A clear and steady climb: emerging from a temporary disability

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When I was staring my graduate program at UCLA I had a very difficult year because I was taken down with a temporary disability. Due to tendonitis/carpel tunnel syndrome in both hands and wrists, I found myself unable to write, or play guitar, or even really use my hands much at all. I could not chop vegetables. I could barely brush my teeth. It scared me deeply. I was at a very competitive graduate program with tons of high-quality people and a lot on the line including a big scholarship.

When I got diagnosed I hit this weird place. Traditional medicine first offered me a rolling office chair and ice packs. That didn’t help. Their next offer was surgery on both hands. That seemed an extreme option.  I had a hard time knowing what to do because they were the experts, but, something in my gut was telling me not to go that route. I prayed about it for some time and one night I was filled with the knowledge of what was ahead. I’m not sure how, but I simply knew.  I understood that I had two pathways ahead of me –  either get the surgery, and become worse and need more surgery, or, handle myself. Make some real changes in my day to day life and commit to that. Be willing to change at a fundamental level. Be willing to stop the train I had been on – just – stop. Let go of it.

The second option was the path I took – to make a real change. It scared me because it immediately made me different from all the other people I was competing with. I took advantage of every bit of assistance at school that was offered (like a note taker for my classes when I could not write my own notes). And I reached into the realm of alternative medicine. Some of it was just not for me at all. There are definitely a lot of quacks and clueless people out there.  But I found a few things that fit very well.  Yoga therapeutics was one. Stress management another. Ayurveda medicine had some good remedies for nerve damage. Introspection and prayer became my regular start to the day. And I walked a lot, taking time to really look around me and not be so focused on competing or proving myself.

The hardest part was not being able to play my guitar for about 9 months. I was terrified that I would possibly never play it again. For me that would have been a hard life because my guitar is my outlet. I was also scared that I might not be able to work a job because my hands were weak and sore and I couldn’t use them. I could not envision any future careers where I could do them without typing or writing.  I worried that my future was just going to be horrible.

Slowly I found release from the injury and the fear. Strangely, people I didn’t know that well would reach out, offer help, give me options and free or inexpensive treatment resources. It was sometimes hard to accept help.

I was used to being the top student and so being injured was a real shift. I had to let go of this sense of not being able to compete with my classmates. They were all fully functioning and I was sidelined.  I took notes with an audio recorder. I took exams verbally instead of writing them. I had to work all these modifications and alternatives. I was really frustrated because none of the other students had to do that. It felt so awkward having to admit I couldn’t do what they were doing. I was the only one who had to deal with that and work around it.

Well, when that academic year was done and the rankings came out in letters to each student, I was amazed that I was ranked number one in my class. Even though I had to modify, I kept up and learned all that I needed to learn and then some. I kicked that year to the curb.  I didn’t do it by going along with what everyone else was doing. I did it by taking the time for contemplation and prayer and by listening deeply to my intuition. This led me to take a path that was much different from the people around me. I trusted that and the results were very satisfying.

My injuries healed to a moderate level in about a year. I was able to make it and get out of the sidelines and back into the norm. But even better, about 4 years after that, I was not only back completely, I was stronger than before. I could notice stress in my body more quickly and adapt long before it got to be an ongoing problem. I found that I could play a three-hour set on guitar with hardly a break, something I’d never done before the injury. That to me was an amazing accomplishment – a testament to my own power and also the spiritual wisdom available when we make the decision to listen.

I’m aware that not every story of injury or disability will have a happy ending. However, for me the pathway out of that horrifying experience was a clear and steady climb. I made my way by accepting lots of help, and trusting my instincts about how to make things better for myself, even when it meant doing something very different from everyone else around me.