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Why having a physical disability may have been the greatest thing to ever happen to me

Why having a physical disability may have been the greatest thing to ever happen to me

I spent two years physically disabled. From the age of eight until I was ten I was not allowed to participate in physical activities more intense than walking or swimming. In fact, for a little more than one calendar year, beginning at the age of eight, I was confined to using crutches wherever I went. All of this was the result or a rare condition called Legg-Calve Perthes disease, and while I may have been too young to be able to understand what was happening, this time in my life taught me more than just about any other. Hopefully my experiences will resonate with you

My life completely changed suddenly. In one day I went from a supremely athletic, energetic, fun-loving, and confident child to a disabled boy who was no longer able to play normally. While the development of my condition didn’t simply happen overnight, the diagnosis came in a matter of seconds. It was the end of the summer and for weeks I had been convinced that I’d pulled my groin. I was constantly feeling an ache on the high inner portion of my hip and the feeling would not go away so finally it was time to see a doctor. After an evaluation by my primary care pediatrician it was determined I needed to get X-rays (for the first time in what would become a near monthly photo shoot) and see an orthopedic surgeon. Upon reading the result of the X-rays it was a pretty clear case of Perthes disease, a condition where the blood flow to top of the femur (the “ball” in the ball-and-socket joint that is the hip) stopped. As a result of the lack of blood to the femur, the bone became compromised, as it was no longer receiving vital nutrients from the body.

What this means is that the bone was vulnerable to deteriorating if too much impact were inflicted on the joint by such things like running, jumping, skipping, falling, climbing, etc…so basically any and all things an eight year old boy might enjoy. Not even 24-hours after the diagnosis came in I was fitted with crutches and told that these uncomfortable and awkward sticks would be my new mode of transportation for at least the next 12-months.

For the next year I crutched. I actually got pretty good at it too! I could seriously move on those things, and if there had been crutch racing I probably would have done quite well for myself, they could even call it, “The Tiny Tim games.” But crutching quickly was the extent of my physical accomplishments during this time. I had to use an elevator to go up the one flight of stairs in my school.

I wasn’t allowed to go outside for recess, lest I might be tempted to do, well, anything. Instead, I got to go to the library while my peers went out and played on the swings and embarked on games of kickball. P.E. classes were also an exercise in frustration as more often than not I wasn’t able to perform any of the activities being learned. However, I did have an incredible teacher who found any and all ways possible to get me involved. For that I will always be grateful. During this time I spent a lot of my energy on things like video games, TV shows, books, and other indoor, inactive activities. I also developed a much deeper interest in music and movies than ever before, probably because these were the only outlets I really had. I won’t say however that it was a seamless transition to a sedentary and cautious way of being. Quite frankly I was pissed off, sad, incredibly frustrated, and above all scared by my situation. Simply put, it sucked. However, around a year after my initial diagnosis, I was cleared to move around without the use of crutches and engage in low-impact activities such as swimming and light biking.

The non-crutched portion of my recovery presented me with many new challenges, as well as new opportunities. While it was great being off the crutches (by this time I legitimately wanted to burn those things…I actually asked my parents if I could set them on fire multiple times) it was almost more frustrating NOT having them. For those of you who have seen The Dark Knight Rises try to recall the prison Bane sends Brue Wayne to. Bane describes it as, “the worst hell on Earth,” because all the prisoners are forced to see the light of the sky as a reminder of the world outside. The prisoners are saddled with hope of someday escaping to freedom.

I bring this up to draw a comparison to being off the crutches but still not being allowed to do anything other than swim, bike and walk. Oh, I also made a hobby of learning and practicing archery wayyyyy before Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games made that cool (this is just further reason why Jennifer Lawrence and I are soul mates. Just sayin’).

However, I digress, this time in my life was much more challenging for me emotionally and mentally than when I was on crutches. The temptation was always present to break my recovery protocol and say, “to hell with it, I’m just going to play like a normal 9-year old.” Worse, my peers didn’t understand why I still had to say things like, “I’m not allowed to run,” or, “I’m not supposed to jump off of the swings.” I was constantly afraid any misstep or tumble would be the end of my rehabilitation and that I would completely derail any chances of a full recovery. I was unhappier than ever, frustrated, angry, and worse, in terrible physical shape. I was fat and got out of breath super easily. It wasn’t a fun experience, but certainly one that gave me a new and unique perspective.

