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What to do when life doesn’t go to plan show notes
life very seldom goes to plan, and making my neck was never something I thought would happen. But when something crazy like that happens what do you do? How do you cope when life changes beyond recognition? I answer these questions in this podcast of Stillness in the Storms.
Intro: Welcome to Stillness In The Storms, the podcast that helps you through the most difficult times in life to give you a little inner peace when you have it least and you need it most. I’m Stephen Webb, your host, and this podcast is all about dealing with change when things go terribly wrong, when things happen unexpectedly, like when someone dumps you or when you lose your job or perhaps you break your neck, as I did, it ended up severely paralyzed.
I remember when I was 18, when I broke my neck, and I was having a good summer. The year did not start off that brilliant for me, but by the end of the summer, things started working out and I was starting to have a bit of fun, starting to enjoy my life again. And I went swimming one evening and climbed up on top of the water, along the top of the wall, and I dived in and in that moment my life had completely changed. I broke my neck and ended up paralyzed from just below the shoulders with limited arm movement and my fingers and my thumbs I completely paralyzed and I cannot feel them either.
So that was a huge change in my life. And I often say it was a gift of no choice because if someone had come and said to me, “We’ll give you a more deep, meaningful life, we’ll make you more grateful for what you have in life, but we have to paralyze you and put you in an electric wheelchair to do it.”
I would have said, “No, you can go away. That’s not very nice.”
I think I would have been a little less polite than that, but I would not have taken that choice. Under no circumstances would I have taken that choice. But yet, life threw it at me, and once it was there, where is the gift, what can I do of it? And I think I had a wonderful gift of 12 months in a rehab center in the hospital and I had to really think about what my life meant, especially in the first three, four, five months lying in bed in the hospital. The first three months and never got out of bed at all. And after that, I was only up for a little bit each day. It really does give you the time to reflect on life a lot. It’s that time in the cave.
I mean, they only had four channels at the time, and at the time I remember, Brian Adams, ‘Everything I Do, I Do It For You‘ it was number one for like the first four months of me breaking my neck. That was harsh. Every top of the pops, every radio was playing the same tune. That was harsh. Thanks, Brian, for that one. And then shortly after that, Freddie Mercury died. So that was tough as well because everything was ‘Queen’ and I didn’t mind ‘Queen‘, but by the time I came out of the hospital, I could not hear another Bryan Adams song or another ‘Queen‘ song again.
We did not have the variety. I had like five CDs that I could play on my CD player. I had the main channels, so I became a big Neighbors’ fan and Home And Away fan. But essentially I spent a lot of time, I guess, really in solitude of my own mind, of my own life. And I didn’t spend an awful lot of time focusing on what I’d lost, I focused a lot of time on how I can solve the problem. And it wasn’t about solving the problem of how do I fix my neck, it was how do I live in this way and still do the things I like to do. And I was somebody that was very much stubborn; stubborn and persistent. I don’t like to be told what to do or I don’t like to conform to the normal.
And I remember one day when I was out of bed and at this time they were still feeding me, so they were bringing around the plate of food. I would sit there and they were putting in a couple of mouthfuls and they would get called away and they would come back and give another couple of mouthfuls, nothing against the staff. They were so busy and stacked and that was fine. I was okay with that because it also meant I did not have to rush, chewing food. There’s nothing worse than sitting there and having to chew your chip really, really quickly. Well, there are worse things, there are way worse things like Marmite and stuff like that, but it’s not nice having to rush your food when you’ve got someone you know has a lot of other things to do and they’re waiting on you with the next mouthful on their fork.
And the occupational therapist wanted to, the next week, give me like a, a tool device that went into my hand that would enable me to eat. And this is what tetraplegics had. Tetraplegic is the English word for quadriplegic, which basically means our arms and legs are affected, all four limbs are affected. So that’s the only difference. A paraplegic is just waist down really. It’s a lot more technical than that, you’ve got complete/incomplete and all the other things. But essentially I’m a tetraplegic/quadriplegic so I use those words interchangeably. They both mean exactly the same thing.
