When I was fifteen I became a victim of violent crime. My skull was shattered by a kick to the head and a piece of the broken bone caused a bleed in my brain. I spent two weeks on life-support, three months comatose, and an additional year in a wheelchair. Soon after the injury happened, I was diagnosed with delayed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because of the physical injury to my brain, I repressed most of the feelings and emotions connected with the assault and other trauma. I was living in an empty state of dissociation for a long time. Although these problems are to be naturally expected following an incident like what I went through, it was not until three years had passed that I started to experience negative feelings and emotions associated with the assault. While I have a noticeable physical disability, much of my disability is invisible. It was these less apparent disabilities that were often the hardest part of finding and maintaining a satisfactory career.
For people with disabilities, especially those entering or continuing in the workforce or in school, self-advocacy it is a vital necessity. Having both a physical and a psychological disability, self-advocacy has often been excruciatingly difficult. The long term physical effects of the brain injury caused me to become extremely fatigued at times, brought on by overexertion. Add to that a long battle with insomnia. While these physical consequences curbed my career paths, overcoming the emotional issues I had freed me to enjoy life in ways I never thought possible.
My first job was that of a resident advisor (RA) at Seneca College in Toronto. The sheer excitement of being selected for the position was comparable only to the enthusiasm of applying for it. I was even sleeping better in anticipation of the selection process.
The day of the interview, I went over and over in my mind as to what I was going to say. My concise plan was to lay out the cards about my situation. I was going to tell them straight out that I was injured and had a few physical difficulties while emphasizing my abilities and strengths. At the time, the emotional effects of the crime were not bothering me, so I did not see any need to let my prospective employers know about them.
The first year flew by. The experience was fun, and nourished my future plans and self-esteem. And, despite my physical barriers, my performance was always successful. However, the insomnia and fatigue soon returned but this time coupled with new found difficulties that arose from the injury. These difficulties were unusual and frightening — I had never experienced them in such intensity before.
When these emotions started to encroach on my consciousness, my job performance became increasingly difficult. The following year, I was selected again as a resident advisor but the enchantment I had for the position the first time around was absent. My own problems began to eat away at my self-esteem. There were a great many other problems that arose with my PTSD, all of which tattered and stained my capacity to stay aware, to cope effectively with what was going on around me, and to speak up for myself. Then, as a second year resident advisor, my education, work and social life progressively slid downhill. One of the responsibilities of an RA is to stay on call when on shift. There were several times when I was simply too exhausted to respond to those calls. Now, thinking back to those moments, I’m filled with self-hate. It is still difficult for me to reflect on that fact that I was unreliable in my job. I tried. Believe me, I tried. My self-esteem was diminished as a result of the overwhelming waves of emotion and thoughts, and I caved in on myself. I became increasingly frightened of revealing my emotional problems to my employers and co-workers. I was scared that my disabilities might, in some way, affect my position with the campus residence. But still, I continued, trying the hardest I could. But the fallout of my emotional distress was clearly palpable to everyone around me.
I was always very intelligent but the injury that I sustained, accompanied by a number of earlier traumas, had eaten away at my self-esteem, self-awareness and the ability to interpret others' intentions. These thoughts existed on a subconscious level and, even though I wasn’t aware of their existence, would continue to intrude on almost everything I did. This was what I really needed help with. My condition continued to get worse until I found a counsellor to help me work out my past. Only now, through expressing these trapped emotions, do I realize what effect the trauma had on me as an individual. Practising self-advocacy and assertion has been enlightening, allowing me to re-activate and strengthen my abilities.
Although I still have great difficulties, I know that I am improving and can contribute a lot. In addition to working through past trauma with my counsellor, writing about the strengths and weaknesses I possessed has helped. One thing that I learned to be terribly detrimental to my confidence and self-awareness was isolation. Having such horrible anxiety about social situations, I sought to avoid a lot of people and a lot of experiences. Perhaps it is ironic that isolation only perpetuates anxiety and self-confidence, and the only way to improve was to be around people, then slowly integrate new experiences into my life. Learning the tools of self-advocacy takes time, effort and a lot of practice. But it’s a very worthwhile commitment.
While I still live with physical barriers, they do not stop me. Having overcome a very near-fatal injury, and the subsequent emotional fallout, I see myself as a stronger individual. I have a new found respect for who I am, what I have accomplished, and who I know I can be.
The last job that I held, I was able to apply, train, and work assertively and confidently. I was intimidated and anxious entering my employer’s office. But the moment that I disclosed my disability was one I will never forget. In return for my honesty, I received a warm smile and asked what I would need to work there.
There is no escaping the negative ideas and restrictions that my disability placed on me but that does not mean that I was unable to work or to continue my studies. Psychological and emotional restraints definitely hindered my performance but fortunately, I was able to triumph over these complications. To me, disability means just that: a restriction. But life is all about restrictions. They are things to be overcome. At the same time, having a disability can create absolute advantages. Having a disability, in my perspective, offers an amazing set of skills, each pertaining to the individual’s own experience. I was blessed with a more sincere empathy.
Nobody can speak up for you like you can. You have to be willing to acknowledge and believe that you deserve a life, the ability to work and to go to school. You need to define what your limitations are in terms of your working environment and to know that you have rights. You have a right to work, to learn and to enjoy life. jp