Finally it happened and the day came when the burden was lifted, I was given a clear bill of health! I still vividly remember the first time I ran again. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt like I was moving faster in my life than that moment, and it’s a moment I cherish still. I was still given some physical limitations of course, I couldn’t return from two years of almost no activity to full speed right away. I had to give it another year before I could resume playing football, as the physical contact might disrupt the still weak hip joint and the surrounding tissue. Also, I was really out of shape! As it turns out, sitting on your butt, honing your Tony Hawk Pro Skater Xbox skills for two years doesn’t really provide much transfer to any sort of physical fitness. So I went to work, and I attacked my physical weaknesses with the relentless pursuit of a caged animal finally set free, because that is exactly how I felt. It was very much an uphill battle, but one I was beyond ready to pursue. I ran cross-country to get back in shape, I tried out for, and somehow made, the basketball team to remain active, I signed up for every camp, clinic, and practice I could. When I was “inactively” watching TV, I would do push-ups and sit-ups at commercial breaks. P.E. classes were treated like the last chance I’d ever have to play again. I couldn’t imagine not moving again and this would set the stage for my personal and professional life moving forward. I had a profound understanding of what it felt like to be trapped in my own body and I never wanted to feel that way again. More so, I wanted to do all I could to help others prevent this feeling in themselves.

It goes without saying but this time period in my very young life was far and away the most challenging I’d ever experienced, and as adversity usually does, it taught me more than any other time as well. Here are some of the biggest take-aways I can offer in regards to recovering from injury and tackling challenges and goals in life.

Recovery:

  • Acknowledge how your body is feeling. It is really easy to write off minor aches and pains and twinges of pain as inconsequential. While this is sometimes the case feelings of pain that consistently show up need to be addressed, as they are usually just the symptom of a much larger cause. Had I not gotten what I thought was a groin pull checked out I would have risked doing some serious damage to a bone that was essentially to frail to support me. Pay attention to and respect your body
  • When you are injured, focus on training systems of your body that ARE available. I wasn’t allowed to use my lower body during my time with Perthes, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t work on getting super awesome arms and shoulders! I may have actually been the first “curls for the girls” advocate, as arms were all I could work. Additionally, my brain was completely healthy and this time of my life allowed me to really explore some intellectual challenges I may have never attempted otherwise. During my time with Perthes I learned to play the saxophone (since forgotten), learned to play chess, took up drawing as a hobby, learned about motorcycle fabrication, did archery, listened to new music and watched movies, and played video games (which are actually a decent source of information provided it’s the right game). I was also a much more active reader at this time and very much involved in things like the Boy Scouts. Whatever the physical ailment, never neglect the fact that you always possess the capacity to learn! So, chances are pretty good when you’re injured there is still something you can train, be it physically or mentally, and in fact, doing so will provide an emotional sense of satisfaction that will not exist if energy is instead focused on what you aren’t able to do. The latter will lead to incredible frustration, I know because I spent plenty of time dwelling on my lack of abilities, but when you can refocus efforts are what you CAN do, there is a strong positive impact.
  • Follow your recovery protocol! Doctors, physical therapists, athletic trainers, surgeons, etc. are all very smart people…listen to them! I was very successful in recovering and healing both during and after my Perthes disease because I followed the instructions laid out to me by the people with degrees in how to heal properly. Like I mentioned earlier, it was beyond tempting to run and play when the crutches were finally removed but I didn’t because I knew it might jeopardize my healing. I felt fine, and wanted nothing more in the world than to be a kid again, but I knew that long term it wasn’t the best idea. In returning from an injury it is critical to be patient and follow the game plan. Take a long-term approach to your health and listen to those who know how to get you back in action.

Life:

