Dan and I met over myspace in 2006 or 2007. We became instant friends and have happily kept up with each other, mostly online, since then. We have watched each other go through many different phases, and cheered each other on. His truth has always resonated with mine. I have always looked up to him and admired him, in so many different ways. His story here speaks for itself in its enormity, and its power.

Dan is also a wonderful folk singer/songwriter, and here is where you can listen: http://dandean.bandcamp.com/
This song follows the theme of compassion: http://dandean.bandcamp.com/track/maitri

Dan Dean — Trauma and Compassion

One year ago, I fell from the roof of the cabin that my wife and I built.  Staring up through the black silhouette of the leafless trees to the white blanket of clouds, I immediately understood the implications of what had just happened.  “Can you hear the sirens?” My wife asked. “They’re almost here.”

Hours later, the MRI machine clicked and hummed around me.  The doctor’s words came through a morphine-induced haze. “Your T-12 vertebra is shattered.  It will be a miracle if you ever walk again.”

This was a few months before my fortieth birthday.  I’m halfway through this life, they say, and now I can’t feel or move half of my body.

“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” and “I’m alive!”  These are my alternating mantras for the next two months at Craig rehab hospital, as it becomes increasingly apparent that a miracle is not forthcoming.

About 12,000 new spinal cord injury cases are reported in the US each year.  Some 37% are from car crashes and 29% are from falls.  Of the 319 million people in the US, approximately 273,000 people are living with the results of spinal cord injuries and 3.3 million Americans over the age of fifteen use a wheelchair.

I doesn’t matter how hard I work.  The spinal cord does not heal.  The list of things I will never do again, or won’t be able to experience in the same way, is long.  Recent medical advances hold promise for effective treatments only in the distant future.

I have personally known only a few people who use chairs to get around.  I imagined they faced many challenges, but I had no idea exactly how difficult it can be.  Simple acts like moving an item to the other side of a room, getting up some stairs, or getting dressed can take lots of thought, effort, and quite a bit of time.  I was a pretty patient guy before my fall but I have learned new strategies for dealing with the frustrations – returning to thoughts of the present moment and breathing through the sometimes excruciating nerve pain throughout each day.

I saw myself as living simply and lightly on the Earth.  Now my daily life requires the use of single-use plastic and other disposable items.  Laura would call me her “strong back” and I relished the sense of accomplishment that came after a hard day’s work, covered in sweat and dirt.  I could scythe the field, broadfork a garden row, or lift a heavy rock into place.  I would often ride my bicycle up our steep gravel driveway.  Now I can’t do any of those things.  I’m certainly more mindful now of simple things that I took for granted.  At least I still have control over half of my body.  I can breathe without the aid of a machine.

Music has been a constant companion since my teenage years. I played guitar or drums in punk bands with my brother and many friends starting in the late eighties.  I started writing my own folk songs about a decade ago.  I can’t imagine my life without making music.  I can’t play the drums the same as before, but at least I can still play my guitar and sing.

I thought I had my act together pretty well. I thought I knew what defined me as a person. There’s nothing quite like a sudden debilitating injury to help one take a good long look at ego.  My white, male, middle-class privileged status hasn’t changed but I also now find myself in a minority group of people living with a disability.  Adults look at me differently (typically with sweet, self-conscious smiles or deference mixed with pity).  Small children and dogs hide behind their parent’s legs and eye me with wonder and suspicion.

Prior to the accident I wouldn’t have considered myself “ableist” or discriminatory towards people with disabilities.  Trained as an architect, I’m versed in the minimum requirements our physical environment must exhibit to provide accessibility.  I have a few long-time friends and acquaintances with visible disabilities.  I certainly never had any conscious thought of them as anything less than anyone else I know.

But as I adapt to this new situation, subconscious personal and societal biases continually confront me.  I know these biases still exist in my psyche because otherwise I would not face a questioning of self-image.  I would not wonder “Am I still strong? Still productive? Attractive? Am I still the same person?”

Non-discrimination can’t fully exist without imagining oneself in another’s shoes.  Each of us will face some sort of trauma in our lives.  The importance of compassion and empathy has been foremost in my mind these last twelve months.

Many people say they admire my positive attitude.  I’m certain I wouldn’t seem so optimistic if I didn’t have the support of my wife, family, and dear friends.  I’m reminded that no matter how challenging life is right now for any of us, it’s also amazingly beautiful, sad, hilarious, strange, and captivating.  I accept that there probably won’t be a miracle in my future.  That’s okay.  It’s truly enough of a miracle that I get to be here in the first place.