Thursday, July 23, 2009

July 12 (Part II: 13 and Counting…)

As of two weekends ago I have been a spinal cord injury quadriplegic and full time wheelchair user for thirteen years. Based on what I broke down in my previous post, each July 12 definitely exhibits a significant blip on my radar screen. And thus each July 12 brings with it a natural spike in emotions. With each given year my thoughts typically run along a fairly similar spectrum: Mentally trying to go back and stop myself from ever diving (or at least not as hard). Reflecting on my 4.5 months in rehab and subsequent re-assimilation into society. Reflecting on all my struggles related to my disability during the preceding years. How I felt that my senior year in high school was stolen from me: I was physically fit, a swim team captain, out going and pretty well liked by my peers, coming into my own as a pretty well rounded guy, looking forward to the chance to look out for my freshman sister, set to take at least 3 A.P level classes, looking forward to going to parties, dances, and sports/social events with my friends, being a target of and targeting the ladies, and just in general ready to enjoy the prime year of my high school career. Instead I was hospitalized until Thanksgiving and practically became an outcast and an after thought, at least in comparison to my pre-accident social calendar. Life as a one of two high school students in a wheelchair was very, very hard, and it still probably remains the hardest year of my life. Ditto for college where, despite my fair share of good times here and there, I often look back with near equal frustration for missing out on a “normal” college career. Throw in a little bit of tempered anger over why my life had to lead down this path. And most importantly, I’ve tended to dwell the most on what my accident and all its after affects put my family through all these years. Things of that nature.

In addition to those thoughts, for the first 8 or 9 years post-accident I made myself make a pilgrimage back to the beach where said event took place. Kind of like my own version of returning to the scene of the crime. And I tended to do so in a fairly ceremonial fashion to boot. First, I would bring a Mountain Dew with me to drink near the beach because that is what we were drinking that night. The other thing I always did was play “You Don't Wanna F@%K Wit These” by Ice Cube on the way because that is the song I was playing as I drove into the beach parking lot after returning from dinner with my family that night. It was the song with the most bass in my truck’s disc changer and I wanted a tune to “announce” my presence back at the BBQ with some panache. In fact, as a constant, subtle connection to that fateful evening I always kept that cd in the disc changer of my van, and when my van’s disc changer crapped out it was one of the first cd’s I transferred to my iPod. Although despite the effort I typically only listened to it once a year on July 12 on my way to the beach. But I honestly haven’t listened to it in a few years now.

The first year I returned to the beach was a little awkward because I needed my girlfriend to take me because I wasn’t driving myself yet. I didn’t get out of the van and with her sitting right next to me I didn’t quite get the indefinite solo reflection I sought. I think we were barely there for 5-10 minutes. By the second summer I was driving on my own so I could make the solo mission. I got out of the van and took the walk path all the way down on the beach to within 6 feet of the water’s edge and within real close proximity to where I thought my accident occurred. I sipped my Dew, reflected, had a very brief cry, placed my Dew can on the beach in remembrance, and then went home. The third summer I only remember that I felt that I had to try pretty hard to get the waterworks going, there wasn’t much, and that was the last time I had a July 12 cry. Generally, I tried to go early in the day when no one was around so I could spend some time alone without drawing attention to me and my wheelchair. So the next few years varied as to how close to the beach I got or if I even got out of my van at all. At the least, I would park where I could get a view of the accident site and drink my Mountain Dew. How long I sat there and reflected got less and less as the years went by as well. If anything, after awhile I just did it for the sake of doing it.

Once I moved to Minneapolis to start law school I broke from the pattern of my annual visit. Of course the obvious intervening factor was distance but I think my desire to make the special trip had started to wane as well. The summer after my first year of law school I took a summer class that I'm sure overlapped with July 12. So at the most I might have made a visit to the beach while home during the next closest trip home to Eau Claire. But I probably haven’t been back to that beach since 2003, and I'm ok with that too. Just a few years ago I remember saying something to my mom about how it had been a number of years since I had made my annual trip to the beach, and she said something to the effect of “And that’s just fine too.”

