It should come as no surprise that living life with a disability presents an extra set of challenges in a world that’s difficult enough already. I must admit, I never thought I would experience these challenges myself at the ripe old age of 23, but I certainly did. Now, six years after my injury, I continue to face struggles and challenges associated with my disability everyday and that is exactly why I wrote this post. There are so many other people in the world forced to face similar challenges and I hope that sharing my story will inspire those people to never give up while also providing perspective to those who have been fortunate enough to live a healthy life. So here’s my memoir (full disclaimer: it’s a long one).
The truth is, my life was turned upside down after my injury. The doctors looked me in the eyes and told me that my life would never be the same again and damn were they right. That first doctor told me, “You fractured your vertebrae in your back, herniated a few disks, and permanently damaged your sciatic nerve in your left leg.” He proceeded to tell me that, “We can fix most of it but your Army career is over and there is a great deal of permanent damage that will force you to make major lifestyle adjustments”.
Just what every 23 year old wants to hear…
The second doctor handed me a cane and told me to call him when I was ready for surgery…
For those of you who don’t know my story, here’s a brief overview. In 2016, my Army career was cut short after a pretty significant injury to my spine. On morning, I woke up just like every other morning, living my dream as a soldier in the United States Army, but little did I know that day would change my life forever.
I was part of a NATO support operation in Slovakia and I remember waking up that morning complaining about how “uncomfortable” I was sleeping on a cot in the freezing cold mountains of Eastern Europe. Looking back now, I had no idea what “uncomfortable” truly meant. Not yet, at least.
I didn’t know it yet, but that morning would be the last time I ever woke up without pain again. That morning would be the last time I got out of bed easily, or put my own shoes on without struggle, dressed myself normally, or lived like most 23 year old people do. The night before was also the last time I would get a descent nights sleep…
By the time I laid down for bed the night of my injury, I could barely feel my legs and I had searing pain shooting up my back and into my neck.
Fast forward 11 months later, after nearly a year of pain management and physical therapy (9 months for which I walked with that cane), the United States Army officially determined that I was “unfit” for duty.
In the blink of an eye, I went from being a rock star soldier living my dream to being broken, medically discharged and sent home to rebuild my life that was currently in shambles…
Now years later, when people hear this story after they have met me, I often hear something like, “Wow, I would have never known by looking at you!”
Well, good. I have worked so hard to get where I am today but it hasn’t been easy. I’ve had three surgeries on my back, a dozen steroid treatments, hundreds (if not thousands) of pain management and physical therapy appointments and six years later, I feel like I’m just getting started on my recovery journey…
That’s the first lesson that I have learned about living life with a disability:
Nobody understands the true impacts of life with a disability because the true war is behind closed doors. Being disabled isn’t just a handicap placard. It’s a constant battle to live the life you want to live.
In addition to my extensive medical treatment, behind closed doors I’ve battled crippling pain everyday, I’ve escaped the wicked grasp of deep depression, I’ve faced and overcame never ending setbacks, and I’ve been forced to accept that my life will be far from “normal”.
If you know me then hopefully you know that I have a very positive mindset but that’s been developed over time. If I’m being honest, when this injury was still new, it forced me into some pretty negative places. I’ve struggled to find reasons to get out of bed. I’ve been angry with God and I’ve tried to push people who were close to me away. I hated that being a soldier was taken from me and that anger was hard to get past.
If the physical ailments and chronic pain wasn’t enough to break me, the psychological components were the icing on the cake. Depression was inevitable and the constant mental battle to find a way to think positively was exhausting.
But can you guess what the absolute hardest part about life after my injury has been for me?
Nope. It’s not the pain, I got used to that.
It’s not the physical limitations because I don’t listen to those…
It’s not even the hundreds of appointments I’ve had or the never ending therapy…
For me, it’s feeling vulnerable around those I love. Specifically, my wife and daughter. It’s feeling like I am holding them back from living the life they deserve because their lives often revolve around whether I feel ok or not.
I can deal with pain but they shouldn’t have to see me do it.
Limping doesn’t bother me but they shouldn’t have to slow down life so I can keep up.
Now, to be clear, this post isn’t a pity party for me. I’m one hell of a warrior in the face of adversity but this journey has kicked my ass. I wrote this post to transparently share my journey to where I am today and to relive how far I’ve come because I know there is somebody out there somewhere that’s thinking about giving up. I know this because at the peak of my struggles, I thought about giving up myself.
But I promised Kelsey Rose I would never give up on this road to recovery and that’s what kept me going. As much as it pained me to be vulnerable around her, I knew it had to be done if I had any chance of getting better.
Then when I found out she was pregnant, I went into “hyper recovery” mode. I spent eight months in grueling physical therapy and pain management so I could get myself in top shape before sweet Isabella Rose arrived.
It may have been naïve, but I had convinced myself that if I just worked hard enough, my daughter would never see me in pain, and my wife would see me as Superman again…
If I worked hard enough, my daughter would never see me limp or be in pain and never have to see her mommy care for me or see her daddy struggle. I convinced myself that if I just worked hard enough in therapy, I would never have to avoid holding her because I was in too much pain or skip days at the playground because I didn’t feel well.