So the OT would be used to working with tetraplegics of a C5 Complete, which was my level, which basically means from the fifth cervical bone down, all the nerves that come out of the spinal cord at that point has no contact with the rest of the body. So if my brain sends a signal down to my thumb to bend, my thumb just does not get the signal because the nerve that goes to my thumb was below where I broke. So the OTs would know that they’ve got a paralyzed hand. This is what we normally do. So they would put like some kind of device in a strap and you will be able to eat. Well, I did not want to wait till the next week because I was sitting there, looking at a plate of chips and I was thinking, “All I have to do is get those chips to my mouth.”
I think it was like two sausages and chips on the plate and there was a bit of sauce. This was a hospital, there were no beans. I will say the food was good because we were in there permanent, if we didn’t like any of the menus, we could say, “Oh, can we have scrambled eggs and toast? Can we have chips and beans?” And we always got what we wanted. I mean, not always resemble what we ordered but it kind of looked like what we wanted but that’s a different story. But I just had to get these chips to my mouth. And I picked up one with both hands and I leaned forward and I stretched my neck forward as much as I could because I was wearing this big thick collar on my neck so I couldn’t move much. And it was like this delicate balance between this chip and – I’m tearing up right now. It was quite emotional when I did it – and this chip was getting closer to my mouth and just like it got in my mouth, it felt like it took about two minutes to do it. And there was a big chair at the nurses’ station because they were doing other things, but they stopped and watched me attempt this about four times.
As soon as I got it in my mouth once, that was it, I was away. The rest of the chips and the sausage was out that way. The next day or the next day after that, I said to one of the nurses, “Well, what if I just shove the fork through my fingers?”
“Yeah, but that’s not how they do it. They’ll give you a tool to do it on Monday.”
I said, “Yeah, but what if I’m out and I suddenly want some chips? I want to be able to use a normal fork. So let’s work out how I can use a normal fork in my hand to eat.”
“No, that’s not the way we do things. That’s not the way tetraplegics eat.”
I was like, “Yeah, but that’s the way I want to eat. Okay?”
So, at some point, over the next few hours or days, I worked out how to put the fork into my hand and I could eat. I still eat the same way to this day now. I don’t like having the need to rely on tools and implements and all these things. I do at home, of course, and this is why I love Alexa and hopefully, she won’t talk back. She doesn’t listen to me very often anymore. I think I’ve upset her or something. It’s like for a long time she used to listen. Even if I just thought it, now she doesn’t anymore. I think, yeah, perhaps we’re in a relationship now. [laughter] But, I adapt because I’m partly stubborn and that is not always a good thing. Because when it meant moving from my manual wheelchair to my electric wheelchair, which happened about 18 months after I come home, I refused it. I wasn’t interested.
The OTs and my friends and all that would say, yeah, but it’s so much easier and all that. You would have your independence.
And I would say, “Yeah, but I’m not that disabled.”
Well, you kind of are but no one would actually say that to me. No one would be honest with me and say, “For fuck sake, Stevie, swallow your pride. I know loads of people in wheelchairs, electric wheelchairs, the same level as you, and they’re off doing loads of things in life.”
So I was in the front room for weeks just in my manual chair and not pushing around the house because anything that was in the way, just the grip between the doors, the thresholds, that stopped me. So I eventually gave in and I said, “Yeah, okay, let’s do it. Let’s go for an electric wheelchair.”
I tried a few and then, that was it, I was gone. And to this day I’m on the council. I go to and through things. I scan to and through town. I do other things. I do so much independently of my carers. I have a 24-hour cab because of the life-threatening condition I have. I don’t have a 24-hour cab because I need someone holding my hand, 24 hours a day. And plus if they’re around me all the time, it would do my head in. My own shadow does my head in and that tends to stay with me.
So, how do we deal with change when it happens?
Well, I put together a few things that I think of how we should deal with change.
#1 – Remember the alternative is not always better
This is the most important one of all. We tend to see the alternative with rose-tinted glasses. Like as if, if this hadn’t happen, this would have been so much better. My life would have been better. People say to me, “Well, if you hadn’t broken your neck you would have been really successful now.” I’m like, “How do you know? I was a real jerk before I broke my neck.” I might have killed myself in a car because I was driving like an idiot. I thought I was the world’s best driver yet I’d only been driving a few months. I might have ended up killing somebody else in the car.
