Published in the Big Issue, Edition #350 , 16 – 29 March 2010.
When I was in my senior year at high school, I remember listening cynically to people harp on about “making your mark” on the world. We were subjected to motivational speaker after motivational speaker, each trying to encourage a room of disinterested and slightly horny adolescents to be “inspirational”. Depressed, loaded with angst and struggling with serious health issues, I never related to the message.
But life and time have changed me. In the seven years since graduating from high school, I have overcome depression, lost my faith, harmed myself, gone through relationships, lost friends, gained friends, changed locations, healed myself, found new faith…and become a paraplegic, a predicament I still find myself adjusting to after four years in a wheelchair.
How and why I ended up in a wheelchair is a long story. From the age of 13 to 22, I struggled with a serious medical condition, having treatments and surgeries on my spinal cord – whilst still holding myself up to unrealistically high standards in terms of body image, as many women do. At the same time, my personal life completely fell apart. I went through a series of unhealthy relationships and friendships, eroding my sense of self worth. I harmed myself through various bad habits. Eventually, my health deteriorated: walking became increasingly difficult, to the point where I couldn’t walk without assistance, which brought further isolation. I fatigued easily and started struggling at uni, despite having been a good student. Sick and alone, I fell deeper into a black hole of depression. At my lowest point I entertained the idea that, perhaps, my birth had been a mistake.
Shortly after reaching that low point, I had surgery again. A few weeks after the surgery, I became paralysed from my waist down over a 48-hour period. My doctors were confounded, my parents devastated. Internally, I gave up all hope.
The despair you feel when told you will never walk again – especially if the doctors don’t know why – is difficult to describe. Moreover, after you sustain a spinal injury you become like an infant: totally dependent on others until you learn how to fend for yourself. The loss of dignity is immense. I stayed in a rehabilitation hospital for several months. In public, I appeared stoic and distant. I made friends with other patients; pretended I was fine. But for that first month, every night, I lay wide awake, immobile in my bed, silently screaming “fuck you!” to the Universe, God, whomever, often as tears rolled down my cheeks.
Then, a month after my injury, something inside me changed.
It was as if a light was switched on in my head. I had a lot of time in rehab to reflect upon the choices I had made and the way I had lived to that point: emotionally repressed, always holding back, struggling for control in an out-of-control life. It dawned on me that despite having lost everything – my old life, my old body, my old dreams – I was still alive, and had discovered a profound inner strength I didn’t know was in me. Stripped of external things I’d thought I needed to be happy, I discovered who I was, at my core…and I liked the person I found. I realised that nothing is guaranteed in life – shit can and will happen. There will be disappointments, failures and pain along the way. The only thing we can control is how we choose to face the world.
Then I did something I had never done before: I let go. Somehow, in losing everything, I was freed from the pathos I had lived with for so many years – constantly worrying what others thought of me, struggling to succeed in a conventional sense and just be ‘normal’. Now liberated from that past, I surrendered myself to the reality in front of me. I resolved to start over, be myself, and rebuild my life on my own terms: to face each day with strength, openness and innocence, enjoy the company of others, and find contentment and joy in the little things, regardless of circumstances in my life. That attitude has carried me through the four years since then. Every now and again, however, I still need to be reminded of that lesson learned and be encouraged to continue rebuilding my life.
Such a time occurred last October. I was having an emotional week, struggling with a problem that was making me doubt my own ability to persevere. One day, I was eating lunch alone at my inner-city office. I picked up a copy of The Big Issue from the magazine rack, pulled up to a vacant table, took out my sandwich, and randomly flipped open to the ‘My Word’ page. The precede read: “Finding herself adrift in a cold world, Inderdeep Thapar lets her mind wander homewards. Then, inspired by a stranger’s quiet strength, she resolves to pluck the thorns from her soul.”
Further down, I discovered that the author, Inderdeep, was a fellow passenger on my old bus route: the 444. “How weird!” I thought, and read on. Inderdeep vividly described how, one wintry evening, while waiting for that bus, she succumbed to homesickness, sadness, and self-pity, weeping silently as she waited in the cold. Then, when it finally arrived, she described someone else getting on. A girl in a wheelchair. To my astonishment, I realised she was describing me.
“Expertly, she manoeuvred her wheelchair into the now-open space between us,” Inderdeep had written. “I remember her waiting beside me, but was past caring whether she had noticed my tears. She had waited for everyone to board before the driver attached the plank so she could board the bus. No embarrassment, no complexes; the brown-skinned twenty-something girl radiated strength.”
I can’t tell you how bizarre it is to read something written about you by a stranger. But it was the reminder I needed at that very moment – a message from the universe, if you like – to keep going. Further on, she wrote: “My stop came. The girl remained seated, but as the bus drove away her expression stayed with me. It was a face where courage shone, and acceptance, not grim resignation but the raw courage that can confront death – or, rather, life – and carry on. I suddenly felt very small.” Reading those words, I was at once humbled and reminded of my own strength – at a time, fortuitously, when I really needed to be.
Strangely enough, some seven years after sceptically listening to motivational speakers and teachers tell me that I could inspire someone else, I finally understood what they had meant. Real inspiration isn’t some bullshit, saccharine concept. It’s about understanding that life can be hard, really hard, for all of us. But we can choose to keep going…and help others do the same. Never could I have imagined that I could affect someone else’s life and perspective without even uttering a word to them. But I now believe that anyone can, simply by choosing to live gratefully and face the world with internal strength and openness, not self pity, regardless of the trials you may be experiencing in life.
Inderdeep summed it up beautifully: “In the journey of life there is only one truth: one has to keep on walking. There will be all sorts of paths, loose gravel rubbing harshly against the soles, a deep descent that makes you dizzy. Sometimes it might be smooth. But at other times it might rain, or even hail, and there may not be any shelter. But one must walk – and it’s better to walk with strength and acceptance than with pathos.”