And that raises an interesting point that I only discovered a number of years after my accident: how in such high disregard my family held that location as well. For example, it was something like 7 years later that my family was invited to a graduation party at the community pavilion at the park area that was in close proximity to that beach. I didn’t plan to attend for obvious reasons, plus it was one of those deals where feelings weren’t going to be hurt if I didn’t go so I wouldn’t have gone anyway. But my dad was quite adamant about not setting foot on the property then, or ever. My sister got there first but then called my mom and waited for my mom to join her before entering because she was too shook up to do it alone. The way it was relayed to me, my sister apparently clutched my mom’s arm the whole way in. I told my mom that it’s not like they knew exactly where it happened (which was approximately 120 yards away) but she said it didn’t matter because it was still emotional.

Along the way a few anniversaries stick out: the first was the first. The second was my first real trip back to the beach. The fifth through seventh were tough at the time because when I had my accident they said a cure for paralysis was 5-7 years away. That never happened (and we’re still waiting for it). The tenth anniversary had a few things going on: a decade of being a quad, the passing of another supposed prediction of finding a cure, and I officially became "at risk" for future bladder cancer having had an indwelling catheter for over 10 straight years, and counting. All together it was kind of sobering. I think the next standout date will be the 17th July 12 post-accident when I will surpass being in a chair longer than I was able bodied.

To a certain degree I think with each passing year the impact of another July 12 lessens a bit. In the last few years I’ve just made July 12 a “day of me” by not studying, watching a fun movie of my choice, cooking a pizza, having a few beers, maybe a quick Mountain Dew at some point, etc. It won’t ever become just another day, but I will admit that just a few years ago I was working on an email before dinner, saw the date, and went “Oh yeah.”

But this year there was a little extra buildup in contrast to a handful of years past. The seed was planted on July 10th. That Friday was just one of those days where it’s rough to be a quad: My wheelchair started making squeaking noises that morning. I had a hard time grabbing a few items at the grocery store. As I left the checkout aisle a little girl saw me, grabbed her mom’s leg, pointed, and said “Mom look.” I'm at a point in my life where I tend to ignore that kind of thing, but it bugged me that day. Then I proceeded to go out into the parking lot and drop my keys on the ground by my van. Normally I’d just bend down and get them (after cursing first) but I had two bags of groceries on my lap. As I was very carefully trying to shake the valet key out of my wallet a senior citizen was eying me up as she got of her car. She then asked if she could help me, presumably with my bags, but I just asked her to pick up my keys instead. It was nice of her but as she walked away I was a little bit pissed off because a) she had no doubt assumed that a guy in a chair couldn’t handle his groceries on his own and b) the fact that I was a smart, well adjusted lawyer probably never came close to crossing her mind (i.e. I was probably stereotyped by my disability on both accounts).

So as I was stuck in traffic on the way home those retrospective gears started churning in my head. On top of contemplating thirteen years worth of being a quadriplegic, frustration about where I am in my life right now started to get layered in as well: single going on eleven years (even though I humbly self-recognize that I'm a catch); an unemployed, job searching new attorney; in desperate need of a new van that I can’t afford, with mine currently 138,000 + miles and growing rust spots; still using my 12 + year old wheelchair because I don’t like my new chair (too big and unfunctional for my lifestyle); and no real immediate solution to any of those issues on the horizon, despite my best positive outlook. In other words, I went down that “woe is me” path just a little bit, feeling like a disability cliche. Then that night I found myself wide awake until almost 4 am thinking about all that stuff together even more. Getting heavy chested thinking about much more emotional issues like my family’s direct reaction to getting the message about my accident. Because instead of arriving home from a run of the mill Friday evening dinner outing to go on and do run of the mill Friday evening stuff my parents got a message that their son that they had just seen at dinner an hour or so before had a bad accident and was on his way to the hospital. They didn’t deserve such an unexpected shock, or everything that ensued, and my guilt for that night has barely waned over the years. But then at some point I fell asleep after the somewhat calming affect about how much we’ve overcome as a family, embraced it all, and moved on took hold.

