By Codi Darnell, Special for USDR
I opened my eyes to the bright lights of the recovery room and my husband standing over me. It was a Friday afternoon. I should have been waking my daughter from her nap, picking my boys up from school, and celebrating the official start of Spring Break. Instead, I was fresh out of back surgery—looking up at my husband—waiting for him to tell me if my legs would ever work again.
I was certain of the answer before he even uttered a word. I knew seconds after I landed at the bottom of that 10-foot-hole I had likely used my legs for the last time. I spent the hours leading up to surgery assuring myself that I would be okay inside that reality—repeating over and over It’s just your legs. You can still be a mom. It’s just your legs. Even so his confirmation obliterated any shred of hope I had held onto and, for the first time since I took my last steps almost 24 hours before, I cried.
In that post-surgery haze, still oblivious to the complicated and mostly invisible aspects of paralysis, I mourned the loss of my legs. The line is you will never walk again, so why would I think to grieve anything else? That line is straight out of a Hollywood writer’s room and falls into the conversations between doctors and thousands of spinal cord injury (SCI) patients every year. It is full of shock-value and false impressions. It is five words. Five words that showcase the obvious but in no way accurately summarize the upheaval paralysis inflicts upon a life—upheaval I was about to experience first-hand.
Over the course of 12 days in the hospital, eight weeks at rehab, and more than three years since it all went down, my understanding of SCI changed rapidly—I got up close and personal with all of its realities. From the loss of bladder and bowel control and how to best manage that, to the changes in sexual function, to the constant physical pain and everything in between, I could no longer tell myself that it was just my legs. However, I found myself uncharacteristically resilient and even if this injury was more than I had originally bargained for I was determined to fight for my life. I would be okay inside this reality. I had to be.
I was prepared to push myself physically in order to learn how to exist in this foreign body. Every goal I reached was met with celebration but also veiled in sadness for what it meant would never be the same. But with hard work I truly believed we would find our way back to a life that felt familiar—a life where I could still be the wife, mother and woman I wanted to be. I was prepared for the work to rehabilitate my body. What I wasn’t prepared for was the work to rehabilitate my spirit. What I underestimated was the grief.
The grief paid no attention to my determination and had no place my for my resilience. There were many nights it hung in the air like a thick smoke that stole the oxygen from my lungs and turned my world an unforgiving shade of black. It left me gasping for air through the panic and convinced me that I would make a deal with the devil if my life could go back to normal. At its strongest it persuaded me I would never be enough and that I would never reconcile the life I knew before and the life I was about to discover. Grief is cruel and it is strong. But while I may have underestimated it, I soon realized I also underestimated myself. Because hell hath no fury like a mama trying to get back to her kids.
Getting back to my kids—going home—was my motivation from the start. My husband and I had the support system that dreams are made of but, paralyzed or not, my babies needed me. And while there were days I wanted to run—okay roll—away and hide from the world, I refused. This injury would not take away my motherhood and in fighting for that I found my life waiting for me. And even though I was terrified to experience my life in a series of firsts that I thought were far behind me—sex, being home alone with my children, driving, taking my kids to school, cooking, throwing birthday parties and everything else you could possibly think of—I forced myself into all of it because I would not let my life happen without me.
Normalcy is such a relative term. Certainly what I consider to be normal life now would be absolutely mind-boggling to the able-bodied woman I used to be. On the day of my accident, I lost pieces of myself I had wrongly assumed were non-negotiable aspects of my existence. I lost pieces of myself I had taken for granted and pieces I had truly believed were necessary for me to feel like a complete person. But on the day of my accident I didn’t know what I was capable of.
Since that day I have surprised myself. Every tear I shed, assumption I made, and self-doubt I possessed helped me to unveil a woman who could take the fragments of her broken self and exist happily within them. A woman who could welcome her grief in for a moment of suffocation because she knows acknowledging it will help her breathe again so much quicker than if she tries to bury it. A woman who got her life back.
Codi Darnell lives in Vancouver, Canada with her husband and three children. After a fall in 2016 left her paralyzed she wanted to avoid pity and help people see who she was behind the disability. In her attempt to demystify wheelchair life and spinal cord injury, she started her blog Help Codi Heal (www.helpcodiheal.com ) in 2017 and won Vancouver Mom Top Blogger in 2018. She takes a candid approach in her writing—even when it’s uncomfortable and awkward—because she figures if people understand the disability they are more likely to see past it. Follow her journey on Instagram and Facebook @helpcodiheal.