Needless to say, after the mastectomy left me with a paralysed arm, the only self-help books I could bear to read were those of people who had been through shittier situations and come through smelling of roses (or in the case of positive thinkers, thinking and affirming they smelled of roses).
The first book I will recommend is “The Impossible just takes a little longer” by Art Berg. I actually read the book years ago, before the brachial plexus disaster – how prescient of me!
The author, Art Berg, was a young man, a star athelete, on the verge of getting married to a beauty queen and sweetheart, when his car got totalled. The accident left him totally paralysed from the neck down. (Just like Christopher Reeves, except he pre-dated Christopher Reeves).
Art Berg’s account of how he made it through his recovery and treatments is incredibly uplifting, he laughs at himself, at his treatments. He is the personification of positivity. In his case, his positivity is believable and authentic, and not cloaked in New Age platitudes.
He even finds the strength in himself to forgive a Nazi of a doctor who screwed in a head brace without the use of anaesthesia.
And he gets married! Has children! Runs a successful business! Becomes a motivational speaker! Travels the world by himself!
Later I read another book by Art and discovered the source of his strength: his loving and supportive family and his incredibly strong faith in God and Christ. However, The Impossible Just Takes a Little Longer is not a Christian bible-thumping book – God is only mentioned very briefly in passing – it’s a book about surviving and remaining human, and even more importantly, showing that it is possible to transcend the worse bits of the human condition with laughter and love.
You know that an author has taken on god-like qualities when he looks back on the accident that took away his chances of a normal life and says that he wouldn’t have changed that moment for all the world.
(I think it was Anita Moorjani who said you only know when you’ve learned the lesson you’re supposed to learn when you see it as a gift. If you don’t you haven’t reached the end of the journey. Which, with all due respect, I think is a bit pat. It’s easy for someone who’s come through and is healed – in her case, from Stage 4 Hodgkins with a near-death-experience – to view any past tragedies as a gift. And getting resurrected is always a sure winner. Happily-ever-after doesn’t have quite the same ring if you are dead.)
The Impossible Just Takes a Little Longer comes with a glowing review from motivational speaker and lifestyle guru, Antony Robbins, so this book is the real thing.
Highly-highly recommended. It will make you laugh and cry. There are very few books I would read again, The Impossible Just Takes a Little Longer is one of them.
In contrast is another book, by a woman who had had polio and ended up in an iron lung. It was called “Over my Dead Body” by June Opie.
It was written post-WW2, and because of that, it was full of Fight-for-Britain, Onward-Christian-Soldiers, stiff-upper lip observations.
The only hint that she might have not been 100% Pollyanna was when she said that whenever she had a negative thought, she banished it immediately. Really? Or was that just PR? There was very little angst. Maybe that’s how she made it through what was a nightmarish situation and managed to beat the odds and escaped the Iron Lung to live a relatively normal life. I don’t know if I can recommend this book – it’s not in print anymore, for one. It’s interesting for its glossing over the uncomfortable and its historical context, and first-hand account of what it’s like to live in an iron lung.
The second book I would recommend is The Diving Bell and Butterfly, written by journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. It describes what his life is like after suffering a massive stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome and just one eyelid he could blink.
The entire book was written by Bauby blinking his left eyelid, which took ten months (four hours a day). Using partner-assisted scanning, a transcriber repeatedly recited a French language frequency-ordered alphabet (E, S, A, R, I, N, T, U, L, etc.), until Bauby blinked to choose the next letter.
The book took about 200,000 blinks to write and an average word took approximately two minutes.
What is incredible is that the book is extremely well-written, it flows, it is lyrical, it is poignant. There is not a single wasted word or description. It is the poetry of the human soul. I wanted to cry when I got to the end of the book because it showed what the human spirit and enormous determination can achieve in the face of tragedy.
(I also felt ashamed by the fact that I’ve been moaning about not being able to finish a novel I started many years ago – all my excuses are pathetic in the face of such a superhuman effort by Bauby.)
I have no other books to recommend for people with paralysis. I found it hard to read about disability because I didn’t want to invite the vibe of disability into my psyche. Also, I felt guilty that I wasn’t as positive, or motivated or inspired as the people in those books. I couldn’t even type properly so couldn’t write. Instead, I spent my days watching loads of American cookery shows usually with food that I couldn’t cook or eat, like Man vs Food. I watched as high school students crammed pizzas into their gobs, or drank multiple milk shakes. I was fascinated by how they satisfied their cravings with bad food. I wanted that bad food! It was pure escapism and it was what I needed at that time.
I went onto breast cancer forums and there was no one who had been through what I was going through.
I left a message on one of the forums and it was deleted – I was told that it was too negative by the forum administrator. What I’d said in my message was that I was depressed and not to bother replying – but apparently, you’re not supposed to tell others not to reply. Whatever happened to authenticity and freedom of speech?
(What I learned is that people don’t want stuck-in-the-mud stories, they want to know that you’re out of the mud, or happy to be in the mud, or loving the mud or transforming the mud into roses, or are working on getting out of the mud. But uh-uh you can’t be negative about the mud.)
I suppose the theme of all these books is conquering disability through positive attitudes. But all I could think after reading those books was: there but for the grace of God, go I. And I wonder if people looked at me and thought the same. Perhaps that is the nature of suffering – to remind others that they are better off. And perhaps it is the desire of humans to only want triumphant heroes, not tired warriors.
Well, good to know that I was of some use as an example of Murphy’s Law at its best.