All I wanted was what I imagine most fathers want – to be a superhero in their children’s eyes. I feared that wouldn’t be the case if she knew how beat up her daddy was…
Well, about four months after sweet Isabella Rose was born, my disability started to get the better of me again. Despite all of my hard work, the doctors actually told me that things were somehow getting worse. The damage in my back caused residual arthritis from my tailbone up through my neck, and instead of 4 bad disks in my lower, I now have 12 bad disks from my tailbone up to the base of my skull. Slowly the pain in my back and neck became so bad that it triggered the crippling migraines almost daily.
Just as I was finally feeling like I was starting to win this war, another battle began…
I remember thinking to myself, “Please God, just give me a break. I just spent the last six years in a dogfight with a disability that I thought I was winning and now you’re telling me, it’s worse today than it was six years ago?”
I’m a resilient guy but this was a major blow. Not because it meant more pain or a longer recovery for me but because I had to go home and look Kelsey in the eye and tell her that we were back to the starting line.
But she was a champion about it. She didn’t even blink an eye. She went to the freezer and grabbed me an icepack and said, “Well, let’s get started”. She was there to support me and help me in ways I could never begin to describe but as irrational as it may seem, that’s what hurts the most. As much as I love that she is there for me, nobody wants to feel that vulnerable. It sucked. No 27 year old should have to care for their spouse the way she needs to care for me. I wanted to be her rock, not the other way around.
We had been together over 10 years at this point which means she knew me before the Army. She knew me when I felt like G.I. Joe and now she was seeing my at my worst…over and over and over again.
The worst part was, it wasn’t just Kelsey Rose that I felt vulnerable around. My worst fear with Isabella was coming true as she was seeing me in pain everyday.
How could she possibly see me as a superhero if she saw me laying in bed all day or if she saw me walking around like a zombie because the pain was so bad?
There were day’s that I couldn’t help with bedtime or take her to daycare because the pain was so bad and it broke my heart.
Now, to be clear, I went straight back to pain management and therapy when I found out how bad things had gotten. I am not a man that will ever surrender to my disability but this is the mental component of life with a disability. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that eventually, brings even the strongest willed people to their knees.
But then it happened…the day that changed the way I view my disability forever.
Remember how I said that I don’t listen to the physical imitations? Well, me being the genius I am decided I should tailgate all morning before spending four hours sitting in a stadium chair for the Cleveland Browns Home Opener…
I knew this was a bad idea but part of the struggle with being so young and having a major physical disability is accepting why those limitations exist. After only 30 minutes (approximately 9:30 AM, I felt shooting pain from the base of my skull down into my toes and that pain only got worse over the next 8 hours.
By the time I got home, I remember standing in the garage trying to collect myself so neither Kelsey or Bella would notice how much pain I was in, but there was no covering up this type of pain. I could barely walk. I couldn’t hold my head up straight and I could barely open my eyes because my head hurt so bad. Then my heart broke when I walked inside and Kelsey Rose and Bella met me with those glowing smiles that quickly turned to frowns as they saw me in my “walking coma”.
Kelsey helped me to the couch and sat down right next to me with Bella in her arms and I just started crying. I was so embarrassed…
But I couldn’t make this next part up if I wanted to…
The moment the tears started running down my face, my six month old daughter put her hand on my head almost as if to say, “It’s ok daddy, don’t cry”.
It may sound irrational or even corny or cliché, but to me, that felt like her six month old self accepting me for who I was. Broken and all. I took that hand on my head as her saying, “I love you just as much when you are hurting as I do when you’re on top of the world”.
It changed everything. Just knowing that I didn’t scare her made my irrational fears go away.
A few hours and probably 10 icepacks later, I came back to life and sat there holding Bella with more happiness in my heart than ever before. It was then that I realized, maybe being a superhero in her eyes isn’t about hiding my flaws from her and pretending my disability doesn’t exist. But maybe, it’s showing her that I will always bounce back from the challenges that I face and that her daddy will never surrender.
More importantly, maybe it’s not about me being a superhero in her eyes that’s important but rather that she sees her parents being superhero’s for each other. Kelsey Rose is my rock and I am hers. Together, we are invincible and that’s what is most important for Bella to see.
This journey has been so damn difficult but Bella has reminded me how far I’ve come. Although there may be days where both Kelsey Rose and Bella will see me at my worst, I will always get back up and keep fighting. I have come so far in life and God has given me the opportunity to use this journey to inspire others.
Finally, I’ve learned some very difficult lessons throughout this journey that I want to share with all of you…
- If people say they want to help, let them. Although nobody likes to admit it, everybody needs help in life.
- Nobody is perfect. We all have imperfections. Hiding those imperfections from those we love causes more harm than just being transparent in the first place.
- Love makes us do wild things. We will go to the ends of the earth for those we love.
- If people do truly love you, they will love you at your best and at your worst.
- There is always light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how bad things seem, it will always get better if you just hold on for long enough.
Thank you to all of you who have read this post. My journey hasn’t been easy but it has taught me so much about life that seems too valuable to not share with the world around me.
If you enjoyed this article, enter your email below and subscribe to receive these posts directly in your inbox! Please also share any comments you have below! You can also check out other posts I’ve published by clicking here !
You can also pick up copies of both of my books, Reflections from the Man in the Mirror & Secrets from Strangers on Amazon or you can order signed copies of my books with personalized messages by clicking here!