When I returned home from the hospital I remember looking in the mirror and just being in utter shock. I looked so frail and broken. I hadn’t taken a real shower in almost two weeks, my skin was a weird yellow color from the iodine, the bags under my eyes matched the hallows of my cheekbones that now protruded from my face, and most importantly the mouth that once never stopped smiling was now straight and pursed. I was damaged goods. All 5’11” of me had dropped down to almost 80 pounds while being hospitalized, which is nearly half of what I weighed four years prior. While in the hospital they learned that I suffer from gastroparesis, a stomach disease bought on by my spinal cord injury. Basically, my stomach takes much longer to digest food, so naturally it will require smaller amounts of food at a time so my digestive system doesn’t get overworked. This disease will be life-long and it is something I struggle with every day. Eating used to be my favorite thing to do. Forget hobbies, eating was my only pass time. You mix Greek and Polish and what do you get? An eater. The doctors were relentless when it came to advising me to gain weight. It’s extremely difficult to put on weight due to my condition, though. With gastroparesis you’re not supposed to eat a lot, if any, greasy or fatty foods, because they take a lot longer to digest and are harder on your stomach. I recall one doctor saying “go home and just eat a bunch of cheeseburgers and junk food”. I just looked at her like the fool she was. I was just diagnosed with gastroparesis and she’s recommending the absolute worst diet for someone with the disease. At Northwestern, nonetheless. Needless to say, I didn’t take her advice. Instead, I started eating a lot healthier, which made my stomach very happy. I knew this wouldn’t help put weight back on fast, but being skinny is better than having a flare-up and winding up in the ER. Slowly my body started becoming healthier and I managed to put a little more meat on my bones. My new body was just another thing I needed to learn to love.
One day my mom sat down with me and asked what my vision for the next couple of years looked like. This took me by surprise, but the first two things that came to mind were school and living in the city. Living in the city would be easier in my mind because you don’t need a car, there’s basically anything you need right outside your front door and getting around alone seemed to be much easier for a wheelchair bound person. The suburbs were not ideal for my situation. By now my stepdad had moved out and cut ties and my brother moved back home. The divorce was back on and our house was going up for sale. It was a time for change, for everyone. Things at home were going better than they had in years, raising all of our spirits. My mom knew how badly I was craving independence, and she saw my hidden potential. Her confidence in me was undeniably reassuring. Yes, there were a lot of things that could go wrong, but I couldn’t let the fear of the unknown stop me from achieving my goals and living my life. Moving out on my own was something that excited me more than it frightened me.
Over the course of the next few months my mom and I were on the hunt for the most handicap accessible building we could find. I needed an elevator, hardwood floors, a big enough bathroom, ect. I was shocked when I saw how little housing options they had for the disabled, especially in such a huge city! Granted, I can adapt to pretty much anything. How the hell do handicap people who live in boo-foo survive? In the end, we managed to nab the perfect spot! It was so beautiful and I couldn’t believe this would be my new home. A few months later I was living in my new apartment feeling more free than ever. It was about a five minute walk..*cough*.. I mean roll, down to the beach and all the parks. There were shops, restaurants, farmer’s markets, bars, museums, street parties and so much more for me to enjoy! When I was living at home I was confined to my bedroom in the basement because our house had more stairs than Swallow Cliff! During the two years I lived at my parents I was bound to my bedroom, the garage and a tiny living space we remodeled into a small kitchen area downstairs. Now, I had the entire city of Chicago at my fingertips and I couldn’t be happier. Everyone could tell the difference in my spirits. My mom would say, “boy.. nothing seems to bother you anymore, you’re always happy”. I suppose that’s what a little independence can do for a gal.
Living on my own came with a whole new set of challenges, but I was ready for them. Even though house chores that used to take me only five minutes or so now took about an hour, I was so elated to be able to do them I didn’t mind. Little things like learning how to open different doors to more complex situations like doing laundry all needed to be mastered. You literally have to re-learn everything you were ever taught, and that takes a lot of time. Something that used to take little to no effort now is a chore that takes a considerable amount of time and effort. Doing dishes sitting down while trying to reach over the counter is another big pain in my ass, but I just think back to the days when I couldn’t even wash my own hands and this gives me a nice little reality check. So, next time you don’t feel like doing simple tasks, imagine doing them sitting down with only about 5% hand function and maybe that will put a fire under your ass. I’ve accepted that my life will come with more obstacles than others, but in the end, they will only make me a stronger person. The struggles I’ve encountered while living solo have made me more independent, self-reliant and strong-willed. All of the good in my life definitely outweighs the bad, and I make a great effort to thank God every day for all the blessings in my life.
About a month or so after moving into my new place I met this girl on the rooftop. When people ask why I’m in a wheelchair my response will vary depending on the manner in which they asked me. This girl after a few minutes of talking with me asked if I had stolen the scooter I was riding (I ride a scooter on the streets because it’s much easier). I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder in my life. Stole a wheelchair? Is this what everyone who saw me in the electric scooter thought? I didn’t know if she was serious… I would have to be a real scumbag to steal somebody’s scooter! I laughed for a good minute, then proceeded to tell her that I did infact need it. She felt terrible, but after I told her that was the best way anyones ever asked me that, her embarrassment subsided. How could I take offense to something so hilarious? As months passed we eventually became great friends. I finally made my first good friend after becoming a glider! And she finally made her first wheelchair friend! Making this new friend made me come to the realization that people would still accept me into their lives even though I’m disabled.
Pretty soon I had a group of friends (some new, some old) that all got along and treated me as an equal. This is what I wanted; to start a new life in a new city with new people. I needed change more than ever, and it happened! Life is going fabulously; moving to the city on my own was one of the best decisions of my life. It isn’t always easy, but with each challenge comes a lesson. I give my mom an endless amount of gratitude, because if it weren’t for her I would have never experienced these amazing life changes. Anything from financial support to coming over after work to help clean my tub, she’s there no matter what. I can’t imagine what it was like for my family when my accident happened, but we’ve all pulled through and came out much stronger people.
A little place I like to call home…