In the first blog of this series I took a close look at the stages a person goes through after a catastrophic injury or new diagnosis, specifically the first stage of denial.
To recap, denial
is often the first reaction to a new diagnosis or severe injury. I have told therapists, family members and rehab patients for years -- denial is a beautiful coping mechanism. It takes our brains years to process a life changing event. The key is to listen to the medical professionals about how to care for your body the way it currently is. Most of the time you only get one chance at in-patient rehabilitation, you need to absorb all of the information you can. You may get better in the future, but you need to learn how to take care of your body the way it is in that moment.
Stage 2 - Anger
Many times the next stage in the process of grieving the loss of physical ability is anger. After being shot in the back, I thought about the thousands of people who do dangerous things every day and walk away with no injury. There were many kids at LSU using drugs and driving drunk, they all seemed to be fine. It’s hard to admit I was mad they could walk and I had to use a wheelchair. Going back to LSU a semester later all I could see there the thousands of students walking around with not a care in the world.
And after such a drastic life change, I DESERVED TO BE ANGRY! My entire life changed overnight.
I was angry because when I got dressed to go to school, my spasms knocked me over. I was lucky if I didn’t have a urinary tract infection, which cause bladder spasms, and then need to get dressed twice due to an accident.
Then there was just getting to class! I’d get to my car, dismantle my wheelchair, put it in the car, drive to class and then put it back together. Next, I’d push myself up a very steep ramp with books in my backpack, doing my best not to flip over. Once at the building I opened the ridiculously heavy door and go to the elevator. Sometimes the elevator wasn’t working and I’d have to go home after all of that without going to class.
When I did attend class, it was mainly stadium style classrooms, with no cutout for wheelchairs in the seats. Therefore I had to sit in the front, near the professor. Which means I was on display for everyone to look at if math class got really boring (which it did)! Hopefully I had not been drenched by the south Louisiana rain and look halfway decent. I repeated all these several times a day to get to classes all over campus, at the end of the day leaving me completely exhausted.
Most of my friends were in sororities and trying to figure out what they would wear to that evening’s fraternity exchange. I didn’t get a call, because nobody at that time would invite a girl in a wheelchair to join their sorority.
These are just some of the angry thoughts I had inside and usually did not express after I first became paralyzed. When I held my anger in, I would usually get mad at family members for minor incidents or fall into a puddle of tears for no apparent reason. Holding anger in can lead to poor health, severe depression and suicidal ideations. I quickly learned I needed to find a better way to deal with my anger if I was going to live a happy life.
A professional opinion
, MSW, LCSW has specialized in grief counseling for over 20 years. She teaches bereavement
counseling at Louisiana State University. I asked her about her thoughts on how to get through the anger stage of the grief process when a person loses mobility due to an illness or accident.
Anger is a mask for fear and, Smelley explained, that anger is much safer than fear. Anger is a way to avoid feeling pain. To explode outwardly is much easier that sitting with the fears of what your new life will look like.
When I was mad at those other LSU students who were living a normal life, I was really afraid of what my new life would look like - afraid I wouldn’t have friends, afraid my boyfriend would leave me for a girl who could walk, afraid I would never be fully independent again. It’s much easier to yell, than it is to be vulnerable and honest with yourself and others. In the words of Smelley, “Anger is a safe feeling and fear is unspeakable.”
How to deal with anger (which is really fear)
Smelley suggests that when you are angry to spend some time reflecting on what you are afraid of. Talking about your fears to another person is always helpful, in addition to writing them down. “When you give a voice to your fears they shrink,” she shared. Naming you fears will give you control over them, then you can move on to the next phase of your life. Talking to a friend, finding a mental health professional or a support group are all ways to put your fears out there and begin to work through them.
Things you can do get past your anger/fear:
MY favorite way to deal with Anger
- Talk to your friends and family about your biggest fears now that you have a disability
- Seek professional counseling
- Join a support group in your community or online. United Spinal Association has some great online support groups.
- Journal or create art that will help you express your feelings
- Read books and articles about grief. This lets you know you are not alone and gives you great ideas for how to move on to the next chapter in your life. As a social worker myself, I find my peers are a great resource. I especially agree with the approach outlined here to continue to seek counseling for a long period of time after the diagnosis, because there are so many changes in family dynamics. Although family can be very supportive their lives have also changed and having a professional assist you in navigating each new situation as it arises.
One of the healthiest ways I dealt with my anger then, and still do now, was to focus on my physical fitness to improve my mental health. I frequently used standing braces and a FES bike
. Working out helped me push through my negative feelings. I didn’t know at that time, but exercise is proven to release all of the happy brain chemicals
including: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. I did realize, however, that I felt better about the way I looked when I worked out. It improved my self-image and that helped me face the world each day with my head held a little higher. Depending on your level of injury, you can work out with weights or wheelchair exercise videos at home. Adaptive sports programs can also be a way to stay physically active. There is adaptive dance, yoga and more. I think you will find that any exercise you can do will be worth the time and effort.
I would love to hear from you about your transition to a new way of life. Send me a note via social media. Just click the links below to find me.