Yesterday, as I wheeled through fallen autumn leaves, my tires flicking acorns into the air, I flashed back to another fall, far from northern Michigan.
I was 18, newly paralyzed and spending countless hours in physical therapy at the University of Michigan medical center. For several months, my physical therapist, an extremely muscular and demanding young woman was my constant companion.
As I became stronger and more adept at using my wheelchair, she took me from the hospital into downtown Ann Arbor. Atop steep hills, she would tell me to go downhill by myself.
“I can’t do it!” These hills are too scary I shrieked at her. “Can’t I just ask someone for help if I’m ever in this situation?”
“No, you can’t just depend upon other people,” she yelled back.
“Why not? I know people will help me. Is this the best use of my energy?” I questioned sarcastically.
“I want you to promise me that you will not ask for help or depend upon others, unless there is no other way. You must be able to navigate on your own. Help will not always be available to you. You don’t know this now, but you will learn it soon enough. It’s crucial to your emotional and physical survival that you care for your life. All of it,” she said.
I was enormously angry with her and thought I had little control over my new life. So, I said back to her the most hurtful thing I could think of.
“Did it ever occur to you that if it weren’t for people with disabilities like me, you wouldn’t even have a job? I may have a disability, but I’m fundamental to your employment!”
“That’s true and right now we need each other,” she said. “My job is to assist you in becoming self-sufficient and not needing me. You’re learning to ask for help that frees you, not traps you. I suggest you stop whining and get back to the top of that hill. We’re going to keep practicing this until you can safely maneuver by yourself,” she said.