by Nadine Visagie of suite101.com
On 20 March 2010, Nadine Visagie of suite101.com, an international networking portal for enquiring minds, conducted an interview with Tracy Todd. From this, two articles have been published at suite101.com, namely: Living life to the fullest as a quadriplegic; and Advice to people living with quadriplegia.
The full interview on which the above articles are based is given below.
Which aspects of your personality have changed due to the accident?
I don’t think it’s really possible for one to change one’s personality. I think I’m still very much the same person I always was. I am still Tracy Todd but far richer and stronger in character for having physically and emotionally survived a very tough period in my life.
In which ways did the accident force you to grow as a person?
I’ve learned to be more patient, more tolerant and more accepting of differences and thus discovered the joy of celebrating my uniqueness and using it as a gift to reach out and make a difference to the lives of others. And I’m still learning…. I learned that although I need a wheelchair to get around it is most certainly not what defines me as a woman. I was able to reclaim my femininity as I rediscovered my sensuality. Intimacy is a basic human need and it is something that should be celebrated, shared and enjoyed. Most people automatically assume – wrongly – that because I am paralyzed I am unable to have sex. That is because society has fallen into the classic – and all too common – trap of defining intimacy between two people who love one another deeply as “sex” which in my mind is “animal-like genital intercourse”. Many people simply take it for granted that I would not be able to fulfill any man’s sexual needs and therefore would not make a suitable life partner. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve heard of many marriages that fall apart because a fully functioning partner has the inability to connect physically with the other. Thus my abilities – or seemingly lack of – hold no relevance.
Have you totally made peace with what happened and if so how did you manage to do it? If not, please elaborate.
If I were to be very honest, I would have to admit that I have not totally made peace with what happened. But, I choose to live a full, meaningful life. In order to get on with life, I have had to accept the fact that I am paralyzed from my neck down because there is absolutely nothing I can do to change it. But I will continue to live in hope that maybe one day, somehow, things will change. Besides, what is life without hope? In the meantime, life goes on.
You mentioned that being positive is a choice you have to make every day. How do you keep your mind focused on the positive when you are down?
Firstly, I allow myself to be down. I think it’s normal, natural and necessary. Everybody has a bad day from time to time. However, I’ve learned that once I’m in that deep black hole it’s very difficult to claw my way out of it again, so I am mindful of not allowing myself to wallow in misery for too long, or allowing the emotion to become too intense. I pray every day for courage and strength to face each challenge. When I feel too sorry for myself, I try to take the focus off me. I make an effort to reach out to a friend/stranger in need. Give a little – the gains are overwhelming. I focus on what I have got and what I can do, and not on what I have lost or what I cannot do. I remind myself to be grateful. Things could be worse. No matter how bad I am feeling, I get up each morning and dress to kill – if you look good, you feel good. I force a smile because eventually it penetrates my being as well. I also try to tap into my sense of humour. I’ve discovered the joy and benefit of laughing at myself and with others. I find that none of this comes naturally, but rather it is a conscious choice I make to be positive.
Besides losing your ability to move, what else did you lose as a result of the accident?
The most difficult thing I’ve had to come to terms with has been my total and utter loss of privacy and independence. Then, as a direct result of my injury, I also lost my husband (we were divorced a year later), my home, my career (I was a full-time teacher) and, most tragically, I was stripped of the privilege of being a full-time mom, as custody of my son was awarded to my ex-husband.
Do you feel that life is unfair, or do you think that there is a bigger purpose to everything, including tragic events?
Yes, life is most definitely unfair. But it’s unfair for all. There were so many days when I asked the question “why me?” But then I came to the realization that I needed to ask the question “why NOT me?” What makes me more/less special than anyone else? And the answer is simple – nothing. This is the path my life has taken. It was a completely random accident, so I may as well make the most of the journey to avoid missing out on life itself.
What motivated you to become an inspirational speaker?
I desperately needed to regain some sort of sense of self-worth. I needed to find more purpose and value to my life. I didn’t want to continue feeling like I was an oxygen thief or a useless piece of flesh, sitting in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I wanted to make a positive contribution to society. I needed to prove to the world that I am not disabled and incapable just because I am paralyzed from the neck down. I wanted to set an example to my son so that he could believe the words I was telling him that anything is possible if he sets his mind to it. I wanted to start working again. To be able to work and earn one’s own money is a joy and a privilege that most people take for granted.
What is the most rewarding part of being an inspirational speaker?
The rewards are many, but the most special part of it is when people (complete strangers) open up their hearts, bare their souls and share their own personal stories with me. It’s such a privilege to share a part of their lives – their personal joy and pain.
What inspires you?
Oh many things, my son; the beauty and magnificence of our planet; the incredible human spirit which has the ability to triumph over adversity; the kindness I receive from complete strangers … all of these things humble me.
What advice do you have for people going through similar situations?
Take one day at a time. Build a solid support structure of family, friends and committed care assistants whom you can rely on day or night. Take control of your life as soon as possible by making your own choices and decisions and, most importantly, take responsibility for your own well-being and care.
What is a typical day like for you?
Sitting, sitting and more sitting… And sometimes thinking. *laugh*
It takes me double the time (or more) that it would normally take you to carry out basic routines like showering, bladder and bowel movements, dressing and eating with the help of my care assistants. I run my home and take care of my son like any other stay-at-home mom (I see him everyday, alternate weekends and holidays). I strive to keep my mind as busy and active as possible by reading, writing and preparing for presentations.
