A Shift In Focus

For most of my paralyzed life, certainly, on my darker days, I’ve thought of myself as one of life’s casualties. Despite any post-para accomplishments, I was permanently damaged for all to see. Because my immune system woke up one Tuesday and for some strange reason, decided to attack my spine, I will spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. I, like some of you, have been permanently robbed of many of life’s pleasures and permanently susceptible to a host of medical complications. Look up the synonyms in your thesaurus for “paralyzed,” both of the body and mind: mutilated, maimed, incapacitated, helpless, weak, impotent. Even in this age of extreme correctness, these words still reign in the subconscious. If you are susceptible to being hurt, they hurt.

back of older man in wheelchair

Well, guess what? I don’t feel that way anymore. I still have dark moments, of course, but they no longer begin or end with the feeling I’ve been cursed. In my fifties and sixties, I had more dark days with more self-abusive thoughts, probably because I kept comparing my paralyzed life to those of my close friends and found myself wanting. (I was injured at 51; I can’t imagine how I’d see myself if I had been younger.) As I got older, my friends started having health problems of their own, and the older I got, they stopped talking about my status and focused on themselves or others struck down. The prevalence of the newly sick went from seemingly random occurrences to something that resembled a drumbeat. Some passed, and others now have to deal with lifelong progressive disorders.

So that’s part of my new perspective. What is common knowledge – old people get diseases and die – becomes a more visceral experience when it happens to your own cohort. Of course, fifty years ago, oldsters got sicker faster and died younger. Medical science is always moving forward. Cancer mortality rates continue to plummet year after year. My own brother was cured of brain cancer by immunotherapy, not even known a few years before. My original reverse shoulder replacement procedure was not approved by the FDA until 2004 and a more advanced procedure –a customized glenoid implant – wasn’t devised or approved until much later. So I don’t want to overstate the frequency of the morbidity of my peers. As a whole, we are all living longer and healthier lives. But, in the light of my own condition, the number of recent health crises close to home has had a marked effect on me.

Another source of my altered perspective may be the long hospitalization stint from which I just emerged. Visiting granddad on visitor’s day down at the “home” is one thing. Living in that world as a fellow resident for weeks on end allowed me to see a myriad of people my age and older struggling to stay alive and alert a little longer. Many struck me as brave and undaunted. They didn’t think of themselves as “special” or unfairly punished. They saw themselves as determined to carry on until they couldn’t.

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And of course, your priorities change with age. I no longer feel bad because I can’t throw a baseball or hike in the mountains. I’m now happy to be able to lift my bad arm over my head. I don’t even care about driving that much anymore. An Uber-like van service, available in ten minutes in LA, speeds you to your destination without you ever leaving your chair. It can get a little pricey, but given the price of gasoline or of one ticket to Disneyland ($104) these days, not that pricey.

Of course, something could happen tomorrow to change all of that – the sudden onset of many of these maladies adds an unsettling shock effect – but you can’t prepare for what you can’t foresee. Just know that in a state of late-life paralysis, if you’re as fortunate as I am, you aren’t inordinately damaged or cursed.                                                                                          

You’re just getting old.

For more information, check out Aging with SCI fact sheet. 

About the Author - Allen Rucker

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

Allen Rucker

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $10,000,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.