15 August 2019

The Power of Gratitude and Optimism for Overcoming Barriers

Over five years ago, I was involved in a cycling accident and sustained some serious injuries including a spinal cord injury. When I awoke in the hospital a couple weeks later, I was shocked to learn what had happened to me. At first, I couldn't make sense of it all. My entire self-identity had been twisted and turned inside out. Because I was paralyzed below the knees, my only mobility was via wheel chair and I had not even learned to use it yet. Every moment of the day, my mind reeled from one extreme to another and I didn't hold it together very well. I felt helpless and not in control of my body or my own existence. I saw the concern and helplessness in the eyes of my wife and daughters and friends. I didn't know how to help myself and they didn't know how to help me other than to provide me all their love and support. I was almost entirely dependent upon the nurses, doctors, PTs, OTs and techs to care for me. I didn't know it at the time, but this was true vulnerability and it was terrifying.


As I was introduced to my PTs and OTs at Craig Hospittal, they put me to work. I never knew exhaustion like the exhaustion I was experiencing from the work they had me doing. But my main doctor told me something within the first couple days of arrival at Craig Hopsital that has stuck with me even to this day. First he acknowledged my injuries and told me that most of them will heal in time. Then he told me to look around the hospital and take notice of how my situation compares to others -- I was extremely fit, I had broken bones that would heal, I had a family and a support system and there was a really good chance that, with a lot of hard work, I might walk again one day. Essentially, what he was telling me was to count my blessings. As I got to know other patients, I realized what he was saying.

I was in the hospital with people who had zero chance of ever walking again. Some of them had zero chance of ever even using their arms to hug someone again. It really broke my heart, but it also strengthened my resolve and opened my eyes in many ways. From that day on, I looked at my journey through life from a point of optimism.

There is a famous quote from the past about optimism that states:
A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty
I was lucky enough to be able to adopt and embody this type of thinking early on in my healing and it continues to propel me to this day. But there was a turning point where this optimism really kicked in for me.

Discovery of Movement

Early into my recovery, my friend and neighbor suggested that I visit a muscle activation therapist (MAT) who had helped her in recovering from various running injuries over the years. For those who are not familiar with MAT, it defines a non-invasive, systematic process for assessing and correcting muscular imbalances, joint instability and limited range of motion. MAT is very powerful because it jumpstarts muscles to get them functioning and operating at maximum efficiency. The process really boils down to some very specific sort of muscle manipulation/deep muscle massage that can be very painful but highly effective. Anyway, I went to see this woman who is certified in MAT and I'm glad I did.

I was still in the wheel chair at this point, so I had to make it into the building and into her office. Then I transitioned to her massage table so that she could assess my paralysis through this deep tissue muscle manipulation of my lower body. I was surprised at the amount of pain I experienced from the manipulation. My muscles had not worked properly in many months due to the paralysis and she was basically awakening them and the nerves that control them. As she worked through different muscles she told me that nearly all the muscles that she manipulated were actually working but they were just diminished due to the atrophy and the lack of use over time. At this moment, something clicked inside me and I broke into tears of joy! I was so overcome because I had experience with recovering from muscle atrophy. She comforted me and was very pleasantly surprised herself at the assessment. Although the optimism was triggered by what my doctor said to me, this message about my condition is where I began to feel like I was in control again. I could decide how hard to work out to get these muscles moving again.

Due to my previous experience with recovery from a couple knee injuries in high school, I knew the hard work necessary for such recovery. What I did not know was that this recovery was not months long, but years long. Here I am over five years later and I am still working hard every day to build muscles and encourage more movement in areas of my body that are still healing. Little did I know that the energy of optimism would lend itself to further gratitude as time went on.


Beyond just being optimistic, I have also been lucky enough to be thankful for many things from early on with my injuries. As I described above, my doctor opened my eyes to some of the upside to my situation. At that point, I had already been meditating for years to calm my mind. So I began to meditate frequently on gratitude and this quickly became a frequent exercise for me. I spend this time focusing on things in my life for which I am grateful, and this has really helped me to continue and improve my mindset to this day.

One of the worst things that someone with serious injuries can experience is a mindset of pessimism. I learned through experience that mindset can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, the mindset you choose to adopt can cause a cascading result throughout both your mind and body. This is not to say that a positive mindset will necessarily save you from a life-threatening illness or cure my paralysis. However, holding a negative mindset can certainly be a big barrier that prevents positive progress from being made. The strength of the mind over the body can be surprisingly powerful.

As I have mentioned before, the mantra of fake it 'til you make it has served me very well over time. Here's the bit of text from that link:
My wife Janene has always taught our girls that no matter what you're doing in life, you need to 'fake it 'til you make it'. This catchphrase helps you to feel confident and optimistic about something until you gain the necessary experience to actually feel genuinely assured that you have reached a successful point. Although she has always intended this for the benefit of our daughters, I have been able to internalize it and use it to my own benefit in my recovery. Repeating this statement in my head has taken me quite far and I continue to use it to this day.
Using this along with optimism and gratitude has gotten me to where I am today. I am lucky enough that my body continues to heal in various ways and that my family and friends continue to love and support me. Without these things in my life, I probably would not have made the progress I've made.

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