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Making Peace with My Spinal Cord Injury

Outside the window the summer sky is impossibly blue and oblivious to my plight on this bed. Sorrow pierces my heart, and a sob catches in my throat. The skilled nursing facility is alive with staff rushing about hustling residents into showers, pushing med carts, tending to droning call bells and haunting cries. The surgeon’s voice echoes in my mind every moment: words like “permanent” and “complete.”Closing my eyes, I see myself on my feet, in my work boots and harness on the iron. Longing fills my soul and is only compounded with the next intrusive fantasy: flying down a desert highway, left arm out the window; another, racing my daughter across Canyon Lake.I glance down at the call button, placed near my face so I can hit it with my cheek, but it has shifted too far from the reach of my straining neck. My arms lay limp at my sides, immobile on their pillows, even as my brain commands them again and again to move.My brother will be here soon, I remind myself. He will bring that little red book again. What were some of the things he read yesterday? Something about my power? Deep within myself I have the strength if I look?

Meeting Marcus

I was 32 years old when I sustained this spinal cord injury, a passenger in a car accident. My able and autonomous body that had allowed for my independence and enjoyed its gratification was instantly immobilized from the shoulders down.I could no longer support my child or live on my own as an adult out in the world. I would have to depend on others, ask for help, sacrifice my pride, dozens of times a day. Me, who always made guys split the checks on dates and refused child support for years. My pride and ego were absolutely crushed. A peaceful future felt less attainable than ever. How could I ever find peace of mind in this busted body?In those acute days, confined to a hospital bed in a facility, no hope of motor function recovery and little hope of going home, my anxiety threatened my sanity. A concerned nurse warned my family: If I couldn’t calm down, I wouldn’t make it. It was in that dark hour I met Marcus Aurelius.My brother, an author and autodidact who had studied Greek philosophy, had brought a paperback copy of Meditations with him on his flight across the country to his sister’s side. How the journal of a long-dead Roman emperor challenged me to persevere in my darkest days has been an irony not lost on me.The book, actually titled To Himself, consists mostly of Aurelius coaching himself in the philosophy of the Stoics. Often containing some self-reproach, the little book is rich with admonishment on how to be more virtuous, patient, strong, wise.Aurelius used the philosophy of Stoicism to deal with the stresses of daily life as a leader of one of the most powerful empires in human history. My battle couldn’t be more different; it’s with my own body. But it didn’t take more than a few paragraphs to give me a spark of something like hope. Challenging myself to be strong was exactly what I had to do in my situation too.Maybe I could use this ancient philosophy to deal with the inevitably incredible stress ahead, navigating life paralyzed from the chest down. If I had ever needed to develop self-discipline and mental resilience, it was post cervical spinal cord injury!Ancient Greek philosophy focused on reason, and how best to live your present life right. When Hellenistic philosophy formed in Athens, Greek philosophers offered methods for finding peace within yourself, and they taught virtue and universal reason. The Stoics were no exception; based on the moral ideas of the Cynics, Stoicism was founded in 400 B.C. and moved to Rome where it flourished during the period of the Empire and influenced Christianity.The name Stoic comes from the Stoa Poikile, or painted porch, an open market in Athens where the original Stoics used to meet and teach philosophy.Stoics believed in living a life of virtue in accordance with nature. Similar to Buddhist and Christian teaching, this included aversion to conventional desires for wealth, power, etc. The philosophy also promoted positive perspectives, productivity, patience and peace of mind.The most famous Stoic philosophers are those of Imperial times (27 B.C.E. to C.E. 476): Seneca, Epictetus and Aurelius.