What can able-bodied people do in everyday situations to assist people with physical challenges?
Give of their time and talents to help empower the person living with a disability to live as independently as possible. Everybody can do something to make a difference if they really want to.
What would you like to see changed in order to better accommodate for the needs of people dealing with physical disabilities?
I would like to see schools adopting a more inclusive and tolerant approach. In the ideal world, people should be encouraged to nurture tolerance, compassion and acceptance for all types of people. As an example to our children, it is imperative that our schools create an environment that is representative of these ideals by upholding each and everyone’s right to move about freely. I feel that if I had been given the privilege of being more exposed to differently-abled people from a young age, I would not have grown up knowing as much prejudice and ignorance.
The world we live in is primarily adapted to suit the needs of able-bodied people, but we all need to coexist in the same world. Thus it is exceptionally important to create awareness and to make changes in order to fulfill and accommodate the needs of all people where possible.
What do you miss most about your former life, or do you try not think about that anymore?
The things I miss most in life are the small things, like reaching out to someone (especially my son) and giving them a hug. Being able to draw someone you love deeply into your own personal space and feel the love and warmth flow between you is a joy and basic human need that most people take for granted. I miss being able to dance to the sound of good music. I miss being able to clap my hands as a human expression for something that brings me pleasure, such as a live show. I miss being able to laugh out loud until my tummy aches. I miss being able to style my own hair in my own way and putting on my make up the way I like it. I miss being able to wave to someone I recognise as a greeting from a distance. I miss being able to use my hands in an explanation or when giving someone directions. I miss being able to point my fingers in order to direct another person’s eyes to something I am looking at. I miss being able to dig in the soil with my bare hands. I miss being able to walk barefoot on the grass or on the beach. I miss… The list is endless!
Are you still teaching? If so, what do you enjoy most about teaching?
Although I am not teaching permanently in a formal classroom anymore, I believe that I was born to be a teacher. Teaching is my passion. Since my accident I have continued to teach in one way or another. I’ve given extra lessons, taught English literacy to adults, done some relief teaching and homeschooled children for periods of time. However I miss the spontaneity of the children in the classroom. For me, living with physical challenges always feels as if one has to constantly prove one’s abilities and competence to all – except for children. Children have the most remarkable natural tolerance and ability to accept differences.
Did you lose certain friendships after the accidents because people were intimidated by what happened to you or did your friendships just become stronger?
Yes some friends struggled to cope and chose to withdraw. The true friends have persevered along with me on the (often difficult) journey and for that I am grateful. I’ve also had the privilege of making many new friends with whom I have formed strong bonds. The beauty of these friendships is that they chose to come into my life despite the fact that I was no longer physically whole. They taught that there are many special people in the world who have the ability to look way beyond my wheelchair and recognize me for the person I am.
What advice do you have for family and relatives who want to give unconditional support to someone in a similar situation than yours?
Don’t become despondent, there is life after a spinal cord injury. I’m not denying that quadriplegia is extreme. It is harsh! It often has a ripple effect – forcing family, friends and the immediate community into a whole new way of life. Read, learn and educate yourself as much as possible with regards to the specific needs and care required. The situation has the potential to push the boundaries of normal family relationships beyond those that are normally acceptable. Be prepared to deal with depression and extreme emotions of anger, bitterness and resentment. It can take up to four years for an injured person to come to terms with their injury. Although unconditional love, care and support is needed and greatly appreciated, I would urge families to resist the temptation to step in and take over. Do not begin treating the injured person like a child. Respect their decisions or choices no matter how difficult it is to accept. If at all possible, avoid becoming the primary caregiver, as it tends to strain relationships, often beyond repair.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned from this experience?
I have learned so many lessons. The ones that stand out are – don’t ever take anything in life for granted. The mind is the most powerful tool one possesses and most people underestimate the power of the human spirit to fight for survival and existence, no matter what the circumstances.
What are your goals for the future?
To be the best possible mother to my son, Chad who is almost 13. To touch the lives of others and to make a positive difference to this world. To change mindsets, one at a time, and expose ignorant assumptions towards people living with disabilities. Finally, writing that book!
So are you planning to write a book about your experiences?
Yes, I have actually written a book, but I have never found the courage to have it published. I know that what I have written has the potential to make a difference to this world, and is too powerful to be left lying in a cupboard. Hopefully, now that I have been encouraged and inspired by a special friend to start writing a blog, I will gain more experience and confidence in my writing, and then be motivated to publish my story. You may read my blogs at https://tracytodd.wordpress.com and http://blogs.women24.com/tracytodd
Were there times when you just wanted to give up? How did you manage to tap into the part of yourself that is strong and indestructible?
Yes there were many times when I just wanted to give up. I think many people have days like that from time to time. Perhaps my lows are a little more intense than those of others, but I cannot say for sure. I don’t see myself as uniquely strong and indestructible. There was a time in my life when I was arrogant enough to believe that I was invincible. Although those days were absolute bliss, I shudder to think of how irresponsible I was at the time. I think what kept me from ever giving up completely was the knowledge that if I did, I would be disappointing and hurting the very people I cared for most – my son, my parents, my family and my friends.