The year of my spinal cord injury, 1988, was a very bad year. Surprisingly, I did not realize how bad it really was until some old correspondence was discovered while my sister was cleaning out my mother's files a couple of months ago. The family Christmas letter from that year told the full story, and I learned from that two-page letter that I must not have been aware of what had been going on around me that entire year.
The human body, and the mind that is supposed to control it, does some amazing things during a time of trauma and the recovery that should follow. In my case, I spent six months in the hospital following my spinal cord injury, and my entire focus was on what was happening to me. Unless it involved me directly, I wasn't interested. As I graduated to my future life of independent living, but still very dependent on others, my focus remained mainly internal. It is obvious now that I spent that year, most of it, in a "recovery cocoon."
( Photo Credit--Wikipedia: User: Umbris)
About 10,000 people a year share my experience by virtue of a new spinal cord injury or disease, and I realize that we all have our own way of getting through those first few months or years of seeking some recovery and becoming re-acclimated to the world outside. I was frustrated by parts of my body that would not respond to my commands that had worked only days before. I was also exhausted by weekday exercises and therapies designed to help, but that seemed like torture at the time.
In my weakened and frustrated state, I was not successful at avoiding many complications that followed. A blood clot and multiple infections, some serious, seemed to erase weeks of progress. Looking back, it seems that it even took me several weeks before I was able to sit upright in my wheelchair throughout the day.
Avoiding distractions, and not wanting to meet with people who had known me as an athlete who competed with them in many events, was my way of coping. How could I expect them to accept my newly paralyzed self when I was doing such a lousy job of doing that myself?
My method of staying safe inside my protective cocoon was to request "No Visitors or Calls
," despite the fact that many of those trying to contact me had been close or longtime friends prior to my injury. It seemed possible to avoid seeing the looks on the faces of friends when they saw the "new me" for the first time after my accident; I didn't dwell on the impact my decision might have had on others, as I was focused on myself.
Mom's recently unearthed holiday letter from the end of what she called a "really tough year" for our family began with a recap of my accident, the rehabilitative process, and then emphasized how she was amazed at my independent attitude and drive to get my life back to normal. She spoke of a few of the setbacks I had experienced, and the impact my situation had on her and my daughters. All of that was expected, but I was surprised to learn what else had been going on in the larger world away from my cocoon.
During the time that I had turned down Mom's offer to move in with me and become my caregiver, she was battling pain which would lead to carpal tunnel surgery late that year. She was also helping an elderly sister, my favorite aunt, recover from major surgery. That entailed handling all of her bills and other paperwork, then moving that sister from her private home into two different levels of nursing home care.
All seven of my younger siblings visited me that year, but I now know that I didn't have a clue about what was going on in their lives. Four of them had lost their businesses, had employers go bankrupt, or had otherwise been laid off from their jobs. Two of them were chronically underemployed, making less than they needed to live on comfortably, and the only sister with a steady job was seeking to switch professions or employers. Why didn't I know that? I'm guessing it was that damn cocoon again, which had been a bad idea from the beginning.
I like to think that I am a better person than I demonstrated in that first year, and that I am fully aware of my surroundings and the status of those I care about. For any of you who think that recovery might happen quicker by using tunnel vision to focus only on yourself, please know that you are wrong. If I could go back 25 years and have it to do all over again, which I really wouldn't want to do, things would be different. Rather than shrink from outside contact, I would use friends and family to help me regain a healthy perspective and a solid footing for life after rehab.
The above hasn't been easy for me to accept, or express. If you are one of those who has been turned away by me during that first year post-injury, I hope you won't give up. Believe me, the cocoon is gone.
© 2013 Michael Collins