The author and her daughter, Haley

Strength of Stoics

Seneca said that it’s an act of courage just to live sometimes. In the first months following my injury, I made the choice to keep going again and again. Seneca pitied people who have never experienced misfortune: “You have passed through life without an opponent,” Seneca said. “No one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” Was I capable of this though? In those early days post injury how I cried that I was not. Surely this battle was meant for someone stronger!Marcus Aurelius: “Look well into yourself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if you will always look.”I needed that strength to let go of my able body. There’s more to life than motor function. It would be foolish to spend my days yearning for a cure. Like Epictetus said, “A ship should not ride on a single anchor, nor life on a single hope.” I had to understand that restored function to my body probably will never happen, and sitting around hoping for it was pretty much futile. What I should dare hope for was to live a decent life with my disability.I started taking agency of my life again slowly, parenting my daughter and taking control of things like my medications and my finances. After purchasing a van and training a service dog, I began to get out more and recharge in nature. Then it was festivals and concerts and pushing myself through my pain and stress to participate in life and to have happy, healthy experiences. I still have to accept numerous limits my disability puts on my body and life.“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking,” Marcus Aurelius said. But my way of thinking had to change. I had to focus on what remained, see the glass as half full when the old me with all her privilege couldn’t manage to ever see it that way.The Stoics emphasized the importance of recognizing the dichotomy of control. I cannot control my central nervous system. I don’t have control of my arms or my legs. I don’t have control of my bowels or my bladder. Subsequently, I don’t have much total control of my own life. But dwelling on externals of such nature is a choice, and in choosing it, I can find I’m wallowing in self-pity quickly. Obsessing about what my body cannot do does not serve me in any way. It wastes my time and energy. So, I separate.Marcus Aurelius: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it, and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”My estimate of this horrible thing in front of me was that it was too huge, undefeatable. To revoke that, I had to ask myself how valid that was. I am still alive. I haven’t suffered a brain injury. I have a good support system. There are systems in place to get me out in the world living a productive life again. This is the perspective I had to choose. In this scenario, I could do this thing.The monster that is Quadriplegia can be reduced in stature by admitting it can be dealt with, given a certain degree of perspective changing. My judgment of this event that happened to me could be reexamined too. Perhaps my disability could be seen as less of a tragedy in the light of all the opportunities for self-growth and human connection it would afford me.The Stoics spoke of “memento mori,” translated literally from its original Latin to mean “remember that you have to die.” They wanted to emphasize that life is brief and fragile and it’s foolish to waste it. Embrace your inevitable demise and live every day with meaning … I have prioritized what matters. And I have a message to share.

Training the Mind

Seneca said we must train our minds to desire what the situation demands. My situation demands endurance and patience so I train for that. How I struggle at times, voicing every ache and burn and symptom when the pain overwhelms me. “If fate can be overcome by tears, let us bring tears to bear upon it,” said Seneca, but if not, then our futile grief must come to an end.“A high-minded and sensible man divorces soul from body, and dwells much with the better or divine part, and only as far as he must with this complaining and frail portion.” I must dwell with my divine part. My divine part knows no pain, only peace.Lingering in the past makes me long for the able body I lost, but worries about the future with my disability are also a thief of my peace. I catch those thoughts stealing from my joyful moments and have to redirect my mind. I must not “lose the day in expectation of the night, and the night in fear of the dawn,” like Seneca said. The bad times DO pass. Yes, even in this body.Marcus Aurelius insisted I could bear them: “What we cannot bear removes us from life; what remains can be borne.” I should take care to not triple the duration of the uncomfortable/stressful/painful thing by stressing about it. I also allow it to let me suffer far beyond what’s necessary, by not living in the present moment during intervals between stressful events. Similarly, I suffer unnecessarily and prematurely when I leave a present moment of calm to worry about a future event. As Seneca said, “He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary.”Self-control is at the very heart of Stoicism. For me, it’s not dissolving into fits of anxiety over pain and monotonous care. It’s fighting the urge to complain and cry and snap. It’s not letting my mind go to those places where those emotional reactions feel so inevitable. It’s OK to have a cry sometimes, but frequent pity parties don’t make my life any easier. Deep breathing and redirecting my mind in those moments does.

Marcus Aurelius: “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”

I find a certain peace when I’m in nature that feels reassuring and ancient, as raw and real as the dirt and the trees. My connection to it is no less pure without the finger function to feel; I can feel a breeze in my hair, the sun on my face. I can smell the pines and the poppies and marvel at the way the lake glimmers like glass in the sunlight. In times of distress I close my eyes and take myself to the places and people that bring me peace. I return to the Redwood Forest, and Carmel by the Sea. I dig my toes in the sand, take a quick dip in the Pacific before I return to this sedentary body, but it’s without resentment I do.