We don’t know the alternative. And this is really important. So stop looking at the alternative that if you got there on time or you weren’t stuck in the traffic jam or we if hadn’t lost our jobs or things like that. You might have lost your job, you might have lost your partner, you might have ended up single, all of those things might have happened, but you don’t know, if you had stayed with them, you might have ended up a lot more miserable. Or if you stayed in that job, you might have ended up a lot more miserable or something worse happened. You don’t actually know. So that’s the first one, remember, the alternative is not always better.
#2 – Focus on what you do have
You still have something. When I was lying in bed, I still had my eyes, I still was able to eat. I was still able to enjoy life. There was much I could enjoy. I could either focus on what I couldn’t do or focus on what I could do. And that was really, really huge to me to focus on what I could do. Focus on what you do still have. That’s gratitude, living with gratitude. And I talk about that a lot on my podcast, on my YouTube videos.
#3 – Recognize that you could not have done anything differently
This is important as well. We often go, “Well, if I’d only done this or if I’d only done that.” What if I hadn’t gone to that swimming pool that night? Well, you can’t change it for one because nobody has got a time machine. Nobody can go back and change these things. And we always do the best we can with the knowledge and experience we have at the time. Yes, it may have been a mistake. Yes, we may have done something stupid, but at the time it was still your best with what you had at the time. Maybe you were tired, maybe you knew you shouldn’t have stayed up late and you shouldn’t have made that mistake. Maybe you shouldn’t have said that to your boss. Maybe you shouldn’t have had the argument and thrown back at your partner a few choice words, but you still did the best you knew how at the time. You cannot change it. So recognize that you could not have done anything differently.
#4 – Take a little timeout.
And I mean this. This is really quite important. I had the gift of lying in bed, that was my timeout. Now then if I broke my neck and they wired me up and they got me back and I was in a wheelchair in two days, do you think I’d have been ready? Do you think I would have been mentally ready? Physically, my body would have had all the muscles of an able-bodied person, yet I was stuck in a wheelchair. I would have had a lot of fading away today, muscle fatigue and I would have had so many other problems my body would have had to go through and not acclimatized to the new life I was going to live. So that timeout, that recouping, that time from my mental ability in my heart and my life was for me to take an evaluation of my life.
So you may not need 12 months in bed. I’m not saying lie in bed for the next 12 months. I’m saying take a little time out and be angry, be mad, grieve, be upset. Why would you want to do that? But give it some time. So, if you lose someone, say that I’m going to grieve and I’m going to grieve for two weeks and say to your friends, “Look, I’m going to grieve for two weeks. Let me grieve. And then after that I will sort my life out.” But put a timeframe on it. You might need two days, you might need two weeks, be angry for two weeks, whatever. Honestly, put a little time on it. And there’s nothing wrong with anger, grief, shame, all those other things that come with massive changes in life.
It’s really important that we don’t stay there and that’s what the main thing is. Be those things, take time out but don’t stay there. So to recap:
- Don’t look at the alternative as something that’s better.
- Focus on what you do have.
- Recognize that you could not do any different.
- Take a little time out to be angry or grieve
And then, you’ll cope with change. And if you recognize these as tools in your box, you won’t fear change. You won’t fear something that’s going to sideswipe you 4:00 PM on Tuesday. Because it will, things will go wrong in your life. They’ve gone wrong many times in the past and you dealt with them. We shouldn’t be frightened of change. We shouldn’t be frightened of those sideswipes; we should be ready and able to deal with them.
So, that’s my podcast for this week. Thank you for joining me and hopefully I helped you to prepare you and to help you through any difficulties that you might be going through at the moment. I’m Steven Webb and clearly I’m your host of Still In The Storms Podcast. I’m here and thank you for spending this time with me.
Outro: If you can review this podcast or if you can support me in what I do or become a patron, that’d be amazing. If you become a patron, I want to say thank you to Clint, Sheryl, Maureen, and Yvonne for being my first four patrons. You can head over to my website, stevenwebb.com. At the top, you’ve got ‘donate’ or ‘patron’ if you can help in any way. So take care guys. Thank you. And the website is stevenwebb.com