Like it or not, I have spent hours alone, with just my thoughts, staring up at speckled hospital ceiling tiles. It’s been 15 years since my injury, and it doesn’t matter the hospital name or location, when I look up it’s a Groundhog Day of familiar, bleak identical rows of static squares. Initially after breaking my neck, the constant presence of those white squares felt heavier than the body parts I could no longer lift. I resented having to look at them. But like everything else, they became part of my life. Those hours spent on my own with their visual white noise eventually inspired what is now an important routine of self-reflection.
Recognition of My Fear Helped
In the beginning, certain aspects of recovery seem excruciatingly slow, while others are flung our way at warp speed. Overwhelming feelings start showing up soon after we stabilize, and no one knows what to do. The experience of a traumatic event can make even the most innocuously positive things, like an initial outpouring of love and support, feel outlandishly surreal.
For me, it was key to quickly figure out how to accept the complexity of my thoughts and emotions. Recognition of my fears and emotional sticking points has encouraged me to keep on top of what I need from myself, as well as what I expect from the world now that I am paralyzed.
The reality of my initial injury is that it was only a blip in time compared to all of the years of living I have experienced as a thriving quadriplegic. I have yet to encounter a magic pill or treatment that could do the work of helping me, or any of us, to re-understand our place in the world. This leaves us largely on our own to navigate things like belonging, intimacy, fear, self-respect, and anything else we are going to need to feel well-rounded and fulfilled.
We may attempt to avoid these internal struggles and harsher realities by giving ourselves over to screens, substances, hobbies, and the needs of others. Tuning out is essential at times, but we do ourselves a great disservice if we allow it to be our singular mechanism for coping. Hospital ceilings, important challenges and dark days sneak up on all of us. There is enormous power in having a personally honed and verified practice of self-awareness at the ready when we need mental self-care or want to keep our emotions in check.
The Fruits of Self-Reflection
While it doesn’t always happen, I appreciate being confident about my reactions to unexpected situations. To accomplish this, I invest time to create personal strategies that allow for reliable in-the-moment consideration and decision-making. This eases up on stress, and being familiar with my instincts breeds comfort with my emotional responses. This awareness becomes extremely useful when there is a need to realistically reflect on important events, or I want to evaluate and learn from good and bad experiences.
Personally, I know I sleep better when I am thoughtful about respecting the set of standards I use to genuinely approach my relationships and responsibilities. Most of the time I rely heavily on treating others how I’d like to be treated. Which, as a question — how would we like to be treated — holds unique answers for each of us. Figuring out our personal ideals of treatment is a good excuse to ask ourselves important questions about what we value. Not only is this process liberating to enact, but it can be a catalyst for recognizing and building solutions for areas of life not currently meeting our expectations.
A hardy amount of self-reflection has granted me a much clearer understanding about myself than I ever had pre-injury. I take hard looks at how my “boat floats,” the maintenance I needs for best performance, and the behavior and ways of thinking that easily get me off course.
These days, if a test or unexpected ER visit gets me on my back, I can usually muster a sideways smile and nod up at those ceiling tiles. Their unchanged state not only reminds me to be vigilant about my own continuous personal evolution, but that those hospital walls and what they represent don’t define me. I do.