this responsibility I felt I had to not allow people to feel upset about my situation. And even though I had my own bad days to deal with, I never let it be known to other people because I never wanted to give people an additional reason to feel sorry for me. Consequently, this resulted in me being inauthentic to myself and others.
I couldn't get away from the obviousness of my wheelchair, so I created a fabricated version of myself around it for others to see. And I now know that the true reason why I was doing this was because I identified myself as my body.
After my accident, one thing I have always contemplated was that even though my body is paralyzed, I am still completely here. I, as the personality, am totally intact and present. And I direct my body where it should go and what it should do. So does that mean my body and I are different? Because we are identified as our bodies by others, it is universally accepted that we are our bodies, but are we? It has become increasingly apparent to me that we are not. I now see that our bodies are our vehicle to navigate this world. And currently, my vehicle needs a vehicle to get around, but that doesn't make me my vehicle.
Understanding this has allowed me to embrace more of who I actually am, and less of who I am because of my wheelchair. Since this change in perception I've learned to be okay with people feeling sorry for me because that doesn't define who I am. And on quite a few occasions people have actually told me that they didn't even notice the wheelchair when they spoke to me, they noticed ME! And to me, this is just further confirmation that my body is paralyzed, but I AM NOT!