For those of you who know me, you might think of me as a “happy go lucky” kind of guy. However on February 12, 2014, I certainly did not feel very “happy go lucky”. As some of you know, that was the day I suffered from a severe neck injury (failed backflip attempt at a gymnastics gym) resulting in 3 fractures in my C1-C2 vertebrae. These are the two vertebrae that allow you to shake your head yes and no. These are also the two vertebrae that brake when someone is hung from a noose. For that reason, this injury is better known as the “Hangman’s Fracture”. Normally this injury results in instant death because the location of the fracture surrounds the part of the spinal cord that controls breathing and heartbeat. Thankfully in my case, my spinal cord was left untouched, resulting only in bone damage… (Phew… I really dodged a bullet there!). For the next 3.5 months, I was to wear a neck brace and acquire a sedentary lifestyle. For the first two months I wore a Halo brace, which significantly limited my upper body range of motion. The final 6 weeks, I wore a C-Collar neck brace which allowed for a little more freedom.
A short 3.5 months after the injury (I say short but it was actually the longest 3.5 months of my life) and I am sitting here without a brace of any kind answering “Yes and No” questions like it’s my job. My recovery is by no means complete; however, the toughest part is certainly behind me.
As I sit here and reflect on the journey I’ve embarked on, I realize that I’ve been able to maintain a happy disposition throughout most of it. And I can’t help but ask myself… why?
What allowed for me to be happy during such a dark time? And when I really think about it, there are 5 things that stand out when I try to answer this question.
1) Be a Caregiver to your Caregivers: When in the position of needing a caregiver, it’s easy to feel a sense of weekness. Something you didn’t need or did on your own, someone else is now doing for you. You might not want them helping you. Maybe you feel guilty or that the caretaker is doing too much for you. But more often than not, when you are suffering, your caregiver is also suffering for you. That’s why it’s important to make caregiving a two way street. One of the greatest rewards a caregiver can receive is honest, positive, grateful feedback from you.
First, give yourself permission to accept their help. Then relax. Be grateful for the help and then show them your gratitude. Being grateful not only improves your mood but the caretaker’s mood, which ultimately leads to a happier situation for everyone.
My story: As you might imagine, my parents were not thrilled to get this call. Living in San Antonio, TX, my parents immediately started looking for flights to Hilton Head. There were no guaranteed flights for several days. As quickly as they could, they packed bags, jumped in the car and started driving. After 18 hours of non-stop driving, they finally arrived and I could not have felt happier to see them. My mom ended up moving in with me and staying with me for 3 months (which I was not thrilled about at first).
It was incredibly frustrating as a young bachelor to lose my independence and have my mom move into my apartment to live my life for me. But once I gave myself permission to be okay about her helping me and admitted it was okay to have help, I felt a sense of relief. I did not have to do this alone. And neither did she. =D
2) Spend time with yourself: Whether it’s expressing a hobby, reading a book, meditating, or simply going for a walk, it is important to still make time for “me” during an emotionally difficult time. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the caregiving role, we forget to take time for ourselves. Getting away from everything else that’s distracting in the world makes having a clear and steady mind happen more easily.
My story: Usually my hobbies consist of anything involving physical activity. However, when I broke my neck I was forced to tap into other activities. I’ve always had a passion for music so I spent a lot of time watching music videos on YouTube. After a little inspiration, I decided I wanted to make a music video. I started learning how to use Garage Band (a recording program on most Mac computers) as well as I-movie (a movie making program on most Mac computers). I became obsessed with learning more about and creating my family tree. This hobby was extra special because it forced me to stay in touch with more family members than usual. With all the projects I got myself excited about, I was able to keep a positive attitude. AND not only that! When I was deep in a project, I forgot that I was even wearing the Halo. =D
3) Keep a sense of Humor: Research continues to show that laughter truly is the best medicine. Laughter releases “feel good” hormones such as serotonin and dopamine which improves mood, decreases stress and improves immune system and body function. This is not to say that laughter is the “cure all”. But laughter is one of the body’s greatest forms of natural treatment to keep itself in a healthier place.
My story: During my injury, I decided to put this claim to the test. Luckily for me, I have a roommate with a great sense of humor who always knows how to keep the humor flowing (shout out to Alex Santa). That made it much easier. Along with that, I made it a point to watch comical movies and television shows that I thought would make me laugh. I must have watched over 50 episodes of Saturday Night Live in a 2-week period on Netflix. Needless to say, my frequent laughter was a major contributor to keeping my happiness elevated during my time in the Halo. =D
4) Allow yourself to feel: As our very own Behavioral Therapist, Lisette Cifaldi, would say: Do not “unplug” yourself from your emotions. Acknowledge your emotions. Feel your emotions. When you’re angry, FEEL angry. When you want to cry, cry. Every time you ignore an emotion, it becomes part of a pile that gets stuffed down and roots itself deep inside. When your pile gets too big, it outweighs your ability to fight for happiness.
My Story: About 4 weeks into wearing my Halo, I started to realize that no matter how hard I tried on the outside – I was not happy on the inside. For 4 weeks, I was ignoring my negative emotions. For 4 weeks, I was lying to myself and pretending everything was okay. But honestly, everything was not okay.
I felt sadness. I felt anger. I felt resentment towards myself. I felt regret towards the decision I made to backflip. Just when I thought I gained complete independence, my parents moved in to take care of me. I felt like I was moving backwards. I chose to ignore all of that for 4 weeks. I chose only to feel the things that I associated with happiness, which ironically, led me away from happiness. Once I finally gave attention to those emotions, expressed them and felt them; I found myself laughing more, smiling more, and enjoying the company of those around me more. All of a sudden, life became colorful again. =)
5) Find meaning in your struggles: Let’s face it, sometimes things happen in life that simply suck. There always has been and always will be outside forces preventing you from making things exactly the way you want them to be. But being happy isn’t about getting WHAT you want. Being happy is about being WHO you want. Take what life throws at you and use it to build you up NOT drag you down. Take that lemon and create lemonade. If you believe that everything happens for a reason, search for that reason. Learn from it. If you don’t believe that then assign it a reason. Teach yourself something from it. The toughest time in life is the truest test of WHO we want to be.
When you’re in the middle of a struggle, ask yourself, “Where is the silver lining in all of this? What about this experience brings me one step closer to my ideal self? What would my ideal self do in this situation?”.
My story: When I look back at my struggles from my neck injury, of course, I remember the pain and suffering that affected both me and my loved ones. Of course, I remember losing my independence and having my parents move in with me. Of course, I remember NOT being able to be physically active for 3 months. Of course I remember not being able to fall asleep for hours. I could go on and on about the things that sucked. And you know what… I will never forget them. I will never forget them in a good way. I will always be proud that I had them. Because from each negative memory I was given, I was given an even greater positive memory. Positive memories that I could only get from those negative ones. Like:
– The quality time with my parents that not every young man gets to have.
– The vision to see just how many people love and remember me. (More than I would have ever imagined, some people I have not spoken to since Middle school!)
– The growth in my creative hobbies, in my relationships with others, in the relationship with myself and growth with life in general.
– The spotlight while I was the center of attention for 3 months =D
– The work experience – since I wasn’t able to be as active, I’ve had the opportunity to work on the sales side of business.
– The bragging rights to say that I survived the HANGMAN’S FRACTURE!!!
Lastly, it’s not always easy to put these strategies into practice. Take it from me. It isn’t always easy for me, either. But I assure you when you do, it will make a world of a difference.