On this July 12 I did not hold a day of me but rather an afternoon by the pool watching my niece and nephew, two and one years old respectively, swim and play around the pool deck, which honestly has been the best way to get my mind off that difficult day up until now. I didn’t even think about grabbing a Mountain Dew at any point either.

Like many post-SCI folks out there who live with significant paralysis I’ve put up with a LOT of crap and had to overcome more than my fair share of adversity over the last thirteen years. Looking back, I'm very proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish in the preceding years despite living with a disability (staying true to myself and earning a law degree chief among them). And in the end I think I should really learn to start dwelling on those points a little more come the next July 12, and beyond. This year on Twitter I simply posted “Today, practically as of this very hour, marks the 13 year anniv. of my paralyzing diving accident. Always a strange day. But I forge on.” A very poignant analysis indeed.


  1. Shawn I have always respected the way you present yourself with that can do attitude. And to be honest the things you do on a daily basis, you make look so easy to the point that I don't even see you as being handicapped. Yeah you have some limitations but so does everyone the things you have done with your life (collage/law school never giving up and always being a good friend even to your worst friends)
    are things I could never do. But to hear the full story of that which is Shawn Dean straight from your mouth makes me respect you and your family even more for the person that you have become and for the way you have all pulled together as one unit since the beach. It is amazing in this day and time to see that. And it has been an honor to have you and your family as a part of my family for the last 10 years.

  2. Well I really, truly appreciate that man, that's incredibly nice and cool of you to say...especially in such a public forum. But great friends like you are part of what keeps me and my unique journey going. Moreover, that's why you'll always be my brother from another mother, as we always say.

  3. Hi, Shawn.
    I said I'd stop by and I (finally) did.

    I've enjoyed (that seems strange to say) reading your words - from the story of July 12 to the more daily stuff. I've always wondered about "the accident" its continual repercussions, but that just doesn't seem like something you ask about. So, I never have.

    Thank you for putting it all out here in such an honest way - not just to satisfy my curiosity but also to give me a chance to know you better.

  4. Thanks for checking this out, and for sharing your thoughts on this matter. I think that your comment pretty much epiomizes a larger collective of thought towards my accident, the aftermath, and all the other "behind the scenes" stuff as a whole, amongst both my friends and family who have been timid about approaching me about such details. Truth is I've always been an open book had people acted on their curiosity, but I get that more often than not it probably does feel awkward to ask nonetheless. So that is a big reason why I decided to put it out there, and it's been satisfying that people have been so glad that I finally did. Even if I have found being THIS open of a book a little strange at times.

  5. Shawn,

    Thank you for sharing all these thoughts. You write with clarity that no doubt comes from much reflection. Is it wrong to say the transparency of your account of the experience was refreshing? I appreciate that you have put all the details out there. Gosh, what I’m trying to say exactly is escaping me.


  6. Shawn,

    What a story you have going on here and i admire you in so many ways for putting it all out there. To me, there is nothing better than a little bit of self reflection through a journal entry every now and then. No doubt, you have had many hurdles in this journey. I want you to know that I've never really seen a 'wheelchair' or a 'disability' when i've been with you--your personality and great sense of humor overtakes you and that's all i see. You mentioned family quite a bit. Your parents and sister are such wonderful loving people--you are so fortunate to have such a embrace such as them around you. So, i'll just end tonight with this: Go on, tell your story, stay strong and confident, be that #1 uncle and never stop shouting "GO BADGERS!". Good night.....

  7. Thanks for the sweet, heartfelt words and encouragement. Gives me that extra kick when I start to wonder if people are interested in reading about all of this. Although, it doesn't take much poking to get me to keep shouting proudly about anything related to my Badgers.