Learning to start over

January 13, 1995|By Janice Jackson

BY THIS POINT, New Year's resolutions have been violated or even forgotten by many people. They have reasoned that changing their lives, their habits is too difficult.

For those people, and the ones who are sticking to their resolutions, I offer my personal experience with starting over to help motivate them to keep their resolutions. Of course, I had to drastically change my life because of a traumatic event, but I still think my experience is instructive to people not in my particular situation.

My life as a single, 24-year-old working woman who loved sports and enjoyed all of the good things that life could offer, changed abruptly on Sept. 10, 1984. That evening, I was driving home from work on a four-lane road in Prince George's County, when I saw a friend pull along side me and flash her headlights, signaling me to pull over. We both parked along the shoulder of the road, my car in front of her's. Nothing was wrong, she just wanted to talk.

We chatted for about half an hour. By the time our conversation ended, it was dark and the traffic had increased. But I didn't sense that I was in any danger on the well-lighted road. I said goodbye to my friend and started to walk the few feet back to my car.

The next thing I recall is lying in the middle of the road and looking up at a man standing over me. I tried to stand up, but I couldn't move. I tried harder; nothing happened. I asked the man to move me. He said "Miss, I can't move you; I just hit you" with his car.

Though more than a decade has passed since that night, I still vividly recall the days immediately after the accident. I was forced to start over. Not only had I lost the use of my legs, but also the accident cost me the use of my right hand. I had to learn how to do everything from personal hygiene to dressing myself with my left hand.

I felt like a newborn with a 24-year-old's mind. Each morning I wanted to jump out of the bed, bathe myself, put on my make-up and get dressed. But I couldn't. Someone had to do it for me. Embarrassment, humiliation and frustration were just a few emotions that I felt on a daily basis.

After many hours of therapy and many tears, I became used to using my left hand. After a few months, I wrote my first letter using my left hand; it was five sentences long and it took me one-and-a-half hours to complete. That exercise showed me that while it might take longer than before for me to complete a task, I could do it.

That's when I decided not to let the disability determine who I was as a person. Inside the paralyzed body was still the same woman with the same emotions, goals and dreams. I just had to modify my life to accept this new reality.

For example, because of my new physical constraints, I could no longer work as a retail manager. It was a job I loved, but I felt that there were other occupations that I could learn to love.

Also, I had to move to an apartment that was handicap accessible and near the Montebello Hospital and Maryland Rehabilitation Center, which provided the physical therapy and psychological support necessary to help me adjust to my condition.

That meant leaving all of my family and friends behind in Prince George's County and moving to Baltimore, where the only people I knew were the friends and staff I had met at Montebello. That was a major adjustment; I had never lived alone before and I had always lived around family and friends.

During this time, some old friends no longer called or came to visit. When I asked one friend, who was particularly upset about my accident, why she didn't visit me, she responded: "Janice it's not you; it's the wheelchair that I can't handle."

That made me face yet another new reality: I would face prejudice for being physically challenged; people would see my wheelchair before they saw me as a person. As a black woman, I was used to dealing with discrimination because of my race or my sex, but now I had a third strike against me. But I was determined that three strikes meant that you were out in baseball, not life.

My faith in God, a strong supportive family and friends, my own hard work and the skillful work of Montebello and Maryland Rehabilitation Center's staff helped me overcome the fear and loneliness of my situation.

In time, I overcame my fear of lots of things, including: returning to the working world, learning to manage such mundane chores as grocery shopping and housework by myself and creating a full life for myself filled with activities and friends.

Though the road back was bumpy, it was filled with lots of good things, too. In 1990, I was hired by the Internal Revenue Service as a "taxpayer service representative." Since then I have received a promotion to "taxpayer service specialist." The transition to the working world was made easier by my bosses and co-workers. Such people remind me that my return to a normal life has been a group effort that I could not have done alone.

Buoyed by my accomplishments, both personal and professional, I've taken some risks, including entering the 1992 Ms. Wheelchair Maryland pageant which I won. I went on to become first runner-up and Ms. Congeniality in the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant. These titles gave me the opportunity to travel throughout the state as a spokeswoman and advocate for the physically challenged.

This comeback hasn't been easy: There have been many tears, pains and fears, and times when I didn't think starting over was possible. But through prayer, a loving family, a strong support system and hard work I have made it back.

So when you feel like giving up on your resolutions, it might help you to think of me. Your challenge may not seem so difficult then.

Janice Jackson writes from Baltimore.

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