Stoicism, My Way

The Stoics assure me I have not been relieved of my role as a human being, given this disability. My mind is still intact, and contributions are still required of me. Just because I cannot jump out of this bed on my own accord doesn’t mean I’m resigned to stay in it! My role is to be hoisted with a lift into a power chair by my attendants. They rig my technology in front of my face and I do what my nature demands. I write.I was not born to feel nice or have an easy life any more than the next animal. We all have our work, our tasks, our hardships. I was born for experiences, even when they hurt. I remind myself this when the tasks of the day are difficult to face.Marcus Aurelius didn’t know a disabled woman would one day take him up on the challenges he set for himself. He didn’t imagine his message would apply to women at all, sometimes contrasting Stoic strength with womanly weakness, but I’ll forgive this bit of ignorance.Our industrious nature is so much of what makes us humans and brings us peace, regardless of gender, ability or other station in life. I push myself daily to get out of bed, and busy, always busy with my work. Whether it has been donning my blue collar to put in a shift welding with my hands or getting up in my wheelchair to type an article with my teeth, I’ve preferred not to waste a day.I speak to myself with the accusatory tone Marcus Aurelius used with himself. No one else is going to do it. No one but me knows how badly I need it. This passage of Seneca especially hits home for this Sedentary Stoic: “Do you think that you are doing nothing if you possess self-control in your illness? You will be showing that a disease can be overcome, or at any rate endured. There is, I assure you, a place for heroism even upon a bed of sickness.”My place in this world is not to become irrelevant, even as inaccessibility and ableism try to exclude me. I still have contributions to make and work to do. So I use what I can: my teeth and technology. My voice.

Finding Purpose

The Stoics spoke of “memento mori”: Remember that you have to die. They wanted to emphasize that life is brief and fragile and it’s foolish to waste it. Embrace your inevitable demise and live every day with meaning.

I don’t love chronic pain, lost autonomy, or any of the limits this life has placed on me. But I embrace the woman my spinal cord injury has made me — stronger and more patient and understanding. I embrace the time it has given me to work at my craft and become a writer, which I could never find the time to do sufficiently on legs.I embrace the mission this disability has imparted on me as an advocate for inclusion and disability rights. And I appreciate the platform it has given me to share what I’ve learned about mental health. I appreciate also the unique position my disability has put me in to receive the comfort, empathy and tender love and care of so many caregivers. Many people go through this life without a single tender touch or a word and I receive them daily.Marcus Aurelius: “Accept the things to which fate binds you and love the people with whom fate brings you together but do so with all your heart.”My fate also binds me to a massive community of people with spinal cord injuries whom I eagerly reach out to about the Stoic way. I speak about how the Stoics have taught me to exist more comfortably in this body, perhaps more comfortably than I existed within it when it was able. I’m learning to let go, live in the present, and to calm myself, and there’s nothing more exciting.I have learned that fantasizing about motor function only exacerbates my fear of fully accepting and living the life I have now. Terrorizing myself about potential health complications taking my life early are similarly counterproductive. Instead, I adapt myself to the present. I remain mindful of the good things that can never be taken from me. I look within for peace. There’s little I can do to cure my body but my mind can be mastered.Epictetus: “No man is free who is not master of himself. A man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things. Authentic happiness is always independent of external conditions.”My external conditions are severe. They cannot be ignored. I still marvel at times that this tumultuous journey is truly my fate. But as Seneca summed it up: “Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”I know the difficulties I face are easily up there with those who have lived through the almost unimaginable. Some who share my fate lament they lack the motor function to end their own lives. Many who have the motor function swear they would find a way to end their lives if they lacked that function. They underestimate the power of the human mind. The mind can be disciplined. Perspectives can change. And full lives can be lived without the body at all.

Excerpted from “Seven Secrets of a Sedentary Stoic,” by Cassandra Brandt. Available at

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