If inspiration is the most overused “I” word when it comes to talking about spinal cord injury, independence comes in a close second. And just as what is inspiring for one person may be insipid for another, the dictionary definition of independence is open to interpretation.
In the days after I was paralyzed, I can still remember some medical professional assuring me that despite my C5 vertebra being obliterated, there was a good chance I would eventually be able to live independently. I think that I understood I was paralyzed, but being high as a kite from a potent cocktail of IV drugs, I was totally unaware of what the nurses meant when they kept telling me I was a “quadriplegic.” In my dreams, I pictured my independent life as a quadriplegic having the chiseled upper body of an American Gladiator, swinging from room to room like a graceful gymnast navigating an elaborate set of monkey bars. Of course I was going to be independent! Hell, I was going to be the paralyzed version of the Six Million Dollar Man — rebuilt better than ever before.
Almost 20 years later, my initial vision of independence has not materialized. No monkey bars, no chiseled muscles. I have yet to swing anywhere, much less transfer myself or shower myself alone. I rely on attendants to help me, but I have found independence. It’s very different from how I conceived it before I was