  • Appreciate your body. This bullet probably could have gone into the “recovery” take-away section as well but I thought it was more important here. Appreciate the body you have! It can be seriously easy to lose sight of how incredible a human body is, specifically your own body. With so much media coverage of incredible athletic feats, the sexiest scantily clad bodies in the world, and overwhelming amounts of talk of what we collectively should be doing for health, it a slippery slope to start comparing yourself to an arbitrary standard or unrealistic ideal. Your body is powerful and it is yours to treat well. You only get the one after all. While this is certainly easier said than done it is crucial to make an effort towards acknowledging and loving your own body. You don’t have to love each and every part, but recognize the things about yourself that you do admire and appreciate them well you continue to take steps towards improving those you are less satisfied with. I spent two years hating my body for feeling like it had betrayed me, but there was still so much I could do with my physical self. Instead of feeling good in what I could do, I wallowed in what I could not. I let this consume my sense of self. It was only after I was cleared to return to playing that I fully understood how miraculous a healthy body is, and even when injuries and ailments set in your body is still incredible. Treat it right, and this includes how you think about your body as well.
  • You get by with a little help from your friends. I would have lost my mind if it weren’t for the amazing people around me during my struggle through Perthes. I was, and still am, so blessed to be surrounded by good people who support me. I would be nothing without them, and that was never more evident than during my recovery. I had teachers who I know spent extra time finding ways to include me, friend’s parents who would go out of their way to check in with my family to see how I was doing and how they could help, friends who played with me at my level and joined me in the library when I was stuck inside, and family who were always by my side no matter what. All of this is to say that no man or woman is an island, especially during times of adversity. Let people be your friends! The weight of a personal struggle feels a lot lighter when you have many hands helping you carry the load. What this means is you have to be willing to humble yourself and allow people to be your support. This is not always easy, and is still something I struggle with doing. With my hip it was very clear I was going through something, but personal struggles may not be so apparent to those around you. It takes courage, and it is certainly scary, but admitting that something is weighing on you to someone close will make the journey easier and less intimidating.
  • Celebrate every step of progress. So my first cross-country race post Perthes was pretty ugly. First, I overhydrated by a lot, and when I say a lot I mean I felt like there was an ocean in my stomach because with each step I took I could feel every ounce of fluid crash from side to side in my belly like a wave. Second, I was still tremendously out of shape. I walked a lot of the race and finished near last. Hell, I might have even been last because I honestly don’t remember anyone else running with me. But above it all, I finished a race! That’s a big deal and something worth celebrating. And the next race I even managed to run the whole thing start to finish. I mention this to highlight the importance of acknowledging and celebrating progress. Acknowledging that you’re moving forward and recognizing this as an awesome accomplishment is crucial to continuing any pursuit of a goal! It’s also crucial to do with friends, employees, family, co-workers, etc. I can never think of a time in my life where I didn’t appreciate someone recognizing and mentioning that I’d improved in something. Also, whenever it does happen, I always feel more excited to return to whatever that task is. Apply the same thing to yourself and those around you. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking pride in each and every bit of progress you make. In fact, it’ll make the pursuit of any kind of goal a lot more enjoyable. You’re allowed to be excited for yourself!
  • Accomplish goals/overcome challenges one item at a time. Looking at the challenges of recovering from Perthes disease as a whole would be incredibly daunting. Fortunately, I was very young when faced with this challenge or else I might have had the unfortunate intellectual capacity for overthinking. As it was, all I could do was take each step in the recovery one at a time. The first step was learn how to use crutches properly, which by itself is very manageable and not intimidating. Once I had learned to use crutches the next step in recovery was to find new hobbies and tasks to keep myself occupied. Again, not a terribly scary challenge. I just kept doing this, setting a tiny little goal, accomplishing it, and then repeating that process. What I’m getting at here is that, “chunking,” goals and challenges is the best way to make big tasks not only doable but also much easier, as this method allows for a more focused process of goal attainment. The same can be said for overcoming adversity. Instead of projecting struggles forward and creating a mental image that the hard times will last forever focus on your day, your morning, your breakfast. Being in the moment and doing your best with it will quiet your mind and allow you to stay on task, which in turn will speed the process through difficult times. Don’t try to eat the whole pizza at once, take it one bite at a time.

The most important factor I want to stress from overcoming a physically limiting condition is that your mindset is everything. There may be no greater take away than this one. Your mindset determines success or failure, and the best part of this is that it is yours to control. When I have told people about my experiences with Perthes disease I have at times been asked the question, “how did you make it through that?!” The answer is really very simple; I had no other choice. It wasn’t as though I could opt out and just say, “No, I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t like it.” I had to endure the process, and day-by-day accept that it was part of my life for the time being, but that like all challenges, it would pass in time. Mindset can be your best friend or worst enemy, and often times there is a snowball effect within this dynamic. When faced with a challenge, be it a more difficult training program than ever attempted, hard times in life, whatever the resistance might be, the second you allow a doubt to creep in and the thought of quitting to infect your mindset you start to question yourself. How much could you accomplish if you had no choice but to see goals through to completion? Strip away the questions of self-doubt, negativity, and insecurity and you’ll see that you are capable of a lot more than you knew possible. Often times you’re closer to achieving your goal or nearing the end of a tough time than is realized, and typically this is the most challenging time in the process, but don’t allow yourself the thought of quitting or questioning yourself. When you hit a wall keep moving, even if you have to move laterally just move. Find a way over, under, around, or through that wall just don’t give up on yourself or your goals. Success and resiliency begin and end with what is between your ears.

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