On a recent trip to South Beach, Miami I was walking along a strip of shops called Lincoln Road. Taking in the energy of those enjoying the weather and music, I came across a fellow in a wheelchair with a sign around his neck that read: “What is the meaning of life? Read my book to find out!”
I was intrigued. I had preconceptions about the ability of people with disabilities to enjoy life. So I spent the next two days reading what turned out to be a beautifully-written book, Unity in Diversity, and realized he was not only living life well, but he was doing so with wisdom and compassion. In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Rodolfo Leon discusses the experience that left him wheelchair-bound.
“I was riding my bicycle home from the swimming pool where I swam almost daily, and a car coming from the other direction turned left in front of me and cut me off. I do not remember what happened next, but I fell to the ground hitting my head on the curb of the sidewalk. I was not wearing a helmet, so the impact of my head on the cement must have been considerable. I was able to get up, but the paramedics noticed that one of my eyes had started blinking erratically, so they decided to take me to a local hospital. The MRI showed that a hematoma had developed in my brain, so I underwent surgery to remove it, but a second MRI showed that I had another hematoma developing deeper in my brain, so I underwent another brain surgery. After that second surgery, I was in a coma for six weeks.”
People cope with life-threatening situations differently. Some experience overwhelming distress, others integrate the event into their lives. For Rodolfo, while his injury changed his experience of life, it did not spoil it:
“There are many reasons why I came to feel that becoming disabled was like winning the lottery. It was the perfect situation to be able to concentrate and focus on writing the book I had wanted to write for a long, long time. There are also other advantages to being disabled. For example, most people do not expect you to participate in the happenings of daily life, so this creates tremendous amounts of free time, simply to ponder and explore your thoughts and the world around you, and I appreciated that because I have always been a very introspective person who appreciates silence and being left alone.”
Several factors give rise to resilience after a traumatic experience: supportive friendships, living purposefully, and psychotherapy can all help one to bounce back from an overwhelmingly stressful situation.
One’s character also makes a difference. Hardiness translates potentially unfortunate circumstances into learning opportunities that allow for growth. Self-enhancement can promote well-being and is associated with high self-esteem in the context of highly aversive events. These personality traits likely helped Rodolfo re-frame his experience:
“I have always been a very glass half full type of person who tries to see the positive aspects of every situation. Also, since I was very young, I have always felt very blessed, probably because I was the firstborn son and grandson in a family of immigrants who escaped communism in Cuba to start their lives in a new country and I was extremely loved and doted upon. I felt that it would be a slap in the face to my family not to appreciate my life with them, so I also appreciated life as my way of showing them that I appreciated all their love for me.”
In one study, most individuals indicated that their involvement in a traumatic occurrence enabled them to develop new perspectives on life. Another study found that burn victims’ experiences of life following injury involved feelings of grief, accepting what could not be changed, but not feeling “resigned” to one’s fate. Feelings of purpose and gratitude were also reported.
Rodolfo advises people to ignore what others tell you is possible:
“Don’t be afraid of living your life the way your soul would guide you to live it, especially if it goes against the status quo.”
-Eleni Neofytou, Contributing Writer