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One Little Victory at a Time

Posted Sep 05 2009 12:00am
painting One Little Victory by Victoria Golding.
Self-esteem isn't everything; it's just that there's nothing without it.
— Gloria Steinem, feminist and journalist

It’s rare to find a person—able-bodied or disabled, healthy or sick—who has not been knocked down by life at one time or another. Getting knocked down results in near-total loss of confidence which in turn zeros out your self-esteem, and, as Gloria says, well, then you have nothing. Regaining confidence is particularly difficult when we face a debilitating physical challenge, but we need to transcend our human propensity for self-pity if we want to feel fully alive and live up to our potential.

While "normal" is not a healthy life goal, it is indeed the right initial goal for someone trying to "get back up". Dependency is another reason you strive to get back to normal. It doesn't feel good to be dependent on others for things you used to do for yourself. Independence and self-reliance are the first steps toward removing the overpowering obsession with getting back to normal. So recovery begins with re-gaining that independence and self-reliance.

It's ok to think of this as a fight because, make no mistake, it is no less than that. It starts with one victory. Stand by yourself. Go to the bathroom by yourself. Swim two laps in the pool. Win one little victory; go on to the next battle; and win that too. Pretty soon, these little victories start to add up to independence and confidence. At that point, self-pity becomes but a distant memory.

After first losing a leg to cancer and then, three years later after the cancer spread, a lung, rebuilding my confidence after such near total annihilation was a long, slow process. But it happened. Like trust, confidence takes a long time to build up and a split second to eradicate. Each bit of progress made me want to push farther and farther into this new territory, where I was not only on equal footing—so to speak—as two-leggers, but where I exceeded what many of them could do. It felt like a drug and I wanted more of it.

This attitude I developed—this super-aggressive drive to perform at a level higher than others—was a psychological adaptation on my part to overcompensate and prevent that dreaded pity reaction. It’s a natural defense mechanism, one born of a disabled person’s desire to combat their disability’s constant attacks on their self-confidence, self-image, and ultimately, self-esteem. The process I was going through was a healthy voyage of self-discovery that anyone recovering from major trauma or newfound disability needs to go through. I was having my own “Post-Disability Syndrome” just like what Lauro Halstead found when interviewing polio survivors for his Scientific American article, “Post-Polio Syndrome,” “Don’t let anyone tell you that we just want to be ‘normal’ like everyone else. We have to be better than everyone else just to break even . . . and that may not be enough.”

This is the new definition of normal for someone who has had to fight back from cancer, from disability, from addiction, from depression, from any major life challenge that changes us. We all feel driven to over-achieve by focusing harder, by working harder, by being willing to put up with more pain so that we can be better at something than anyone thought possible. That is why we fight. We fight to get back to normal and then we keep fighting until we are thriving. Watch out all you (temporarily) able-bodied people!
You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. . . . You must do the thing you think you can not do.
— Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady

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